Children's Games (Bruegel)

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Children's Games
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Children’s Games
ArtistPieter Bruegel the Elder
TypeOil on panel
Dimensions118 cm × 161 cm (46 in × 63 in)
LocationKunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Children's Games is an oil-on-panel by Flemish Renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted in 1560. It is currently held and exhibited at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. The entire composition is full of children playing a wide variety of games. Over 90 different games that were played by children at the time have been identified.[2]


This painting, mentioned for the first time by Karel van Mander in 1604, was acquired in 1594 by Archduke Ernest of Austria. It was suggested that it was the first in a projected series of paintings representing the Ages of Man, in which Children's Games would have stood for Youth. If that was Bruegel's intention, it is unlikely that the series progressed beyond this painting, for there are no contemporary or subsequent mentions of related pictures.[3]

The children, who range in age from toddlers to adolescents, roll hoops, walk on stilts, spin hoops, ride hobby-horses, stage mock tournaments, play leap-frog and blind man's bluff, perform handstands, inflate pigs' bladders and play with dolls and other toys. They have also taken over the large building that dominates the square: it may be a town hall or some other important civic building, in this way emphasizing the moral that the adults who direct civic affairs are as children in the sight of God.[citation needed] This crowded scene is to some extent relieved by the landscape in the top left-hand corner; but even here children are bathing in the river and playing on its banks.

The artist's intention for this work is more serious than simply to compile an illustrated encyclopaedia of children's games, though some eighty particular games have been identified. Bruegel shows the children absorbed in their games with the seriousness displayed by adults in their apparently more important pursuits. His moral is that in the mind of God, children's games possess as much significance as the activities of their parents. This idea was a familiar one in contemporary literature: in an anonymous Flemish poem published in Antwerp in 1530 by Jan van Doesborch, mankind is compared to children who are entirely absorbed in their foolish games and concerns.[4]

The games[edit]

Starting from bottom left, the games may be identified as follows:[5][6]

