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Lesson Plans - Long Ago, Today and Now: Childhood in New England


Long Ago, Today and Now: Childhood in New England


Part of 3 class periods, approximately one and one-half hours divided over three days.


Faye E. Kolin   

Social Change and Social Reform

SALEM in History Topic Addressed:

Childhood in Colonial New England

Lesson Summary | Frameworks | Essential Question(s) | Lesson Objectives
Historical Background Essay | Materials List and Pre-Arrangements/Preparations Needed
Vocabulary | Lesson Activities | Student Product or Performance
Assessment Criteria | Possible Modifications | Possible Extension Activities
Cross Curricular/Interdisciplinary Links/Activities | Sources and Resources
Additional Resources for Students and Teachers


Preschool students will begin to explore the idea of “long ago” and “now” through a comparison of childhood long ago with childhood today.  Students will observe two paintings from the colonial era, and through a teacher-facilitated discussion, will verbalize their observations about the paintings.  Students will begin to understand the differences between childhood long ago and today through a closer look at clothing and toys.

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Artist not identified.  Mrs. Freake and Baby Mary, 1674. Oil on canvas. Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts. (painting)

Artist not identified.  The Mason Children: David, Joanna, and Abigail, 1670. Oil on canvas.  de Young Museum, San Francisco, California. (painting)

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What was being a child like long ago?  Did children have toys to play with?  How did they dress?  How did their parents treat them?

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  • Children will be exposed to a historical painting.

  • Children will observe details of the painting and verbalize what they see.

  • Children will learn the difference between a toy of long ago and a toy right now.


    • Children will be exposed to, observe and verbalize their thoughts about two paintings from the colonial era.   They will begin to understand the differences between the clothing and toys from long ago and the clothing and toys from today. They will observe a sample of the type of doll that children played with long ago, and compare that with the type of doll that children play with now.  They will begin to more deeply understand the concept of “long ago”, “today”, and “now”.   

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MA FRAMEWORK STRAND: Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten learning standards


History: Living, Learning and Working Together


None are directly applicable. However, the lesson could be tied to Thanksgiving, i.e.  “During the time that the first Thanksgiving was celebrated, there were people known as the first American colonists.”

PreK-K.1   Identify and describe the events or people celebrated during United States national holidays and why we celebrate them.

e. Thanksgiving   




  • Use correctly words and phrases related to chronology and time (now, long ago, before, after)

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Childhood in colonial New England was very different from childhood as we know it today.  The differences in the day-to-day role and treatment of young children as compared to today are fascinating.  Although many aspects of history are developmentally beyond preschool-aged children because of their abstract nature, preschoolers can begin to recognize and appreciate the differences between “long ago” and “today” through the exploration of concrete information such as how children dressed and what they played with.  Historical primary sources most appropriate to preschool children are images, and there are several historical images of children that preschool children can find interesting.  With teacher guidance, preschoolers can begin to observe historical images and verbalize their ideas and thoughts about what they see. When introducing this very complex topic to preschoolers, it is important to keep the salient facts clear, brief, and if at all possible, as concrete as possible.   Here is some information about childhood in colonial New England that preschoolers could begin to understand and appreciate. 

Families from long ago lived very simply.  Most lived in small houses made of wood, with just one room for cooking, eating and sleeping.  Floors were often very basic, with just dirt, no rugs or hardwood floors.  Every house had a big fireplace for cooking and for keeping the little house as warm as possible. (1)  Even with the fire going, the houses could be quite chilly!  There were no bathrooms in the houses.  People usually went to the bathroom outside.  Families could be very big.  Parents liked to have lots of children.  Although usually parents had 7 or 8 children, some families had 15, 20, or even more. (2)  There were no cribs for babies long ago.  When babies were born, they slept in a cradle or even in a box with straw.  They were often wrapped up very tightly with cloth to keep them warm because the houses long ago did not have heat like we do today.  When they were “swaddled”, a baby would look like a “little mummified package about the size and shape of a loaf of bread.” (3) As they got older, boy and girl babies were dressed alike …  both wore very long dresses for several years, partly to keep them warm in the chilly houses.   When children were about six years old, they began to dress differently, in the same kind of clothes that their parents wore:  “Offspring were not left to be children long.  This is shown by their dress.  After the sixth year … adult clothing was bestowed on children, a change that admitted them to adulthood, as completely as modern graduation ceremonies.” (4) They looked like “little grownups … boys looked like small models of their fathers, girls of their mothers.  Their childhood was behind them.” (5) The girls wore long dresses and the boys wore short pants called breeches.  The color of the clothing was dark and somber-looking, not like the colorful clothing of today.   Parents long ago tended to be very stern with their children.  There were lots of rules in every home.  Children had to be very obedient and listen to their parents all the time:  “ … the Old World conviction remained that children had to be disciplined strictly and kept at a distance because they were incapable of reasoning.  Invariably, children were forbidden to open their mouths in the presence of adults, except to admit food at mealtime.  If ever they were called on to answer a question they were expected to address their parents as ‘Honored Sir’ or ‘Honored Madam’ or alternatively as ‘Esteemed Parent’.” (6)

