Which Traditional Games for the 21 st Century in Europe?

by Guy Jaouen / president AEJST

Ten years after the European seminar of 14 th-22 nd April 1990 in Brittany, and the great gathering of traditional games at Carhaix, it is important to emphasise the situation of traditional sports and games in Europe today. A number of significant new developments motivated the organisation of a further gathering of such activities in Plougerneau in July 1999.


I - Motivations

Many meetings and conferences on the subject of traditional games have taken place throughout Europe since the 1990s and certain events have treated traditional games comprehensively. The events listed below are the most important examples.

  • September 1990 Louvain, (Belgium) 16 countries represented
  • Augus 1991 San Sebastian (Basque Country) 4 regions and countries represented
  • November 1995 Val d’Aoste (Italy) 8 regions of Italy represented
  • December 1996 Puerto Del Rosario (Canaria) 5 countries represented + 7 Spanish regions

New Ministerial newsletters have been sent out in France and Spain to encourage a cultural change among the teaching profession in their attitude to the use of traditional sports in the classroom. Time will be required to bring about a general shift in attitude and at the moment a great deal depends on the personal initiative of individual teachers. However, it is necessary to underline some remarkable work which is being done in some autonomous regions of Spain.

International authorities have listened to the case made by the representatives of traditional sports organisations and have made certain very important recommendations.

  • Recommendation of the European Parliament to the European Commission (May 1994). This is an instrument concerning the development of an active policy in the area of sport in which the parliament, “calls on the Commission to draw up a specific programme to promote regional and traditional sports”. This report was the result of a motion agreed at the meeting, which had taken place in 1990. A dossier was compiled, translated into eight languages and sent to Parliamentarians on the European Cultural Commission. The dossier was then used by Mrs Winnie Ewing M.E.P. of Scotland to bring about the required instrument.

  • UNESCO Recommendations
    A meeting in December 1999 in Punte Del Este (Uruguay) recommended, “The promotion and preservation of traditional games in every country". The participants included 64 Ministers and high-ranking officials from the disciplines of physical education and sport, many non-governmental organisations, and the International Olympic Committee.

Many events have been organised in connection with schoolteachers in Brittany, Picardie, Aveyron, Denmark, Val d’Aoste and in several regions of Spain. The experience of these events, which were necessarily experimental, raised many questions and suggestions among the participants on how to adapt the rediscovery of traditional games, with their pupils, to their professional skills.

Associations both old and new have used these structural changes to enter into the adventure of an activity (professional or not) in the area of play, creating step by step a more and more solid system: Festi - Jeux, the House of Games in Grenoble; Wellouej in Lille; Kulki in the Basque Country; Créajeu in Toulouse; Partajeu in the Pyrenees; the Jaupitre in Brittany; Ti Ar Gouren in Brittany; the Park of Games in Argol, Brittany; “La semaine des quatres jeudis” near Paris; Fea, Brittany, and even the FALSAB for part of its activities.

At the same time the world has changed very quickly. As we said in 1990 we were at the end of a stage, with great changes in all our societies and all the challenges that this brings. The phenomenon of economic globalisation, which brings in train cultural globalisation, has brought to the forefront the sociological errors, which we denounced in 1990. We must understand that, as the economic decisions are removed from us, we, citizens and voters, must reclaim the right to make more decisions at a local level. Thus we have to emphasise local democracy and therefore also reinforce our indigenous cultural identities.


II - Traditional Sports and Democracy

The world changes more and more quickly today. Fundamental questions concerning the choices before society are not posed, as they should be but often only after they have become a fait accompli. Globalisation has a simple raison d’être for businessmen: "the individual as a potential consumer and the world as a marketplace". We need and we must return to a more critical evaluation of the trends and changes of direction, which are imposed on us today in sports, education, culture, the environment and the economy, etc.

Since the advent of the modern industrial society, many traditional games have been transformed, first into very codified and regulated sports, then some in turn became professional spectacles. Thus during the 20 th century the Olympic model has been imposed by governments as an ideal way of carrying the ethics and values which would create a better world. With hindsight it is seen that Olympic sport has created a brew of world sporting elite, and commercialisation. It has thereby overemphasised standardisation and sportification, record breaking and has commercialised emotion. However after reflection on the notions of “higher, further, stronger”, we can affirm that the current image of these values contain also germs of intolerance, unconviviality and arrogance, creating thus new corridors of incomprehension for the mass of the participants, particularly the children. Finally the system of artificial performance research that the Olympic device has fathered has led to the double failure of drugs and violence.

