Cesta de Piquenique

Cane toys. From childhood memories to present-day uses

José Manuel Rodrigues

“Every place in which the countryside is nearby, in which you can be alone, stroll through pleasant places, pick blackberries and, on the edge of pathways, cut some canes to make toys.” Orlando Ribeiro, on his childhood in Memórias de Um Geógrafo [Memories of a Geographer], Edições João Sá da Costa, 2003.

“There weren’t any toys” or “very few of them”…- the elders recall – and those that they had were invented by the child, built in the moment, on a whim. Or they were made by their parents or grandparents. Materials found in the natural surroundings were used (wood, cork, cane, wool, corn silk, nutgalls, acorns, straw) or domestic surroundings (rags, buttons, wire, tin cans, wooden boxes). As such they were closely connected to available materials, used in contexts of poverty and scarce resources – “necessity is the mother of invention” -, and transformed using essentially manual techniques.

Cane[1], which grows in abundance next to watercourses and which is easy to work, still has many uses connected to rural activities in the Algarve. It is used, in its long form, as a cane to shake the branches of trees, when harvesting fruit such as olives or carobs, in vegetable gardens to support growing tomato and legume plants, and with strips of cane, basket weavers make a range of containers for varying purposes, such as transporting and storing fruit and nuts. Formerly, during harvest time, cane was used to make fingerstalls, worn by the reapers to protect their fingers from any mistake with the sickle. In traditional building methods, ceilings made with lengths of cane are well-known.

We tend however to sometimes forget that cane was also the material of choice when making children’s toys: fifes, whistles, reco-recos, curre-curres, rifles, cricket cages, and even the frame for paper kites. Roaming through the fields, to catch crickets, to chase birds, or go for dip in a nearby stream, taking their pocketknife with them, from the hands of children could develop a toy, which need or desire might dictate in that moment.

These cane toys were part of the vast universe of popular toys, many of them represented in old archaeological contexts and in iconography, since the medieval era. In Portugal, they were first mentioned in the ethnographic texts of Adolfo Coelho, Teófilo Braga, Leite Vasconcelos (the first to recognise educational value in them and representative of the “soul of the people”), Eduardo Sequeira (author of a highly interesting study, in which he records how toys are made from plant materials), Augusto César Pires de Lima and Fernando Castro Pires de Lima[2], all indispensable sources when investigating childhood and playing between the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. At the moment, given its energy and systemisation, the investigative work of João Amado[3] is indispensable, bringing the spotlight back onto the value of this fragile heritage, in addition to recent works that combine the compilation of collections, in the context of educational projects, with the collection of oral testimonies and memories about childhood and playing.[4]

Musical Toys

The sounds of the countryside – birds singing, cicadas and crickets chirping, or frogs croaking – these are the reference points of the first sound and musical instruments (wind and percussion) built from cane: flutes, fifes, whistles, ratchets or reco-recos. Almost all of them emit sounds similar to their natural reference.

Within the world of wind instruments, the fife is made from a piece of cane, with one of the sides open and the other with a bevelled cut. On the front, and above this cut, there’s a rectangular slit, into which a “tongue” is inserted, made of olive or fig wood, or cork. Holes are opened along the length of the cane. The flute is made with a section of cane too, making a small round opening next to the covered internode and various smaller openings along the length of the cane. The player, with his lips over the first opening, and with his fingers, regulates the release of air through the remaining holes, thus obtaining the desired melodies. Both instruments go back to festive moments or special days in the calendar, such as Ascension Day, in which children would accompany the traditional procession for the blessing of the fields, with their cane fifes and whistles, “as if they were birds singing”.[5] Both the flute and the fife, also recall the many skills of the shepherd, who, in his isolation, while the herd was grazing, would fill his time with cutting, carving and engraving wood or cane, from which he would get sounds, resulting from a keen sense of observation and interaction with the environment.

José Manuel Rodrigues

Sticking with musical instruments, the gaita de capador, the knife-grinders harmonica or the panpipe, known since antiquity and in many different parts of the world, is made by joining together (glued or binding with thread) a series of small sections of cane of varying length and thickness. In addition to being a recreational object, it was also used by knife grinders and castrators, who passed through the villages offering their services.

Catarina Oliveira

The núnú can also be made out of cane, by cutting, next to the node of green piece of naturally covered cane, a small sliver of the upper woody part of the cane, until reaching the fine inner film, which should be left intact. When you blow it, sounds come out that resemble “nu…nu…nu”.

Cane whistles come in many shapes and sounds, from the simplest to the most complex, which, when filled with water, make the sound of chirping birds.