Children also had to work very hard.  They had duties that would help their family be successful … their help was really needed!  They did not go to school but spent their days helping their parents.   Both boys and girls had lots of chores to do.  Boys would help their fathers outside by working in the fields to plant seeds and harvest crops, by taking care of animals, and by chopping wood.  The girls helped their mothers inside the house by cooking and preparing food, cleaning, as well as making and fixing clothes.  All this by seven years old!

Children long ago did not have TVs, VCRs, Nintendo, bikes or computers.  Children worked very hard so there wasn’t much time for playing.  When there was time, usually on Sundays, children played with games and toys that were very simple.  Children long ago liked some of the same games children enjoy now, like jumping rope, playing hopscotch, blowing bubbles, and singing nursery rhymes such as:

“Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick.”(7)

There were no stores like Target or Wal-Mart where children and parents could buy toys.  Children could play with toys, but often the toys were very simple, and the children had only a few. Often, games and toys were made from leftover wood or supplies that were no longer of any use.

Today, for example, children have dolls and stuffed animals bought from stores.  Long ago, children had dolls made from rags, cornhusks, and pieces of wood … leftovers from around the house or outside.  Children had to be content with these simple kinds of toys.  

The main primary source that is part of this lesson is the painting entitled Mrs. Freake and Baby Mary, made by an unknown Massachusetts artist in 1674.   Sources suggest that out of about 40 portraits that were done in the Boston area before 1700, about 10 of these share enough similarities to suggest that they were done by the same artist.  The artist has come to be known as the Freake Painter, and the portrait is considered to be one of the masterpieces of early American art.  Most probably Mrs. Freake andBaby Mary was painted by a “limner,” an artist with little formal training, but who nevertheless captured important elements of the time period. (8)

Mrs. Freake was the wife of John Freake, a young merchant and lawyer who was relatively well-off.  Interestingly, Mrs. Freake was painted first, and Baby Mary was added later.

From an adult perspective, the image conveyed is one of stoicism.  Mrs. Freake is expressionless as she holds Baby Mary stiffly and away from her body.  Baby Mary is portrayed with doll-like rather than with baby-like softness.  The images are flat, linear, weightless, with little depth or perspective.  The artist has gone to considerable effort to carefully depict the clothing worn by Mrs. Freake:

“[She] wears a satin dress and red-orange petticoat trimmed with rich brocade. Black and orange ribbons decorate her sleeves, and she wears a beautiful lace collar. All the fabrics are expensive and imported. Moreover, she wears three strands of pearls around her neck, a garnet bracelet, and a gold ring”. (9)

Baby Mary is dressed formally, as well, in a long flowing dress with several layers and a bonnet on her head.  Her clothes boast fine lace and delicate ribbons.   Both Mrs. Freake and Baby Mary have dressed up for their portrait and are obviously not wearing their everyday clothes, but their Sunday best.

This painting tells us much about the early child-parent relationship.  It has been said that children in early Colonial America were regarded as “miniature adults.”  Households functioned around the needs and activities of the adults, and there was little time or interest in catering to children.  Very young children were expected to adjust to the family’s routine. (10) Some sources suggest that because many children died in early childhood, parents were reluctant to become attached to their offspring until after children were safely through the uncertainty of the early childhood years. (11) A feeling of distance as well as a lack of intimacy and warmth between mother and child is evident in the painting of Mrs. Freake and Baby Mary.

The second primary source that is part of this lesson is the painting entitled The Mason Children: David, Joanna, and Abigail, created by an unknown Massachusetts artist in 1670.  This painting, like the painting Mrs.Freake and Baby Mary, is another rare gem of the times.  It captures the essence of childhood in Colonial America in several important ways.  The children are dressed in traditional colonial clothes – the black and white Puritan garb.  The various enhancements of the basic clothing – the lace, ruffles, frills and sleeve sashes – suggest greater wealth than the average colonial family.  The aura of stoicism again pervades the painting – the children have serious, somber expressions.  Some believe that the children are portrayed as older than their actual years … David was the oldest at age 8, and Joanna and Abigail are situated in descending order by both height and age.  In Colonial America, children were expected to take on adult responsibilities as soon as they were able.  Children and child-like activities were not to be indulged.  Child-rearing was often quite stern, and strict discipline was seen as necessary to break the will of children and have them conform to parental as well as biblical expectations.  The rigid posture and serious expressions of the Mason children certainly convey the sense that childhood was not a playful or indulgent time. (12)

1 John F. Warner, Colonial American Home Life, (New York: Franklin Watts, 1993), 23.

2 Alice Morse Earle, Child Life in Colonial Days, (New York:  The Macmillan Company, 2004), 11-13.

3 Karen Calvert, Children in the House:  The Material Culture of EarlyChildhood, 1600-1900, (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992), 21.