Meanwhile the entrenched camps or cemeteries in which the majority of European states, -Ireland is a notable exception (1)- had left traditional sports had created a fatalism among them, which saw no future for such ludic activities. The only opening left to participants in non-institutional sports for many years was assimilation into a similar Olympic discipline. Nevertheless traditional games represent social values that have taken many long years to reach equilibrium in their environment. The language, the soil and local customs have modelled them into the forms that we know today. Results in this environment are more measured, victory is less important as the defeat. The development of the games still lives as one of the central elements of a popular festival. Games had a true social role: regulators of tension in public challenges, means of communication with others, a system of integrating the player in a new environment. It was a world in perpetual movement that, while appearing coagulated, reflected there a complex world of diversities, of openings into other worlds and cultures.

The humiliating situation where players had to identify with the "dominant" is a typical example of alienation of the person. Nevertheless this action of “formatting”, by the artificial deletion of memory and history had perverse effects, contrary to the general interest; by enslaving one eliminates also resourcefulness and ingenuity to put in place a system of dependency. We can enlarge this idea to consider the effect on an entire section of the population: formerly children created and invented their toys, of course with external influences; today the child is exposed to commercialism, which creates the demand. Traditional games can be compared to areas of freedom where children develop, modify and reinvent adult games. In today’s packaged and regulated sports the child is constrained to adjust to the imposed norms with no opportunity to exercise freedom of imagination. This may explain his often energetic search for ways in which to break the rules (of society).

The traditional regional games in the same way as many elements of traditional culture: language, cuisine, dress, music, dance, the arts, are elements that can serve as democratic indicators to a society. Will we know to advance our values in face of cultural standardisation?

The effect will be that there will no longer be a place for the lesser-used languages, in the maximisation of profit and successful commercialisation cultural differences will disappear. Our tens of thousands of traditional games scattered throughout the continents will no longer have their place and with them the entire heritage that they represent.


III - The Revitalisation of Traditional Games

In gathering together in Plougerneau, at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, in the department Penn ar Bed (end of the world in Breton), we had chosen a symbolic place. This place symbolises both the cultural roots of the people in their country and at the same time the desire, the wish to be open to and to have knowledge of other cultures. Sayings exist in all languages to reflect this attachment to roots, one alone suffices here because it is sufficiently clear: “To know where one is going, it is necessary to know first where one comes from”. Dr. Cottonec, founder of the FALSAB in 1930 had chosen a second: “An dazont zo etre daoarn ar yaounkiz, ha savet vez war diazezoù an amzer dremenet.” (The future belongs to the young and must be built with the past as the foundation.)

We are therefore in a phase where it is necessary to put values into the wave of support for ancient games even if they appear new to children. How therefore to marry tradition and modernity, to propose traditional games as a technical, cultural and social whole and not just the techniques as is the case with world sports? This is indeed essential because we could regard traditional games solely from the technical position as new games without regard to their social and cultural values.

It was necessary for us to fully put on the table all the problems regarding the transmission of this rich heritage to the generations of the 21 st century. How do we facilitate the entry of traditional games into schools as an alternative educational method where the conviviality and the cultural continuity between the generations would be advanced? How do we allow children complete freedom to very and invent without the games losing their nature? How do we develop systems of practise for the child, through the equipment and the rules, yet still respect the form of the game? How do we create systems of vocational training for educational professionals?

Other important problemes exist: how do we make sure that organisations managing traditional games do not fall into the trap of “folklorism” into mere exhibitions or copying the Olympic model. Where can traditional games organisations go without “losing their soul”? What do we do to ensure that the link between scholastic practise and traditional practise continues to exist naturally? How do we ensure that the existence of tourism and the distortions caused by its demands does not cause us to fall into the trap of exoticism? These are some of the fundamental challenges, problems and questions, which we must consider over the coming years.


IV - Conclusion

By 1990 we had decided to network in order to exchange experiences and information and to work in co-operation for common events; the future of an alternative system of bringing traditional games to the schools is found in an extension of this system and the creation of multiple subsystems.

Regional traditional cultures have to be taught in a structured manner in the schools, the songs, the music, the dances, the games and the languages. It is the balance of the child in its environment, which is at stake.

The creation of a European Co-ordinating body for traditional games remains in the news today. Its role would be all the more important in that it could serve as a letter box and centre of information for the networks working for traditional games.

  • University researchers networks
  • Federation’s networks
  • Educational networks
  • Events organiser’s networks

This book will give the reader concrete examples of what has already been done in different countries and regions and shows that it is possible to recreate in our regions these educational and cultural tools. Our ambition is to multiply such initiatives and study their results in order to profit by a more global picture of the way in which traditional cultures can be introduced to the educational world.


(1) The Gaelic Athletic Association, is today the largest organisation in Ireland with more than 3,000 clubs. It has approximately 800,000 members today, nearly 20% of the population.