Conkers: tribal wisdom and sore knuckles


The knowledge of how to play conkers resides in the community. It’s true tribal knowledge

Walking in the forest yesterday, the conversation turned to conkers (or horse chestnuts, if you prefer). Dionne had found the first ones of the season, lying on the ground under the spreading boughs, and this prompted a discussion about the best way to prepare and play the game.

I should, perhaps, rewind slightly, for anyone who didn’t grow up in the English school system. Conkers are the size of a plum, hard, round, brown and fall to the ground in spiky green outer skins, which fall to the ground and are scavenged by frantic semi feral children from september to november.

Once collected, they are pierced by a skewer, hung on a piece of string and the game of ‘conkers‘ ensues, whereby one player hangs their conker in the air whilst the other person tries to strike it with theirs. The usual outcome, in my experience, is that you hit yourself on the knuckles three times out of four but, if you’re lucky, your conker cracks the opponents first and you are victorious.

One of those games that it’s easier to play than describe!

As we walked through the early autumn sunshine, it turned out that we had a great deal of wisdom spread through the group: expertise on where the best conkers can be found, how best to harden them, how best to pierce them, hang them and strike hardest. We also had variations on the rules: if you win, your conker becomes a ‘two-er‘ or a ‘three-er‘, then when it finally fails, those points transfer to the winner (according to Sam, but i’m not sure. I think that’s a Bedford rule).

Played all over the country, with slight variations in rules and format, the game is universal and, in the moment, we co-created out own set of rules and best practices. That’s how tribal knowledge works: it’s not all in my head, but in a group, we share it. We pull it together and make it explicit when the time is right. Where there is ambiguity, we create agreement and share it with the group.

Whilst today i’m sure there are a whole host of websites and wikipedia entries around the subject, in my day (and yesterday) we used none of it. The wisdom was there, spread between us, waiting for the sunny afternoon when we could make it explicit and revisit, for a while, the sound of conker on knuckle from autumns gone by.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
This entry was posted in 'Just in time' learning, Age, Community, Education, Experience, Game, Games, Heritage, Knowledge, Learning, Social Learning and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Conkers: tribal wisdom and sore knuckles

  1. Pingback: Conkers: tribal wisdom and sore knuckles | Coll...

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  3. potterpandagleek says:

    I really like this and i have followed you!!!! 🙂 😀

  4. Ripley Trout says:

    Was boiling conkers considered cheating or not where you grew up? Like drugs in athletics it was considered illegal in our school but so hard to prove that often you felt you weren’t competing on a level playing pitch (to mix sporting metaphors).

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