4 Selma R. Williams, Demeter’s Daughters:  The Women Who Founded America, 1587-1787, (West Hanover, Massachusetts: Halliday Lithograph Corporation, 1975), 96.

5 Williams, 96.

6 Williams, 95.

7 Activities Related to Colonial Children in America, information compiled by Salem in History Staff, Summer, 2006

8 Art Collections for Educators [guide online] Humanitas, collaborative project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities; available from; Internet; accessed 4 August 2006.

9 ibid.

10  Calvert, 36.

11  Williams, 93.

12 Vas Prabhu and Shelia Pressley, Teachers’ Guide to American Art, [guide online] (De Young Museum San Francisco, CA); available at: [accessed 4 August 2006].

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An image of the painting Mrs. Freake and Baby Mary

An image of the painting The Mason Children: David, Joanna, and Abigail,

A computer with internet access will be needed to access the images of the paintings

2 or 3 ears of corn

Small pieces of scrap wood

Pieces of scrap fabric and yarn

An example of a modern day children’s doll

Construction paper

Glue sticks

Elmer’s glue

Magazine pictures of contemporary children

Xeroxed images of the painting, The Mason Children: David, Joanna and Abigail


Divide the construction paper into two sections.  Label one section “Long Ago” and the other “Today.”

Precut a variety of pictures of contemporary children.

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Day One: 

Have children observe the painting Mrs. Freake and Baby Mary. Have children talk about what they notice about the painting. The following guiding questions may be used:

  • What do you see in the painting?
  • Do you think the painting is from today or long ago?
  • What do you notice about the clothes in the painting?
  • Are they like the clothes we wear today?
  • Are they special clothes or clothes that would be worn everyday?

Children’s responses may be written on chart paper to be reviewed the next day.

Day Two: 

Talk about the observation of the Mrs. Freake and Baby Mary painting that was done the previous day.  Remind children of their comments by reading their sentences on the chart paper.   Have children observe the painting The Mason Children: David, Joanna and Abigail.  Again, have them talk about what they notice.  Questions from the prior day can be used, as well as questions about the expressions on the children’s faces.   A follow-up activity will be conducted.  Xeroxed pictures of The Mason Children: David, Joanna and Abigail painting can be glued under the heading “long ago” on a piece of construction paper.  Precut magazine pictures of contemporary children can be glued in a separate category under the heading “today”.

Day Three: 

Have children look again at The Mason Children: David, Joannaand Abigail painting.  See what they remember from the prior day’s discussion, and summarize the important facts.  Begin a discussion about toys.  Contrast toys from long ago with toys from today.    Have a volunteer find a doll in the classroom that is currently being used by the children in the class on a daily basis.   Show children the ears of corn and the scrap wood.   Demonstrate the different parts of the corn – the husks, the cob – and show how a simple doll can be made from these leftovers.  Demonstrate how a simple doll can be made from the piece of scrap wood.  Show how the dolls can be “swaddled” using pieces of cloth.

Children will then be dismissed to classroom tables.  Each child will each have pieces of wood, markers, fabric and Elmer’s glue.  Each will make their own simple dolls. [View a related primary source activity]

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  • students will participate in classroom discussions and their verbal observations will be noted.
  • students will complete the hands-on activity from day two and their understanding of the two different categories will be observed.
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as above

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Students with developmental/language delays can be asked to point to parts of the images/prints that they find interesting.  A teacher can then supply the necessary words and phrases.

Doll-making should be an open-ended activity which allows for a wide range of different products. 

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  • Children could view an additional image, for example, the Portrait of Sarah Carol Moses and her Daughter Betsy (1786) at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.

  • Additional toys reminiscent of the colonial area can be gathered and shown to children, for example, tops, board games, yo-yos, kites, jump ropes, Jacob’s ladder, whirligig.  These toys can become part of a hands-on activity area for independent use/exploration.

