Primary Source Activity: Colonial Childhood Games and Toys

Name: Anna Kichorowsky

School: Program Intern, Salem in History

Date Used: Summer 2006

Grade Level: Pre-K to 3rd grade

I. Source ID

Bangwell Putt rag doll
Moses Field and Unidentified
Northfield, Massachusetts
American Centuries Collection

John Ward House, 17th Century
Peabody Essex Museum Collection

Type of Source:

written document (specify type below)


sound recording






court document (specify below)                                               

census records

oral history                                                                                   

.X 3-dimentional artifact

.X other—please specify: Historic House                                                            


Options - other documents & objects to incorporate:

Gould Family. Excerpts. Gould Family Collection 1697-1897. Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum. (Call # MSS 233 (B2F3)).

Written pages by Mrs. Chas E. Perkins, Mary E. Stanley, and an anonymous writer (member of the Gould family?) describing games and songs such as: "Oats, Pease, Beans, and Barley Grow," "Uncle John is Very Sick," “The Salem, Mass., version of the game, “We’re a-Marching on Towards Quebec,”"Fists," and “Drop the Handkerchief.”
(Source can be used when discussing games and nursery rhymes.)

Objects in National Park Service Colonial America Activity Boxes: Cup and ball toy, tin whistle, wooden doll

In the Peabody Essex Museum Collection (activity appropriate for grades 2-3):

Toy Locomotive, ca 1860
George W. Brown & Co.
Forestville, Conn.
Tin, wood, paint
Gift of Eliza H. Saul, 1907

Sampler (1803)
by Anne Kimball (1791 - 1871)
Newburyport, Massachusetts
Silk and linen
Gift of Timothy A. Ingraham

Noah’s Ark, 1800-1850
Wood, Paint
Gift of the Misses Willson, 1919

Activity Materials Required:

For Whirligig: stiff cardboard or wooden circle (can also use buttons), awl or hole-punch, string, markers

For Wooden Spoon Doll: flat wooden spoons, yarn, scraps of cloth, pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, markers, glue gun (optional)

II.  Rationale for Source Use

Children love to play games, and what better way to learn about how people lived in the colonial era than through games and toys! By comparing and contrasting how students play today to how children played two hundred years ago, students will realize, first-hand, the scope of American history.

In the colonial period, the opportunity to buy games and toys did not exist; instead, children had to make them on their own. This included the nursery rhymes, riddles, and board games that we use today, as well as hand-made toys, such as cloth or wooden dolls and whirligigs. Children created their own fun back then with available materials, just as students can today.

Students will first be asked to imagine their own lives as colonial children during a visit to the John Ward house. This visit will introduce the students to colonial life, and classroom activities after the visit will facilitate students’ understanding of colonial history in Massachusetts. By involving students in the process of making their own toys as well as imagining themselves in an authentic colonial-era space, they will gain a deeper understanding of the context and method involved in play during the colonial period.

III. Correlation with 2003 Massachusetts History and Social Studies Curriculum Frameworks

Pre-K to K

1. Identify sequential actions, such as first, next, last, in stories and use them to describe personal experiences. (H)

2. Use correctly words and phrases related to chronology and time (now, long ago, before, after; morning, afternoon, night; today, tomorrow, yesterday; last or next week, month, year; and present, past, and future tenses of verbs). (H)

Grade 3 Concepts and Skills

1. Explain the meaning of time periods or dates in historical narratives (decade, century, 1600s, 1776) and use them correctly in speaking and writing. (H)

2. Observe visual sources such as historic paintings, photographs, or illustrations that accompany historical narratives, and describe details such as clothing, setting, or action. (H)

3. Observe and describe local or regional historic artifacts and sites and generate questions about their function, construction, and significance. (H)

3rd Grade History and Social Studies

3.12 Explain how objects or artifacts of everyday life in the past tell us how ordinary people lived and how everyday life has changed. Draw on the services of the local historical society and local museums as needed. (H, G, E)

IV. Guiding Questions:

At the Ward House:

In the parlor:

In the kitchen:

In the classroom:

Look at the image of Bangwell Putt rag doll from the American Centuries website.

 Continuing the Activity:

Make a whirligig:

Punch two holes in the center of a circle piece of thin wood or cardboard. Thread about 2 feet of string through the holes and tie the ends together. Decorate both sides.

Hold the string between the thumb and index finger of both hands and twirl the circle until the string is wrapped tightly around itself. Pull apart and let the whirligig spin.

Make a wooden spoon doll:

The doll's face and body will be created on the wooden spoon shape. Begin by drawing a face on the flat back-side of the wooden spoon. Select scraps of cloth for clothes. You can glue popsicle sticks to your doll as arms, or create them out of pipe cleaners or cloth if you choose to not use hot glue. If you are not using glue, wrap the cloth around the spoon and tie tight with a separate strip of cloth. This way, the clothes are lashed onto the spoon. Click on image to see a detail. If you are using glue, cut out the cloth into shapes of a shirt, pants, skirt, cap or bonnet and glue directly to wooden spoon. In addition, yarn or pipecleaners can be added as hair, or cloth can be tied as a bonnet or cap. Click on image to see how to create the bonnet.

Lesson Plan Options Based on this Activity:

What kinds of games do you think children played when they didn’t even have these kinds of toys? What games do you play now don't involve toys? (on the playground, in your backyard, etc.)
Discuss games that colonial children played (hopscotch, London bridge, leap frog). Use the Gould Family papers as primary sources.

Childhood in colonial America – have the students imagine that they are living in colonial times. What would they wear? What would they do during the day? Would they go to school, play outside, visit friends? How would their life be different? They can create dioramas, skits, or drawings to represent their lives as colonial children.