GAMES RULE! Certainly, they did in the 19th-century Indian palace of Krishna Raja Wodeyar III, royal creator of a box of 11 board games, complete with a tricky lock (a game in itself to open). At "Asian Games: The Art of Contest," an exhibit at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, kids can peek at the ingenious box and a painting of its inventor atop a dazzling elephant.
Opening late last month and running through May 15, the exhibit, organized by the Asia Society in New York, showcases 160 game sets, pieces and centuries-old pictures of people having fun. Through child-oriented labels, framed in colorful squares, young visitors can learn about the origins of games, such as chess and backgammon, still popular today, and get a sense of how current favorites evolved from older models in Persia, China, India and Japan. The exhibit's four sections -- games of chance, strategy, physical skill, and meaning and matching -- testify to the variety and appeal of games through the ages.
And for all ages, too, says Claire Orologas, head of education and public programs for the Sackler and the Freer Gallery of Art (together they form the country's national museum of Asian art). "We've all played kickball and cards," she says, mentioning the familiarity of displayed objects as a big draw for children.
Certainly picking out the familiar, as well as exclaiming over the exotic, kept my party of four kids enthralled on a recent Sunday. With activity guide in hand, my daughter, Christy, and her friend, Simone Ameer, both 6, searched for Indian ganjifa (round playing cards) and the beautifully painted 18th-century clam shells used in a Japanese matching game. Simone's sisters, Margaux, 3 1/2, and Nadine, 2, enjoyed peering into display cases at intricately carved chess pieces, including kings on elephants and bishops on camels. And we parents, while appreciating the many depictions of harmonious play, certainly related to an 18th-century woodblock print titled "Children Quarreling Over Sugoroku" (a Japanese game).
We all were amazed at how far back some of these games dated. A ceramic figurine of a female polo player proved especially intriguing to the girls as did the fact that women were among the fiercest competitors in 8th-century China. Chess, known as chaturanga, was played in India in 600 B.C. and spread throughout the larger Asian world via trade routes. A bejeweled 18-sided Chinese die on display is more than 2,000 years old.
Seeing all these cool games under glass can make a kid itch to play one. Happily, the exhibit invites visitors to do just that in an area set up with tables and games. And regularly scheduled weekend workshops give youngsters a chance to create their own games. We ended our visit in the Sackler classroom, where the girls colored games of snakes and ladders, and pachisi (Asian forerunners of today's Chutes and Ladders, and Parcheesi).
The games needn't end when this exhibit closes. The nearby Freer's "Games, Contests and Artful Play in Japan," which opened last week and runs through Sept. 18, provides a bevy of associated children's programs. The Sackler also offers numerous activities in conjunction with the National Cherry Blossom Festival, which takes place Saturday through April 10. Next weekend could be the perfect chance for families to celebrate transient blossoms and long-lived games -- both proof of Asia's artful impact on Washington life.
"ASIAN GAMES: THE ART OF CONTEST" -- Through May 15 at Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW (Metro: Smithsonian). 202-633-1000. www.asia.si.edu. Open daily 10 to 5:30 except Christmas. Free. Children's activity guides available at the Sackler's visitors desk. When a children's program is running, families can pick up guides in the Sackler classroom. The exhibit includes a hands-on play zone, which is open 11 to 4 on Saturdays through May 14 and other days through April 17. A companion exhibit, "Games, Contests and Artful Play in Japan," is on view through Sept. 18 at the nearby Freer Gallery of Art, 12th Street and Independence Avenue SW. (The Sackler and Freer galleries are connected by an underground exhibition space.) Check Web site for titles, dates and times of Japanese games-related films showing in April; some may be suitable for older children.
Free and suitable for children ages 6 to 14 with an adult companion. Reservations required for groups of eight or more by calling 202-633-0461.
Saturday and May 7 at 2:30 -- Local experts demonstrate how to play chess, go and backgammon. Sackler, Level 1.
April 30 and May 1, 14 and 15 at 2 -- Children create a game board and pieces. Sackler classroom.
April 16, 17, 23 and 24 at 2 -- Youngsters learn about Japanese games and create small screens. Sackler classroom.
National Cherry Blossom Festival -- The 93rd annual celebration of the gift of 3,000 cherry trees from the people of Tokyo to the people of Washington is Saturday through April 10.
April 2 -- Kabuki dance performance at noon begins with watching dancer prepare by applying makeup and wrapping kimono in Freer conference room. Kabuki music and dance at 1:30 and 3:30 in Sackler, Level 1. Children's workshop at 2 on creating Japanese anime (animated) art in Sackler classroom. Japanese anime films at 11, 1:30, 4 and 7 in Freer's Meyer Auditorium. All have English subtitles. Visit www.asia.si.edu for titles and suitability for children. Films free but require tickets, which are given out one hour before first screening outside theater. Limit is two tickets per person.
April 3 at noon and 2 -- Young kabuki dancers perform and teach youngsters how to dance. Sackler, Level 1. Free.