Part of our NPR Ed series on why people play and how play relates to learning.
For me, there was no other childhood experience that taught me more about math or about life than those shiny, wonderful, multicolored marbles I kept in a gallon-size coffee can.
As a kid growing up in Mexico, I was pretty good at tapping a marble with just the right force and side spin for it to go in the direction I wanted. By hitting a marble at a certain angle, with a certain amount of velocity, I could set up the next shot. Educators would say I was learning basic physics and geometry.
But marbles meant so much more than that. In our poor, working-class neighborhood, innocence was fleeting and the games we played reflected that. Marbles were a valued currency among friends and sometimes even enemies, like Pedro Galvan, the neighborhood bully.
Pedro had long sought to possess my favorite canica. It was beautiful, with bright green, blue and yellow swirls frozen in clear glass. I'd often imagine myself swimming inside that marble like a fish in an aquarium. So when Pedro threatened to take it, I prepared myself for a beating.
Of course that was more than 50 years ago.
When we began our reporting on play and learning, I wondered: Do kids today still play marbles? On the Internet I found, to my surprise, that every year for the past 91 years, there's been a national marbles tournament in Wildwood, N.J. The organizers say it's the nation's longest-running game/tournament for kids, or "mibsters" as they're called for some reason.
And so I went up to see the game in action.
The tournament takes place on a sandy beach and attracts kids and families from across the U.S. Competition is open to kids ages 7 to 14.
It's pretty serious stuff. The marbles they use are tested in a metal gauge to make sure they don't exceed the maximum diameter of three-quarters of an inch. "Shooter" marbles have to be made out of glass or ground stone, like agate or flint.
There are several marble games kids play all over the country, but the one the tournament sanctions is called Ringers. It's played on a circle 10 feet in diameter, drawn on a smooth concrete slab. Inside there are 13 "target" marbles, spaced 3 inches apart in an X pattern.
Kids crouch on their hands and knees, squint, aim and flick with surprising accuracy and power. The first player to knock out seven marbles goes on to the next round.
And watching all this I couldn't help but think of the game I played as a child. We had different rules.
The marbles you knocked out you got to keep. But the kid who knocked out the most would take an extra marble from every player. Any marble he wanted.
Inevitably, someone would refuse to give it up, so there were always fistfights. Kids often left bloodied or sobbing after a game. Girls weren't allowed, even though some were pretty good, including my older sister.
'Practice To Win'
This year, at the national championships in Wildwood, girls outnumbered boys. There has been a boy champion and a girl champion since 1948. Elizabeth Shoenberg, a mom from Ambler, Pa., says she loves that.
"Boys and girls are equal when they play together," she told me. "And a 7-year-old can beat a 14-year-old."
Shoenberg has a son and a daughter competing this year. She's not convinced there's deep learning going on in marbles. But, she concedes, "I think what they're learning is focus, the idea that you need to practice to win."
Matt Corely, who has helped run the tournament since the mid-1970s, says there's a lot more to marbles than that.
"To me the educational value is, you have to learn speed, spin, accuracy, eye-hand coordination," says Corely. It's very similar to pool, he says.
I spoke with experts who study games, who say marble games help kids hone their math skills because they're hands-on and visual. You can manipulate marbles using the laws of motion, force, geometry and physics and you can group them into sets, which is crucial to understanding math.
Weightlifting For Your Thumb
Amber Ricci, the 2008 national girls champ, can attest to that. "My dad is really into math so ... as he was explaining [marble games] to me he would tell me ... physics terms and geometrical terms," she says. "So I was learning math along with marbles."
Doing better in math in school is not what kids think about when they're playing marbles, of course. Ten-year-old Ambro Ibrahim says it's all about having fun and making friends.
He loves trading marbles and showing off his collection. I ask him to show me his favorite marble. "It looks like space," he says, holding up the creamy yellow glass sphere for me to see. He says it looks like pictures of Saturn. "That's why I call it Space Ace."
Ambro tucks three fingers in his palm, folds his thumb back and nestles his marble on top of his thumb, ready to shoot. Back home he practices with a heavy steel marble. He says it's like weightlifting for your thumb.
As for my marble skills? Well, let's just say I wouldn't have made it to any national tournament. In fact, one 9-year-old at Wildwood put it this way: "You stink."
Her dad made her apologize, but she was right, of course.
The last time I remember playing marbles was 1962. It was the year I turned 8. Pedro Galvan, my tormentor, never got his paws on my favorite canica.
But that summer, my parents separated for good and my mother started talking about moving to the U.S. My childhood felt truncated and my dearest possession — my marble collection — got lost in the shuffle.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
We've been talking over the last week about play and how it relates to learning. Well, when NPR's Claudio Sanchez thinks about lessons he learned from playing, he thinks of the little spheres he kept in a gallon-sized coffee can - marbles. Claudio says, they were a valued currency among his friends and sometimes his enemies.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Pedro Galvan, my tormentor, had long sought to possess my favorite canica - Spanish for marble. It was beautiful, with bright green, blue and yellow swirls frozen in clear glass. I'd often imagine myself swimming inside that marble, like a fish in an aquarium.
