On a roll with marble mania

A number of children told me an apocryphal tale of one of the boys taking marbles to school one day and by sheer chance a boy in another class happened to have a marble in his pocket. A game commenced and from this small, almost coincidental, beginning the popularity of marbles seems not so much to have grown but exploded. At a conservative estimate, 80 per cent of pupils in primaries 6 and 7 now play marbles.

Modern marbles have some differences from the game of old. The type, size and colouring of marbles has changed considerably. This is an important feature in their new popularity. An extensive vocabulary quickly built up.

"British" marbles are the traditional glass marbles with a twist of colour, sometimes two colours running through them. They are the original schoolboy marble and probably the least favoured of the current types. When I asked the children why they were called British marbles, some claimed that the twist of colour reminded them of flags waving in the breeze.

"Steelies" are large (and very large) metal balls which the children told me were available from the bus station. Initially I was under the misapprehension that deregulation had forced the bus company to diversify into children's toys. However, on closer inspection the steelies turned out to be large ball-bearings taken from some internal part of a bus. Either through lack of knowledge of engine parts or an intimate understanding of what a school bus seat feels like, some of the children informed me that the ball-bearings came from somewhere within a bus seat.

Approachable bus mechanics subsequently passed them on to grateful children. One girl even produced a huge "steelie": a ball-bearing so large that it looked as if it could have been used in Russian kindergartens for training future Olympic shot-putters.

"Pearlies" are pearl like, often white with a colour running through them. A black pearly with a narrow vertical strip of colour is a cat's eye. A green pearly is a froggy. A pearly with many dots of colour is a Spotted Dick. "Oilies" have an iridescent quality similar to the shades produced by oil on water. "Clearies" are clear, transparent marbles and red, blue and green clearies are all possibilities.

The vast range of marbles now available feeds the child's interest in collecting marbles for their colour and size. This is a pursuit particularly popular with less confident marble players. "Marble in My Pocket" could well follow puppies, kittens and monsters.

Many children keep marbles for their appearance rather than as items they can compete with. Almost all children who have marbles own a favourite one. Equally children play with a limited number of marbles which are already battle scarred. Chips and cracks in their surface devalue them. The better quality, fancier coloured marbles are retained for inspection, often in class while the teacher talks about something boring like where speech marks go in sentences.

There is an interest in different colours, types and sizes. Many children retain pieces of a splintered or shattered marble reminiscent of shrapnel collections in the Second World War. Such a piece almost adds an educational aspect. Other children can then be shown what an Oily, a Pearly or a Spotted Dick looks like from the inside.

Children are fascinated with the idea of peripheral products which gives their interest credibility. Marble mania in the school has developed similar fashion peripheries. Marbles have to be kept in a bum bag. This has two main consequences. The first is that bum bags laden with marbles protrude from children's stomachs like bad ruptures. There are echoes here of Polynesian culture where the bigger your stomach, the more affluent (at least in terms of marbles) you are literally seen to be.

Don't keep your marbles hidden in a pocket, show everyone how many you have. When groups of children move down the corridor the marbles all shake together like some music-making exercise.

The variety and specialness of each of the marbles results in more conservative games. Each player uses only one marble and takes turns to hit the marble which the other player is using. "Friendlies" are commonplace where children play each other but the winner does not retain an opponent's marble. "Keepies" where the winner does retain the loser's marble is the more serious game.

The type of game played is signified in a pre-game ritual where the opposing players knock their marbles together and say: "Once-once keepies, no nothings. " Knocking the marbles together gives you a chance to see how badly chipped your opponent's marble may be and vice versa. In the ensuing game you only have to hit your opponent's marble once to keep it. Apart from being a superb example of a child-produced double negative, the "no nothings" is an attempt to stamp out any nefarious practices which some sharp operators had introduced to the game such as "stoppies".

In this move your opponent could stick out their foot to stop your marble once it has missed its target. You could therefore have your marble stopped quite near your opponent's giving them a better chance of hitting it.

As a playtime game, marbles are a competitive game which girls and boys can both play. The importance of physical strength or athleticism disappears. Marble playing gives children who are "as good as a player short" at traditional playtime games a new opportunity for success. Rules and practices are argued about and then abided by. Strategies have to be worked out and risks taken. What more could you ask for? Marbles Roll OK.

Ally Budge teaches in Caithness. Such is the fluidity of playground games that since writing this, the marbles have disappeared from the playground. No doubt their season will come round again.

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