Catarina Oliveira

When it comes to percussion instruments, the cana rachada is widely known, the characteristic sound of which is achieved by hitting the place where the cane is split. To make a treco-lareco, also known as grilo or estaladinhas, you half open a section of cane, gouge out parallel grooves, through which a few rounds of line are passed, tightly. Small reeds of cane are placed between them. Pressing down on and releasing the reeds, and they hit the bottom of the groove, making a snapping sound. The reco-coco, reque-reque or rela (named because it is supposed to sound like a rela or frog, in English) is made with a section of a thick piece of cane with a node at one end, next to which two holes are opened and a reed is cut out. A caster is then fitted, which rotates on an axis threaded in the two holes. The bouncing of the reed creates the characteristic sound of the rattle or ratchet.

José Manuel Rodrigues


Following their impulses and obeying the constant call for movement, children learn to harness the world around them, with countless toys that reproduce real or symbolic forms of transport. A wheel or two small wheels (in wood, cork…) joined by an axel, which fits into a cane, slightly opened at one end. The other rests on the shoulder of the child, which, holding onto the cane, moves about moving the toy – the cart or the curre-curre -, which in its various forms and materials, refers to a universality without borders. “We invented a cart to play with… there was a cane of about 1.5 metres there, and we found a bit of cork, with which we made a wheel with a small hole in the middle and then we would put a stick across it. This was the handlebar, we would put it on our shoulder and then we drove it about.” Edolino Gonçalves, b. 1934, Santa Rita, Vila Real de Santo António)

José Manuel Rodrigues

With cane there were also people building cars, lorries and bikes…

Also known as ‘stars’, paper kites, which feature in symbolic transport, vary according to the area in which they are made, on what format they have, on the material used (tissue paper, blotting paper, newspaper,…), on the kind of glue (cherry tree or plum tree resin, flour and water, ‘shoemaker’s glue’). Its construction would begin with the cane frame (after being cracked down the middle), thus giving the shape that the local tradition imposed (star, codfish,…), and then the paper glued on.

“Kites were with some small canes, crossed, then we covered it with a bit of paper, blotting paper, which you get at the grocer’s, that thick paper that they sometimes wrapped the lard up in. (…) Glue, what glue. Was there any money to buy glue!? It was with the pointed tips of those pitas (agaves). You would pick these tips off and fasten the paper with them; they worked as a needle, you see? When it was windy, a long line, a line of sock yarn, because back then women made a lot of socks, and when the wind was up we threw them up into the air. It would start to climb and it was the tail of rags that would hold the kite up in the sky.” (Edolino Gonçalves, b. 1934, Santa Rita, Vila Real de Santo António)´

Miniature implements and farming devices

And because fun and children’s games tend to reproduce the world of adults and their social models, children also used cane to build toys that mimic farming practices, implements and devices. Among such toys, we find watermills or waterwheels that miniaturise the devices that make use of the power of water to lift and channel it for irrigation. They were often built with many materials, regularly cane, and placed in a watercourse, so that they rotated.

“When there was water in the field after the rain, we would build watermills out of cane in the small gullies or streams, with the cane halves making the spokes and the water current making it turn. It had two canes on the sides that opened and which supported the wheel’s axel and this wheel had the canes in it that the water turned.” (Marta Almeida, b. 1975, São Bartolomeu de Messines, Silves)

Ancient toys, represented in medieval iconography, windmills and caravels, moved by the wind, come in many forms and can be made from a range of materials, with cane often used for the handle and often also for the sails, especially in the weather vanes placed out in fruit and vegetable gardens to show which way the wind is blowing.

The oxcart, part of everyday village life, was often a model for boyhood play, thus reproducing adult activities. Ancient and found around the globe, the oxcart was built from the most varied of materials: wood, cork, corn stalk, chestnuts and also sometimes entirely out of cane.


Objects for initiation in the arts of defence and attack, imitating ancestral activities of warfare and hunting, toy weapons (swords, bow and arrow, catapults, slingshots, rifles and pistols) were part of boys’ childhoods. To make a cane rifle, you would horizontally strike the cane until the middle, open up a rectangular hole two centimetres from the upper part, so as to pierce both halves. This is where the trigger works; a small fragment of cane. As the marksman, the child pulls on the trigger and the upper half of the cane taps the bottom part causing a small cracking noise. The musket, also known as the cane rifle, was made by boys out of cane and a stick from an olive tree or quince tree. It worked by thrusting the bullets, little sticks or stones, with the green stick.

