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The enduring appeal of old-fashioned games

Children and parents today are used to going to a store and buying fun. Pioneers, who often had little money and seldom went to stores, used what they found around them for their toys and games.

Pioneer games can be fun for modern families, too. But will old-fashioned games appeal to kids reared on Pac-Man, E.T., and Saturday morning cartoons?

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''There's something special about going outside and finding a plant and doing something with it that seems to appeal to all age groups,'' says Wayne Pauly, a Dane County, Wis., naturalist who has taught pioneer lore to groups ranging from kindergarteners to pensioners. ''The same stories are enjoyed by everybody - maybe because it's folklore that's been passed on by word of mouth. What wasn't fun wasn't remembered.''

Pioneer children made ''Lincoln logs'' out of cattails. The children cut up the brown stalks and built toy houses, barns, and split-rail fences with them. (Indian mothers found a more practical use for cattail fluff: they lined cradles with it, for a ''disposable diaper!'')

Burdocks, or burs, were used to make many toys. ''Anything you can do with modeling clay you can do with burdocks,'' says Charles C. Mayhew III, field coordinator for the Nature Conservancy of Madison, Wis. The burrs can be massed into huge clumps, like a natural version of Velcro. Pioneer children made doll houses, doll furniture, and baskets from burs. Use your imagination - make an elephant finger puppet with a long trunk, or play ''pin the nose on the ghost'' with an old sheet hung on a wall.

Indian children played a game with slices of dried gourds. Take a gourd and slice it crosswise into 8 to 10 circles. Dry the circles in the oven or out in the sun. The pulp will deteriorate and leave beautiful hollow rings. Thread the rings onto a string and attach the string to a stick. Take hold of the stick and try to flip the largest hoop onto the stick first, and so on until all the circles are on the stick in order of size.

Very young children - pioneer and modern - enjoy simple games. Pioneer parents entertained their children on rainy days with ''hide the thimble.'' The thimble had to be in plain sight (not hidden behind or under anything) but it still required careful observation for the children to find it. Sometimes the hunt was for a ''red container with a star inside.'' The solution was an apple cut open sideways to reveal the star shape formed by the core.

Rubbing flowers against white paper on a rock will produce brightly colored pictures, as pioneer children found. And small children love to scrape one rock against another to see if one of them is ''chalk.''

Some pioneer games were played at night. When the apple and nut crops were ripe, many pioneer communities celebrated ''nut-crack night.'' Adults would work and talk while the children played. Teen-agers and children would carve their initials on the skin of an apple. Each apple went into a bucket of water - one for the boys and one for the girls. The children then bobbed for apples and danced with the child whose apple they got.

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When all the apples had been retrieved from the water, each child would take a wet apple and peel it into one long peel, then toss the peeling over his or her shoulder. The configuration of the fallen peel was said to be the initial of the person the child would someday marry. As the little ditty had it: ''By this paring I hold to discover - the first letter of my true lover.''

Although these games are simple, they require a level of imaginative involvement not often found in more sophisticated modern games.

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