Traditional toys help explain physics and bridge the generation gap in a rural village
By Robert Few
CHIANG RAI, April 2006 – Strange things are appearing in the classrooms of Baan Pa Daet School, high up in the mist-draped mountains of rural Chiang Rai province. Among the textbooks and slide-rules, you'll find bamboo snakes that grip fingers like iron, hollow tubes that make noises like local birds, and a spinning block of wood that emits a mournful wail to scare off ghosts.
All these objects are traditional toys. The school-children are taught to make them by their grandparents as part of a UNICEF-supported project aimed at preserving local culture and stimulating learning in an area where educational equipment is thin on the ground and most children drop out before finishing secondary school.
“It’s a ‘sucking snake’,” explained 13-year-old Korakot Wongyang, as he showed us his favourite toy – a tube of special bamboo. “You place it on your finger and when you try to pull it off, a vacuum is created so that the harder you pull the harder it is to remove.”
The children find it hilarious, but it has been adapted from local folk wisdom and has more serious uses. Larger versions are employed by traditional hunters to catch eels, which swim into the bamboo tubes and are then held in place. Local doctors are beginning to use the snakes for massaging the fingers of patients suffering from arthritis.
Now teachers are also using them to explain basic laws of physics, since many of the toys are perfect illustrations of the scientific principles behind vacuums, sound vibration and other natural phenomena.
When children can see physical laws in action, they are better able to comprehend them in theory. “I like the Jakacharn [a kind of propeller that makes a noise as it hovers in the air], said 14-year-old Pisanupong Upala. “Playing with the Jakacharn makes it easier to understand things like resistance and vibration and sound.”
“But the toys do more than help children learn science,” explained Chatchawan Bumpan, the manager of the project. “For example, because the sucking snake has to be made from a specific type of bamboo harvested at just the right time, it teaches children about their environment and to notice more of what is happening around them.”
Chatchawan said the toy also teaches children about local culture, because in the past it was used in courtship rituals: “Back then, men and women were not allowed to touch and so boys would place a sucking snake on the finger of any girl they liked.”
Just as importantly, the project is bringing grandparents and grandchildren together in a way that has not been seen for a generation.
“When traditional toys disappeared and were replaced by new forms of entertainment, a gap opened up between the generations,” explained Chatchawan, who is an expert on playing, development and primary education. Older people would sit at home doing nothing; young people preferred the company of video games.
“Since this project began, our life has contained more warmth,” said Korakot. “We have become closer to our grandparents and we love them more.”
His classmate, 13-year-old Pattama Pankaw agreed: “The project has brought more unity to our village because now we spend time with out grandparents almost everyday.”
It has also restored the children’s pride in their local culture and given them a greater sense of self-worth and achievement. When Korakot describes a previous trip to Bangkok to teach children from the big city how to make paper dragonflies, his face lights up: “I was very proud to take our local toys to the capital; and I was happy to show children there how to make toys they did not have to buy for a lot of money. It’s nice to have something go from the countryside to the city for a change.”
The toys are also on display in a museum in Korakot’s village, which aims to demonstrate how projects like this can help to fulfil children’s rights to play, to an education and to a loving family.
Chatchawan is working to get other schools to introduce local handicrafts to lessons and to spread the idea nationwide. “One of the good things about this project is that it can continue forever,” he said. “As long as local knowledge is not allowed to disappear, there is no limit to how far it can expand.”