Kids in 17th and 18th century Colonial America didn’t have the Internet, Xbox, arcade games or even the electricity that powers these devices. But while many of them worked hard on family farms and businesses, they nonetheless grew up playing games. These pastimes included individual and group activities, sports and games that used toys and props.
Children in Colonial America could play many of the same board games that are still popular today. Historians believe that Ben Franklin brought the first chess set across the Atlantic and wrote a pamphlet encouraging widespread adoption of the game. The first use of checkers appears in 1679. While neither of these games achieved widespread popularity, colonialists, including children, did play backgammon and dominos, with the latter derided as a game for children. Colonialists also brought the 2,500 year old game Parcheesi with them to America, where their children played it. The popular game of Nine Man’s Morrice combined the skills of tic-tac-toe and Othello.
Both children and adults played group games such as Blindman’s Bluff. In this guessing game, a child stands in the center of a circle of children and puts on a blindfold. The children walk in a circle until called to stop by the blindfolded child, who then calls one of the others into the circle and attempts to identify him. Children would also play games with props, such as bean-bag tossing or quoits. Both of these games resemble the modern day pastime of horseshoes. Colonial kids would also play common recess games such as tag, hide-and-seek, jump rope, and scotch-hopper, which today’s children call hopscotch
Children competed in games using marbles games, and games with small balls, such as early versions of jacks. Several games involving large and small hoops squared competitors against one another. These included hoop racing, where a child used his hand or a stick to roll a barrel hoop from a starting point to a finish line. In Hoops and Graces, competitors launched a small hoop into the air by placing it around a pair of sticks and then quickly pulling the sticks apart. The other player had to catch it with her sticks; if she dropped it, her opponent gained a point. A perennial favorite for young and old alike was the game of horseshoes.
Colonial children played Rounders, a game that may have led to the development of baseball. Rounders features a wooden bat, a ball with a leather cover and four bases set up in a diamond with the same scoring and “base-rounding” rules of baseball. Children of the wealthy would have played tennis and golf, while the game of Nine Pins, or lawn bowling, enjoyed widespread popularity at picnic grounds and outside of taverns. An early form of badminton, known in Colonial times as Battledores, didn’t use a net, but saw two players batting a cork back and forth, with a point earned each time an opponent let the cork hit the ground.
Colonial children did not have much freedom to play. Children were expected to pull their weight with work around the house and to make money. Children still managed to have some fun, however. Colonial children enjoyed games just like children of today, but the games often were drastically different than modern children’s games.
Colonial children played a lot of active games. The games were usually simple, and some are even just like the games that children still play today. Hopscotch was a popular game with girls. The girls used rocks to throw to the numbers, and they set up the board similar to the board for today. Another popular game was hoop racing. Children used sticks to steer hoops across a yard or down a hill. The first person to the end of the race track was the winner. Children also played hide and seek.
Colonial children often had to make their own games and toys from objects they had around the house. Boys made a lot of toys from wood pieces. Girls used corn cobs, apples and bits of cloth to make dolls and doll clothing. Girls often would play house with the supplies they collected around the house. Boys would play hunting or fighting games together. Children also made homemade kites and had flying competitions. Children would make wood Jacob’s Ladders and race them.
Children played fewer indoor games than outdoor games in colonial times. However, they did play a couple of indoor games. Blindman’s Bluff was one popular indoor game. In this game, one child is blindfolded. The rest of the children scatter throughout the room. The blindfolded child says “blind man’s” and the other children respond with “bluff.” The blindfolded child uses the verbal cues to locate and tag the other children. Children are out when tagged. Hunt the Thimble also was a popular children’s game in colonial times. In this game, children pass the thimble from hand to hand behind their backs. One child tries to guess who has the thimble. If she guesses correctly, then she wins. If she guesses wrong, another child is chosen to be the guesser.
String games also were popular in Colonial times. These games were based on things to do with string. String twisting games, such as Cat’s Cradle and other string tying games were popular with girls. Boys and girls would string a button across across two strings. When the string was pulled tight, the button spun on the string. The child with the longest spinning button was the winner of this game.