Most kids today have a whole playroom devoted to toys and games, but Colonial Era kids usually only had a handful. Most toys were homemade from objects around the house or farm, and kids didn't have as much free time to devote to play. However, children today still take pleasure in many of the activities that kids enjoyed in the 17th and 18th century, which goes to show that sometimes the simplest ideas are the best.
According to David Robinson from "The Colonial Williamsburg Journal," most toys and games from the Colonial Era didn't come from stores or factories. Instead, kids made toys at home themselves, such as figures carved from wood, dolls made from scraps, or games made up on the spot. Puritan parents often considered play a waste of time for all but the youngest children. Boys and girls usually went to work on the farm, the shop or around the house at the age of seven and didn't have a lot of free time. But they often made games out of their chores, like contests to see who could carry the most wood or races to carry the eggs in from the hen house without breaking them. Families usually had six or seven children, so there was always someone to play with.
Girls in Colonial times, just like girls today, enjoyed playing with dolls. The luckiest girls might receive a wooden doll with a wax face and glass eyes wearing a fashionable silk dress. Other girls made dresses from cornhusks like their Native American counterparts, and sewed doll clothes from scraps of fabric found around the house. Miniature kitchens emerged in the 18th century to help girls learn to cook, according to Robinson. Early American girls also played with tea sets and jump ropes.
Robinson writes that boys learned at a young age to whittle popguns and other toys from sticks. Colonial kids also played with kites, marbles, rattles, tops, stilts, tin drums and rocking horses. Other activities included cat's cradle and ball-in-cup. Barbara Buckwald from the Pencader Heritage Museum writes that children also played board games together, such as Nine Man's Morrice, a combination of tic-tac-toe and checkers.
A popular kids' game during Colonial times was "Rolling the Hoop," which involved standing up an iron or wooden hoop, whacking it with a stick and seeing how far you can keep it rolling. Robinson writes that older boys often stuffed a leather bladder with straw or feathers and kicked it around, a game came to be called "foot ball," by the end of the 18th century. In the winter, kids enjoyed riding sleds with beef bone runners, as well as playing tag in the snow, also known as "pickadill." Robinson describes a game called honey pots in which two kids make a seat for a third by grabbing their left wrist with their right hand, then each holding the other's right wrist. They then run around, trying not to drop their passenger. Kids played hopscotch then as they do today, with the pattern of rectangles scratched in the dirt instead of drawn on a sidewalk. Other Colonial games still played today include bowling, tag, hide-and-seek, leapfrog and Blind Man's Bluff, according to Buckwald.
Making Colonial Toys
Children during the colonial era were no different from children of the 21st century in that they sought entertainment and often found it in games. However, much different than children of the 21st century, children from the colonial period played with more rudimentary toys. Creating models of toys from this period in history will give children an appreciation and an understanding of life during this time period.
Cup and ball was a game colonial children played, much as modern children play with a paddle with a ball attached by a rubber cord. The game was played with a wooden handle and an indentation shaped tip, or cup. A ball was tied to the area where the cup met the handle, and children swung the ball up and tried to catch it in the cup as it fell.
Supplies: Empty toilet paper roll, empty cup, tape, yarn/string, aluminum foil, hole punch/scissors
Trace the bottom of an empty toilet paper roll onto the bottom of a paper cup. Cut out the circle created on the bottom of the cup.
Insert the end of the toilet paper roll into the hole on the bottom of the cup. Use tape to secure the roll in place.
Punch a hole in the side of the cup, near the base.
Cut a 12- to 16-inch length of yarn. Thread the yarn through the hole and tie a knot in the end of the yarn to prevent it from falling through the hole.
Tie the opposite end of the yarn around an aluminum foil ball. Allow the ball to hang from the side of the cup.
Hold the toilet paper roll and try to catch the ball in the cup.
A whirligig is a simple toy that will provide hours of entertainment for children. They are also great homemade crafts, easy and fun to make. There are many different kinds of whirligigs; the one below is made using string and a paper plate. This classic summertime activity is a great way to keep kids occupied. It is best done on a sunny day with at least a little breeze.
Supplies: Paper plate, string or yarn, hole punch, art supplies (crayons, markers, paint, colored pencils, stickers, etc.
Decorate the paper plate (both sides) with art supplies.
Cut a spiral. Starting at the outer edge, cut the paper plate in a spiral towards the center of the plate. The spirals should be between 1 and 2 inches wide; any thinner and the paper may tear in the wind. You can draw the spiral on the paper plate first, to guide you in cutting it.
Punch a hole in the center of the plate, at the end of the last spiral. Make sure it is in the center of the plate. If too near the edge, it will break.
Tie a string through the hole.
Run with the whirligig like a kite.