10 cold-weather kids’ games from around the world

Children won’t see these competitions at the Winter Olympics, but the activities will get them outside—and just might introduce them to new cultures.

By Heather Greenwood Davis
Published 3 Feb 2022, 13:54 GMT
OG Spinning Top Boys - Winter Sports
Children play with spinning tops in Pyongyang, North Korea.
Photograph by Kyodo News Stills via Getty Images

Most kids watching the Winter Olympics probably aren’t participating in freestyle skiing or speed skating. But athletes who compete in winter sports come from countries that have plenty of other games children can play.

These outdoor kids’ games from around the world might actually sound familiar—many are slightly different versions of things your children probably already know. By introducing play from other cultures, you’ll help spark your child’s curiosity about the world—and maybe increase their empathy toward other people. Plus, these outdoor activities can go a long way in busting winter boredom. Gold medals all around!

Lǎoyīng zhuō xiǎo jī (China): This traditional Chinese game (which basically means “eagle catches chicks”) is based on a folktale about how two animals became mortal enemies. Luckily, the game is far less intense.

All the players except the “eagle” hold on to the shoulder or waist of the person in front of them. The kid at the front is the “mother hen,” and everyone behind her are “chicks.” The goal is for the eagle to “catch” one of the chicks while the mother hen tries to protect them and the chicks steer clear—and avoid breaking the line. Hilarity ensues. Any chick who’s caught now holds on to the eagle and helps catch the other baby birds.

Gorodki (Russia): Believed to have been invented by 18th century farmers, gorodki (which loosely translates to “little cities”) has been played by everyone from Leo Tolstoy to Vladimir Putin.

Players in Gomil, Belarus, participate in the traditional Russian game of gorodki.
Photograph by Svetlana Lazarenka / Alamy

In the game, a stack of wooden cylinders are arranged in one of 15 shapes (the villages) inside a marked square (the city). Then a player throws a heavy stick at the tower to knock the villages out of the city square in as few throws as possible—sort of like a cross between bowling and horseshoes. Have kids try this by building a tower out of sticks and branches, then using a bigger limb or even a small ball to knock them out.

Sliding game (Canada): In this traditional Indigenous game, Cree women living in what is now Canada would carve holes in a slanted piece of ice, label each with a different point value, then use their fingers to flick pieces of buffalo horn into each hole. The game—a cross between pool, pinball, and marbles—can be recreated the idea by scooping out holes in snow, agreeing on point values, then using small rocks or beanbags to score their points.

Stiv heks (Norway): This twist on freeze tag adds a few rules. Translated to “stiff witch,” the game designates one child as the “witch,” who must freeze the other players by tagging them. Players only becomes unfrozen when another child crawls through their legs. The witch wins once all the kids are "frozen.”

Paengi chigi (South Korea): This folk game, which loosely translates to “spinning top,” is like the original Beyblades—on ice. A long string is attached to a stick on one end and a wooden top on the other. Kids place the top on a patch of ice, then whip the stick to keep the top spinning as long as possible.

Girls spin wooden tops on the ice in Seoul, South Korea.
Photograph by Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images

Work with your kids to craft their own spinning top, or simply provide each child with an item that will rotate on the ice (like a coin or lip balm tube) and count the spins. The top that spins the longest wins.

Kot i mysz (Poland): This game, which translates to “cat and mouse,” will get heart rates pumping! Here, a “cat” is on the outside of a circle of kids holding hands, and a “mouse” is on the inside. The goal of the game is for the mouse to get out of the circle without being caught by the cat.

The ring of children can raise and lower their arms to help the mouse escape and keep the cat outside. If the mouse is caught, it becomes the new cat. Then the original cat joins the circle and a new child becomes the mouse. Played on playgrounds across Eastern Europe, this game is often accompanied by a nursery rhyme song about, well, a cat and a mouse. If the group is large, two cats and two mice can play at once.

Thunka (Bolivia): In this game played in Andean Bolivia, kids draw seven squares on the ground, each representing a day of the week. In one version of the game, the first player aims a stone on the square for the first day of the week and—if successful—hops there on one foot. The second player tosses toward the second day of the week.

If that child is successful, the first kid throws his stone to the third day of the week and hops there—without hopping on the square in between. The first player to hop out of the seventh square wins. The game traditionally was played differently by boys and girls. And sometimes extra squares, different themes, more elaborate hopping rules, or varying tossed objects are added.

Yukigassen (Japan): Your kids probably enjoy a good old-fashioned snowball fight, but they might be interested to know that snowball fighting is a competitive sport in Japan, complete with teams, special playing fields, and rules (like how many snowballs each team gets).

Yukigassen started in Japan but is now played all over the world, like this competitive snowball fighting championship in Alberta, Canada.
Photograph by AP Photo / The Canadian Press, John Ulan

Translated from the Japanese words yuki, meaning “snow,” and gassen, meaning “battle,” the game’s goal is to tag other players with your snowball (if you get hit, you’re out) while attempting to capture the other team’s flag. The team to get all the other players out or grab the flag wins. The official game has teams of seven, but your backyard version can simply divide your group equally and agree on your own set of rules, like no hits above the neck.

Ketju (Finland): Call this one “Un-Twister.” Translated to “chain,” this game has kids join hands in a line, then weave themselves through each others’ arms and legs until they’re completely tangled. A child who had covered her eyes now returns to the chain to try to untangle the circle.

Feuer, wasser, sturm, blitz (Germany): Sort of like Simon Says, players in this game must freeze into whatever weather is called out. (The name translates to “fire, water, storm, lightning.”) If it’s fire, you lay flat; storm, hold on to something solid so you aren’t blown away; water, get your feet off the ground; lightning, get as small as you can to avoid being struck!

The last to react or hold the wrong position is out. For extra fun, have your kids expand the game with their imaginations: Snow could mean freezing like a statue, or rain might be holding your hands over your head like an umbrella.

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