  • Pictures of each child with a parent can be taken with a digital camera.  The images can be part of a display.  In the center of the display could be the Mrs. Freake and Baby Mary image.  The children can be encouraged to verbalize what they see as the differences and similarities.  A similar display could be made with The Mason Children: David, Joanna and Abigail image.  Pictures could also be made into a class book.

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  • Children could be encouraged to create portraits of themselves and a parent at the painting easel or on paper with markers/crayons.

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 Blyth, Benjamin. Portrait of Sarah Carol Moses and her daughter Betsy, 1781.  Oil on canvas.  Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts.  Online at [viewed 4 August 2006]

This is a rare portrait from colonial times which depicts a mother and child posing together for a portrait.  The painting brings to light many of the prevalent attitudes regarding child-rearing in the colonial time period.

Artist not identified.  Mrs. Freake and Baby Mary, 1674.  Oil on canvas.  Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts.  Online at [viewed 4 August 2006]

This is an early and exceptional painting from the colonial time period that depicts a portrait of a mother and child.  Close study of the portrait reveals much about the view of childhood in that time period. 

Artist not identified. The Mason Children: David, Joanna, and Abigail, 1670.  Oil on canvas.  de Young Museum, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, California.  Online at [viewed 4 August 2006]

This colonial portrait of three children suggests the rigid discipline expected of children.


(none suggested)



Teacher’s Guide to American Art” de Young Museum, San Francisco, CA. [visited 8/4/2006].

This site contains a very thorough description and analysis of the painting TheMason Children: David, Joanna, and Abigail.  This piece does an excellent job of relating different elements in the painting to the culture of the times. 


“American Life: A Comparison of Colonial Life to Today’s Life” Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute [visited 8/4/2006].

This site features a grade 1 curriculum unit written as part of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute.  It contains a well-done essay which truly is written with the young child in mind, as well as several pages of possible activities.  There are many references to the lives of colonial children in the essay, along with questions which ask children to compare their lives to the lives of children long ago.

“Children in Colonial Times” National Park Service [visited 8/4/2006].

This site has information that is succinct, concise, and interesting.  With various quotes, the flavor of the life of children in colonial times is vividly portrayed.

“Amusements in Colonial New England” The Noah Webster House and West Hartford Historical Society [visited 8/4/2006].

This site provides a nice overview of the culture of play among children and adults in colonial New England.  The text is very clear and informative. 

“Worcester Art Museum” [visited 8/4/2006].

This site is connected with the Worcester Art Museum, which houses the painting Mrs. Freake and Baby Mary.  There is an excellent section called “technical notes” and “discussion” which provides information about all aspects of the painting and what is known about the artist who painted it. 

“Art Collections Education” Humanitas, collaborative project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities [visited 8/4/2006].

This site provides good basic information about the limner tradition and Puritan portraits.  The web site also has a brief but informative discussion about the Mrs. Freake and Baby Mary painting.

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Barrett, Tracy.  Growing Up in Colonial America.  Brookfield, Connecticut:  The Millbrook Press, 1955.

This is a chidren’s book for older students, well above the preschool level, but one that contains good historical information even for adults.  The book talks about all aspects of childhood and growing up in the American colonies.  It contains some excellent photographs and illustrations, including Mrs. Freake and Baby Mary, The Mason Children: David, Joannaand Abigail as well as a sampler from 1771.

Calvert, Karen.  Children in the House: The Material Culture of Early Childhood, 1600 – 1900.  Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992.

This book offers good information about Colonial America child-rearing practices, includes an excellent and thorough discussion of “swaddling”.

Earle, Alice Morse.  Child Life in Colonial Days.  New York:  The MacMillan Company, 2004. 

This very unique book, originally published in 1899, describes childhood in colonial days in meticulous detail, using the distinct language of the author who blends historical facts with her own first person opinions.  The book contains many pictures and photos as well as excerpts from newspapers, diaries, letters and antique manuscripts.   It is a good teacher resource. 

Warner, John F.  Colonial American Home Life.  New York:  Franklin Watts, 1993.

This is a teacher resource book which describes the daily life of the early colonists, including their homes, clothing, food, work, school and amusements.  Blended in these topics are details about colonial children.

Williams, Selma R.  Demeter’s Daughters: The Women who Founded America, 1587-1787.  West Hanover, Massachusetts:  Halliday Lithograph Corporation, 1975.

This book is a good teacher resource which talks about the lives of colonial women.   As the activities of typical colonial women are discussed, various tidbits about children and children’s lives are revealed.  This book is very detailed, and contains an incredible wealth of information.

Handout: Activities Related to Colonial Children in America, information compiled by the Salem in History staff, summer, 2006.

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Colonial Childhood Games

Writing in Colonial Ameria



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