José Manuel Rodrigues

Cricket cages were linked to a common recreational activity for children in the countryside: “cricket catching”. Leite de Vasconcelos wrote: “village crickets are highly cherished and, when they sing in kitchen nooks, they say it’s a sign of good fortune for the house.” (AMADO, 2007: 171) The cane cages with a round cork base were used to catch and transport the cricket out in the fields, after making them come out of their holes by tempting them with a twig of rye or wheat. The rectangular cages (in wood, cork, wire or cane) were used for keeping the cricket at home.


String telephones, flying nutgalls, oil-lamps, belonged to the fantasy toys. Also known as ‘straw jumpers’, the flying nutgall was built with a length of cane with a nutgall placed at its end (or a small cork sphere). When you blow on the cane, the nutgall starts to leap into the air.

José Manuel Rodrigues

The popular ‘string phone’ could be made with two tins, matchboxes or cane tubes (according to Leite Vasconcelos in his Portuguese Ethnography), covered at the ends with pig bladders, or with sheepskin, and joined together by a piece of string, preferably greased with wax, so that the sound travels better. Children could then have long-distance conversations.

Originally, snail oil-lamps were made by opening the upper part of a cane, in which you fit the snail shell, with the opening turned upwards, full of olive oil and with a cloth wick.

What part do popular toys have to play in the present?

Removed from their original production and use contexts, what do popular toys represent today? Who would benefit from them today and in which contexts?

Currently, if you’re looking for this kind of object, its representative function, harking back to other childhoods and playing, seems to outweigh the playful function. Popular toys, for those who used them when they were small, bring back childhood memories, in which the freedom of playing made up for hard work and poverty. For those who grew up in cities and had access to other toys, they respond to a thirst for knowledge for the tangible culture of rural areas, to getting back to basics and valuing the past and local identities.   

For children, while the playful sense of some popular toys is obvious and immediate (balls, cars, dolls, jointed puppets), others need to be decoded (cricket cages, cane rifles, ‘saquinhos com pedrinhas’ [similar to ‘jacks’, but with little bags,], etc.) by family members or teachers.

For teachers, popular toys provide a means to learn affection, dialogue and language, of body movement, of work, of solidarity, or rules of play and of interaction. Given their ties with the local environment and the past, they also reinforce in children an awareness of an identity that sets us apart and distinguishes from an increasingly standardised world, as reflected by mass-produced toys.

Part of cultural heritage, popular toys are also of interest to historians and anthropologists, through what they reveal that is universal and particular, through what they carry of our collective memory, and what they say about societies and the phenomena of continuity and flux in the heart of tradition.

Catarina Oliveira

Cacela Heritage Research and Information Centre

[1] Part of the grass family, the giant cane (Arundo donax L.) is a perennial herbaceous plant, which occurs spontaneously alongside watercourses and wet places, creating large cane fields. It features a thick rhizome with nodes, from which woody stalks develop, which can reach between 3 to 7 metres in height.

[2] BRAGA, Teófilo (1985) – O Povo Português nos seus Costumes, Crenças e Tradições, Vol. I. Lisboa, D. Quixote; COELHO, Adolfo (1994) – Jogos e Rimas Infantis, Porto, Edições Asa; DIAS, Jaime Lopes (1942) – Etnografia da Beira, Vol. V, Lisboa, Torres e Companhia; LIMA, Fernando Castro Pires de (1959) – “Brinquedos” in A Arte Popular em Portugal, Vol.III. Lisboa, Ed. Verbo; LIMA, Fernando Castro Pires de (1963) – “Brinquedos Tradicionais”. Separata do III Volume das Actas do 1º Congresso de Etnografia e Folclore (Braga – 1956), Lisboa; SEQUEIRA, Eduardo (1910) – Botânica Recreativa, Porto, Imprensa Portuguesa; VASCONCELOS, Leite (1967) – Etnografia Portuguesa, Vol. V., Lisboa, Imprensa Nacional.

[3] AMADO, João (1992) – Função Educativa dos Brinquedos Tradicionais Populares, Coimbra, Clube dos Brinquedos Populares; AMADO, João (2002) – Universo dos Brinquedos Populares, Coimbra, Quarteto. We adapted the categories that this researcher proposed for popular toys.

[4] (2007) – Patrimónios do Nosso Brincar. Brinquedos e Jogos das 4 Cidades, Edição das C.M. Fundão, Marinha Grande, Montemor-o-Novo e Vila Real de Santo António.

[5] As recorded in the village of Atalaia, in the municipality of Pinhel in AMADO, João (2007), Universo dos Brinquedos Populares, 2ªedição, Coimbra, Quarteto, p. 39.

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