Number Image Game Notes
01 Playing with dolls Playing with dolls
02 Playing 'Holy Mass' Playing 'Holy Mass' Small liturgical objects used at Mass and Liturgies
03 Water gun and owl on support Water gun and owl on support Shooting water at a bird
04 Wearing masks Wearing masks Wearing disguises for fun
05 Swinging from a hanging seat Swinging from a hanging seat The classic hanging seat
06 Climbing a fence Climbing a fence
07 Handstand Handstand
08 Play the "knot" Play the "knot" Bending the body to contorted positions
09 Somersault Somersault Flipping and rolling forwards, backwards, or sideways
10 Fence riding Fence riding Pretending the fence is a horse
11 Mock wedding Mock wedding It is exactly at the diagonal centre of the panel. Perhaps an irony of the holy sacrament, or a reference to the main event that allows conception of children. Mock child weddings have been common folk tradition many places in Europe, and were often celebrated at Midsummer.
12 Passing through kicking legs - running the gauntlet Passing through kicking legs - running the gauntlet
13 Blind Man's Bluff Blind Man's Bluff One player is blindfolded and then disoriented by being spun around. The other players call out to the "blind man" who attempts to tag them before they dodge away.
14 Playing with birds Playing with birds
14b Making hats with twigs Making hats with twigs The child in the blue tunic is wearing a hat woven from twigs.
15 Blowing bubbles Blowing bubbles Still a popular pastime, Bruegel shows children blowing bubbles with clay pipes and verifies soap bubbles being used as entertainment for at least 400 years
16 Shell bobbin Shell bobbin A flying spinneret made of nut shells
17 Teetotum Teetotum Forerunner of the roulette and dice games
17b Toy animal with leash Toy animal with leash A stone dog of sorts
18 Knucklebones Knucklebones Game of very ancient origin, played with five small objects, originally the "knucklebones" (actually the astragalus: a bone in the ankle, or hock) of a sheep, which are thrown up and caught in various ways; more commonly known as playing jacks.
19 Mock baptismal Mock baptismal Re-enacting the procession of adults carrying home a baby just baptized. The blue hood symbolises deception ("hooding the husband" meant to cuckold him, as shown in Bruegel's Netherlandish Proverbs).
20 A hand game A hand game Possibly the morra, a hand game - similar to rock, paper, scissors - that dates back thousands of years to ancient Roman and Greek times
21 Piñata Piñata A papier-mâché or other type of container that is decorated, filled with toys and or candy and then broken, usually as part of a ceremony or celebration
22 Walk on stilts Walk on stilts Walking poles equipped with steps for the feet to stand on, they can be short (like here) or long (see number 62)
23 Play leapfrog Play leapfrog Vaulting over each other's stooped backs
24 Mock tournaments Mock tournaments Competitions of various kind
25 The "Pope's seat" The "Pope's seat" Holding the child by gripping hands
26 Hobby-horse Hobby-horse Riding a wooden hobby horse made of a straight stick with a small horse's head
27 Stirring excrement with a stick Stirring excrement with a stick
28 Playing the flute and the drum Playing the flute and the drum Playing simple music with basic instruments, always popular with kids
29 The simple roll hoop The simple roll hoop Children and adults around the world have played with hoops, twirling, rolling and throwing them throughout history
30 Shouting into a barrel from a hole Shouting into a barrel from a hole The many uses of a barrel
31 The hoop with bells The hoop with bells A variation of rolling the hoop
32 Riding the barrel Riding the barrel With barrel vaulting, another popular play
33 Hat throwing Hat throwing Throw them through a child's open legs, or see who throws farthest
34 Raisinbread man Raisinbread man A man-shaped loaf of bread, most likely some sort of Dutch duivekater, offered during wakes or at Christmas
35 The penalty of "bumbouncing" The penalty of "bumbouncing" Bouncing someone's buttocks on planks
36 Ball made with an inflated animal bladder Ball made with an inflated animal bladder Inflating a bladder to create a balloon or ball
37 Buck buck Buck buck[7] A group of children had to create a "pony" and another had to leap on their backs until the weight made it crumble
38 To play shop To play shop On the wooden plank below the funnel Bruegel inscribed "BRUEGEL 1560" Red pigment was made from scraping bricks and was most famous from Antwerp.
39 Playing Tiddlywinks Playing Tiddlywinks Played with small discs called "winks", a pot, and a collection of squidgers. The children use a "squidger" (a disk) to propel a wink into flight by pressing down on a wink, thereby flicking it into the air: the objective of the game is to score points by sending one's own winks into the pot
39b Playing Mumblety-peg Playing Mumblety-peg An old outdoor game played by children using pocketknives
40 Building (a well) Building (a well)
41 Pulling hair Pulling hair May be a game or a fight
42 Catching insects with a net Catching insects with a net
43 Playing the scourge Playing the scourge
44 Playing marbles Playing marbles Ancient throwing game
45 Pitch and toss Pitch and toss The players each take a coin and take turns tossing them towards the wall: the coin the closest to the wall wins
45b Twirling a hat on a stick Twirling a hat on a stick
46 Making a procession Making a procession Popular among children and adults, in diverse applications
47 Playing the porter Playing the porter
48 Who's got the ball? Who's got the ball? Hiding the ball and guessing who has it
49 Riding piggyback Riding piggyback Riding on another's shoulders
50 Singing door-to-door Singing door-to-door
51 Bonfire Bonfire Lighting a fire
52 Riding a broom Riding a broom A variation of hobby-horse, but with many players
53 Pushing a wall Pushing a wall
54 Hide-and-seek Hide-and-seek Or "hide and go seek", a game in which a number of players conceal themselves in the environment, to be found by one or more seekers
55 The "devil's tail" or "crack the whip" The "devil's tail" or "crack the whip" One player, chosen as the "head" of the tail or whip, runs around in random directions with subsequent players holding on to the hand of the previous player. The entire "tail" of the whip moves in those directions but with much more force toward the end of the tail.
56 Grappling Grappling A basic form of wrestling
57 The "devil chained" The "devil chained" Role play as a street game
58 Run, jump on a cellar's door Run, jump on a cellar's door
59 Bowling Bowling Players attempt to score points by rolling a ball along a flat surface, either into pins or to get close to a target ball
60 The token The token Running and handing off the baton to the next runner
61 Throwing walnuts Throwing walnuts Perhaps a variation of bowling or bocce, hitting an assembled cluster of nuts
62 High stilts High stilts Walking on long poles
63 Pole vaulting Pole vaulting Exercising on a horizontally fixed bar
64 Balancing a stick on a finger Balancing a stick on a finger A clownish game of balance
65 Put up a show Put up a show Enacting a play
66 Spinning tops Spinning tops Using toys that can be spun on an axis, balancing on a point
67 The trolleys The trolleys Baskets moving on a line
68 Flying a ribbon on a stick Flying a ribbon on a stick Letting a piece of cloth fly in the wind from a stick
69 Whom shall I choose? Whom shall I choose? A girl selects her "baby" from a group of friends under a blanket
70 Urinating Urinating
71 Bocce Bocce In teams, throwing the bocce balls closest to the jack ball
72 Pirouetting skirts Pirouetting skirts Swirling the girls' skirts round and round
73 Climbing a tree Climbing a tree
74 Swimming Swimming A healthy recreational exercise, enjoying a full-body workout
75 Diving Diving Jumping or falling into water is always fun for children
76 Floating with an inflated pig's bladder Floating with an inflated pig's bladder A sheep's bladder was also used, to float on top of it or to play water games
77 "Dethroning the King" "Dethroning the King" A game also known as "king of the hill"
78 Playing with sand Playing with sand
79 Coil tournament Coil tournament A fight of knights
80 Rattles Rattles Noisy musical game

See also[edit]


  1. ^ signed at bottom right "BRVEGEL 1560"
  2. ^ Hindman, Sandra (September 1981). "Pieter Bruegel's Children's Games, Folly and Chance". Art Bulletin. 63 (3): 447–475 – via JStor.
  3. ^ G. Arpino & P. Bianconi, L'opera completa di Bruegel, Rizzoli (1967). (in Italian)
  4. ^ Cf. Pietro Allegretti, Brueghel, Skira, Milano 2003. ISBN 0-00-001088-X (in Italian)
  5. ^ ""Children's Games" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder". Joy of Museums Virtual Tours. Retrieved 2022-12-02.
  6. ^ Calu, Irina Diana (2022-11-14). "Pieter Bruegel's Children's Games". DailyArt Magazine. Retrieved 2022-12-02.
  7. ^ Rice, Irvin. "Traditional games". Archived from the original on 8 January 2017. Retrieved 6 January 2017.

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