So when Pedro threatened to take it, I prepared myself for a beating. You see, in the poor working-class neighborhood where I grew up, innocence was fleeting, and the games we played were a reflection of that. So why am I telling you all this? Well, because I cannot think of a childhood game that taught me more about life or about math than marbles.
I was pretty good at tapping a marble with just the right force and side spin for it to go in the direction I wanted. It helped me understand how hitting a marble at a certain angle with a certain amount of velocity, I could set up the next shot. In other words, it was basic physics and geometry. Of course, that was over 50 years ago. Do kids today still play marbles? I wondered. So I went on the Internet and came across this.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROMOTIONAL VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN # 1: Let's get ready to marble.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROCK MUSIC)
SANCHEZ: It was a promotional video for the 91st National Marbles Tournament in Wildwood, New Jersey. That's right - 91st. I had to check it out. After all, the organizers say, it's the nation's longest running game slash tournament for kids who are mibsters - that's what the players are called. Not sure why.
MATT CORLEY: Mibsters, take your shooter marble and go see Rick Mawhinney up front to get your shooter gauged to make sure it's within legal limits.
SANCHEZ: That is Matt Corley, who's helped run the tournament since the mid-1970s.
CORLEY: It's now eight o'clock. It's tournament time. All the kids now go up to where we have an official marble gauge. There's only certain sized marbles that you're allowed to shoot with within ringers. It's up to a three-quarter inch.
RICK MAWHINNEY: That's a go. And that's a go.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD # 1: Thank you.
SANCHEZ: The marbles kids use to shoot have to be made out of glass or ground stone, like agate or flint - no steelies. The game called ringers is played on a circle 10 feet in diameter, drawn on a smooth cement slab. Inside the circle, there are 13 target marbles, spaced three inches apart in an X pattern.
You have to be between seven and 14 years old to compete. Kids crouch on their hands and knees, squint, aim and flick with surprising accuracy and power.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD # 2: Nice shot.
SANCHEZ: The first player to knock out seven marbles goes on to the next round. In my neighborhood, the marbles you knocked out, you got to keep. But the kid who knocked out the most would take an extra marble from every player - any marble he wanted.
Inevitably, someone would refuse to give it up, so there were always fistfights. Often, kids left bloodied or sobbing after a game. Girls, by the way, weren't allowed, even though some were pretty good, including my older sister.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We are tied at two-oh, ladies. It's top of the second. Lola's shooting.
SANCHEZ: At this year's National Marbles Tournament in Wildwood, girls outnumbered the boys. There's been a boy and a girl champion since 1948. Elizabeth Shoenburg loves that. She's a mom from Ambler, Pennsylvania, with a son and a daughter competing this year.
ELIZABETH SHOENBURG: Boys and girls are equal when they play together, and a seven-year-old can beat a fourteen-year-old.
SANCHEZ: Shoenburg, though, isn't sure about the game's educational value.
SHOENBURG: But I think what they're learning is focus - the idea that you need to practice to win.
SANCHEZ: Matt Corley - you know, the guy who has to explain all the rules the beginning of the tournament - he says, there's a lot more to marbles than that.
CORLEY: You have to learn speed. You have to learn spin. You have to learn the accuracy. You really have to use your eye and hand coordination - very similar to pool.
SANCHEZ: Experts who study games say, that's the interesting thing about playing marbles - they're hands-on, visual. You can manipulate them using the laws of motion, force and physics. And you can group them into sets, which is crucial to understanding math.
AMBER RICCI: My dad taught me everything that I know, pretty much.
SANCHEZ: That is Amber Ricci, the 2008 national girls champ.
RICCI: My dad's really into math, so, like, as he was explaining it to me, he would tell me, you know, like physics terms, geometrical terms. So I was learning, like, math along with marbles.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN # 2: On deck from the boys division, from Lansdowne, Pennsylvania, Ambro Ibrahim.
SANCHEZ: Kids at this year's tournament say, it's all about having fun, making friends. Ten-year-old Amnro Ibrahim likes to trade marbles with kids from across the country and show off his collection.
Is this your favorite marble?
AMNRO IBRAHIM: Mm-hmm. Space ace.
SANCHEZ: Describe for me.
IBRAHIM: It looks like space. That's why I call it Space Ace.
SANCHEZ: It looks like a planet. Show me how you hold the marble when you shoot.
IBRAHIM: Like, I hold it on this side, so it can have more spin, so it can have more power.
SANCHEZ: Ibrahim tucks three fingers in his palm and leaves his thumb and index finger sticking out, like a V. He then nestles his marble on top of his thumb. It's caught, ready to shoot. To be really good, though, he says...
IBRAHIM: It takes a lot of skill and practice.
IBRAHIM: Ibrahim practices with a steel marble. He says, it's like weightlifting for his thumb. He didn't make it in the final round, though. As for my marble skills, here's how one nine-year-old I played with put it - you stink. Her dad made her apologize. She was right, of course.
The last time I remember playing marbles was 1962, the year I turned eight years old. Pedro Galvan, the neighborhood bully, never got his paws on my favorite canica. But that summer, my parents separated for good, and my mother started talking about moving to the U.S. My childhood felt truncated and my dearest possession, my marble collection, got lost in the shuffle. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.