Who needs kick-the-can when you can play el trompo, Cuban-style, or rod-gul-gron-stop like a Dane?

Those are just two street games filmmaker Jules Oosterwegel discovered on a 15-year project that captured children's street games from around the world. They're part of a 300-game lineup that includes Vietnamese variations of blind man's buff, a Bolivian stone-tossing game much like jacks without the ball, and a Dutch clapping game familiar to youngsters the world over.

This weekend you can see them yourself when Oosterwegel's playful documentary, "Playtime," is screened as part of the Bay Area International Children's Film Festival, which runs Jan. 23-24 in Alameda. After the movie, the Dutch documentarian will on hand to teach games to festivalgoers.

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"It's kind of magical," says festival co-chairman Lisa Fitzgerald, who first discovered Oosterwegel on the Netherlands public broadcasting Web site. "They're like these mini-documentaries, capturing children in different cultures all over the world, playing slightly different versions of the same games."

Universal language

The games aren't all simply variations of hacky sack and tag, of course. Some, in fact, are quite unique. But it was the universality of the laughter and frolic that proved irresistible to Fitzgerald and her committee.

They're also what first attracted Oosterwegel 15 years ago on a trip to Indonesia. As the Dutch teacher watched a group of children playing in the street, he was struck by an idea.


"Why should I see that and not everybody else?" he says. "I went home and did some research about how much was being filmed on this topic of street games. There was hardly anything."

It's midnight in the Netherlands, two weeks before the festival, but Oosterwegel's voice brims with enthusiasm as it floats across the phone lines. So far, he has filmed more than 300 children's games in Asia, Africa, South America and Europe, his cameras rolling as children jumped through enormous hopscotch games in Botswana, and wove through the strings of a jogo de barbante — cat's cradle —in Brazil. Fifty of those games form the documentary "Playtime."

"You try to find out the real idea of why children play and how they play," says Oosterwegel, "and every place it's different. You have a lot of games that are universal, but the way children from the northern countries play is very different from children in tropical countries."

There's a grand scheme here — Oosterwegel is concerned about childhood obesity and he hopes that his film encourages kids to be more physically active.

Common thread

But games are also part of a culture's oral tradition, passed down from child to child, whether it's jump rope, hopscotch or Muurball.

Those hours of play imprint themselves on the brain so thoroughly, says Oosterwegel, that even old-age retirees who swear they don't remember any games light up when a specific one is mentioned.

"You awaken the memory of those games," he says, "still sleeping in your mind."

That's the wonder of the documentary as well. As images flicker across the screen, a quartet of giggling Danish boys spins away from "it" in a game very much like tag, yet not quite. A line of Dutch girls leaps over a flying ball in a game that evokes a wilder version of wall ball. And a group of giggling Zimbabwean boys give dodge ball an entirely different take when the targets are racing to complete a task in the midst of those flying orbs.

Quick. Go outside and play.

Street Games
  • Game: Cuop Co
  • Needed: Four or more players, a red scarf and a piece of chalk with which to draw a circle in the center of the playground.
  • how to play: The object is to snag the red scarf from the circle without getting tagged. At a signal, the first pair of kids dashes in and tries to fake each other out, lunging and feinting until someone can grab the scarf and sprint back to their team without being tagged. Every few minutes another pair joins them, until someone successfully grabs the scarf and gets away.
  • Game: Muurball
  • Needed: Four or more players, a bouncy ball and a wall.
  • how to play: In this variation on wall ball, everyone lines up behind each other, with feet placed slightly apart. The child closest to the wall sends a low throw so the ball shoots straight back toward the players, who must jump over it. If the ball hits you, you're out. If no one is hit, the second child in line moves to the front and starts the game again.
  • Game: Tag Sat
  • Needed: Four players, an open field.
  • how to play: In this clever variation on tag, children play the role of target, tagger and bodyguards. The target and two bodyguards hold hands and spin around the field, as the tagger tries to capture his prey by running around them or reaching through their triangle.
  • Game: Filling the Bottle
  • Needed: Two teams of three players, a soda bottle, a ball and a sandy play area.
  • how to play: The bottle is placed in the center of the play area and sand is heaped up around it to hold it steady. In this dodge ball-like game, one team races to fill the bottle with sand, while ducking and attempting to avoid -- or catch --the ball that is thrown at them. If a bottle-filler is hit, he's out, but if he catches it, he may throw it in any direction. The team wins a point each time the bottle is completely filled.
    -- Games featured in Jules Oosterwegel's documentary "Playtime"

    Children's Film Festival
  • What: The second annual Bay Area International Children's Film Festival (BAICFF) features films by Pixar artists, the creator of Wallace and Gromit and filmmakers around the world, as well as kid-friendly workshops on street games, animation and Claymation.
  • Details: Jan. 23-24 at Michaan's Auctions movie theater, 2700 Saratoga St., Alameda. Tickets $10-$20, kids 3 and younger are free. The Pixar animation workshops, designed for kids age 7 and up, are $30. For the full schedule and ticket details, visit www.baicff.com.
  • Reel Cafe: The film festival snack bar features organic and healthy food from East Bay restaurants and farmers markets, including Prather Ranch, Brittany Crepes, Flavors of India and Fat Bottom Bakery.