Playing in Colonial Times: The Games and Toys of New England
Life in colonial New England could be very hard for children. They were expected to contribute to the work of the household and take on many responsibilities. Girls would learn domestic duties like cooking and sewing, while boys would be expected to perform manual labor like hunting, plowing and cutting wood. Children had very little free time, but when their chores were done they did get a chance to play. The games they played and the types of toys they had were passed down from their parents and grandparents. Generations have continued the tradition of passing down playtime activities to their children, so many of the games and toys that were familiar to colonial children might still be recognized today.
Popular Games and Toys
Games and toys often taught children things that they would need to know as adults. Board games like checkers and nine pins taught children how to be polite and take turns. Physical games like tag, hopscotch, or leap frog gave children stamina and taught them how to balance. Jack straws or pick up sticks taught them patience and problem solving, while bows and arrows taught them aim. All games helped them practice their skills in following directions. It’s doubtful that colonial children realized that they were learning life skills. Like children everywhere, they were just having fun.
- Games and Playtime for Colonial Children: When colonial children were done with their chores, they enjoyed different games and toys.
- Colonial Games, Toys, and Recreation: Colonial children were busy, but they spent their free time playing games like these.
- Colonial Kids and Cards: Playing cards looked different in colonial times, but children still played games with them.
- Early American Games and Toys: These games and toys of the Victorian era got their start during colonial times and earlier.
- Games that Children Played: These 4th graders demonstrate how some early games were played.
- Child's Play: Colonial children played these games when their chores were done.
- Pictures of Colonial Toys: See what colonial toys looked like!
- Learn To Play Graces and Other Games: Learn how to play colonial games with these instructions and pictures.
- Skittles or Nine Pins: Skittles or Nine Pins is very much like modern bowling in the United States. The game was brought to the New World from England.
- Games for Colonial Children: Marbles, dolls, and hoops were some of the most popular playtime activities.
Where Did Colonial Children Get Toys?
Some of the wealthy families might have brought store bought toys with them from Europe, but the majority of colonial children had homemade toys and games that were made up while playing. Just about anything around the house or in nature could be made into a toy. Dolls could be made from old rags or the saved husks from corncobs. Balls were made from rags or scraps of leather. Most board games were carved into scraps of wood or scratched into the dirt. Game pieces were generally stone or clay. Even rolling the hoop from a barrel with a stick could turn into a fun chasing game. Like Blind man’s Bluff, most of the games they played required little more than some energy and imagination.
- How To Make a Whirligig: Make your own whirligig with these instructions.
- Play Marbles!: Marbles were popular. You can make your own marbles and play with them.
- Babies, Balls, and Bull Roarers: This article describes how many popular toys were made.
- How to Make A Corn Husk Doll: Save your corn husks if you want to make a doll!
- Five Stones and Pick-Up Sticks: Learn how to play these games with things found around the house or yard.
- Blind Man's Bluff: Blind Man’s Bluff was a popular game and these instructions will teach you how to play.
- How to Make a Jacob's Ladder: A Jacob’s Ladder is a very old toy and was one of the favorites of colonial children.
- Hoop and Stick: Hoop and stick games were fun if children had part of a wheel or the hoop from a barrel.
- How to Make a Bilbo Catcher: Colonial children made Bilbo Catchers out of wood and clay, but you can use more modern materials.
Who Did Colonial Children Play With?
The average family in colonial times had about nine members. Large families were common because many hands were needed to work in the fields. Children might play with their friends in common areas like the parks we have today. Adults had too much work to do to supervise children while they were playing and children were expected to know rules of behavior. Even if a child lived in a settlement where houses were close together, there was no guarantee that their friends would have free time when they did. Most of the time siblings were playmates and the older children looked after the younger ones.
- Parks in the Colonies: Children played in common areas with their friends.
- The Colonial Family: Watch a video about the games and toys played in colonial times and read about children’s roles in the colonial family.
- Family and Education: Children came from big families and were expected to work hard.
Colonial Board Games
The board games from the colonial era were very old. Games like checkers and backgammon were hundreds of years old. Even versions of Morris games could be traced to ancient Egypt. These games were most often made of spare wood, but in a pinch, a game could be scratched into the dirt and played outside. Table nine pins were made of wood as a modified version of skittles, which is still played in British pubs today.
- Checkers: The homemade checkerboards of the colonial era looked a lot different than the ones we have today.
- Morris Games: Nine Men’s Morris was the most popular of the Morris games and this site will teach you how to play.
- Backgammon: Backgammon was played in the colonies, and the wealthy families might have a board that looked like this.
- Tabletop Nine Pins: Traditional nine pins were large and played in the grass like bowling, but colonial children also played a smaller version of the game.
Nursery Rhymes/Riddles/Tongue Twisters
Tongue twisters and riddles were some of the favorite forms of word play for colonial children. Many of the songs of the colonial era like “Three Blind Mice” or “London Bridge” are still sung by children today. Most children today still hear “Jack be nimble. Jack be quick.” “Blue birds bring bright berries” may not be a popular tongue twister today, but it’s still fun to say.
- Colonial Songs for Children: Some of these songs may sound familiar to children today.
- Colonial Children Play and Learn: This will tell you all about the lives of colonial children and includes a tongue twister and riddle.
- Games and Tongue Twisters: Learn about games, riddles, and tongue twisters enjoyed in colonial times.