Fueled by Imagination

What comes to mind when you think of classic toys? Do you picture plastic army men, model trains chugging along their tracks, or baby dolls that really talk? Or maybe you remember wind-up robots, toys made from tin, yo-yos, and spinning tops? Do the children you know today still play with the same toys you did growing up? The ways children play and what they play with certainly have changed throughout history. In colonial times, before mass production and proper toy stores, most toys were handmade from things that could be found at home or out in nature. Colonial playthings—many of which have ancient origins—were simple, practical, and ran on imagination, not batteries.

A boy playing with toy hoop by hands and hoop is rolling in ground, vintage line drawing or engraving illustration.

 Here are 5 games that were popular with colonial children:

1.   Hoop rolling

Stick and hoop, also known as bowling hoops or hoop trundling, is a simple two-piece game, where the player uses a stick or hook to keep a large hoop rolling forward for as long as possible. Bowling hoops have been used as playthings, for competitive sporting events, and for physical fitness activities, by children and adults across the globe for centuries. In the Americas, many indigenous peoples played their own variations of the game as well. European settlers considered hoop rolling a seasonal activity and mostly practiced it in the winter months, as to avoid heat stroke.

Children also threw their hoops to each other and used their sticks to catch them. The hoops and sticks have been made from a variety of materials including wood, metal, and in modern times, plastic. In the 19th century, boys favored hoops and sticks of metal, while girls preferred those made of wood. It was the most popular children’s activity in New England during the Victorian era. Children were often depicted holding their hoops in paintings and later in photographs.

Learn more about Hoop Trundling here

2.   Whirligigs

This is Whizzer. It's the type of the game. Small children loves to play with Whizzer, vintage line drawing or engraving illustration.

Whirligigs, whirlijigs, whizzers, or buzzer toys were made and enjoyed by colonial children and indigenous children alike. They featured a weighted centerpiece or whirligig made from tanned animal hide, paper, coins, buttons, stones, bone, or pieces of lead carved into a pinwheel shape. Several holes were drilled or hammered into the whirligig so it could be threaded onto string or twine and pulled into the middle with equal lengths of string on each side.

To wind up the whirligig, the child would take the strings, one side in each hand, and twirl the centerpiece around in a similar motion to rolling up a towel while holding two corners. Once wound enough, the child would pull the strings taut, and the centerpiece would begin to spin. The harder the strings were pulled, the faster the centerpiece would spin. If pulled in an accordion motion, alternating between taut and slack, the whirligig would keep spinning for longer and longer. Depending on how you fashioned them, some whirligigs made a buzzing or whirring noise that added to the fun.

Learn how to make your own whirligig toy here

Hands holding a red yarn betwixt the fingers to assemble a cat's cradle pattern.

3.   Cat’s Cradle

The first known mention of this simple string game was in 1768, but different versions of Cat’s Cradle have been found all over the world in many different cultures. To play, a piece of string or twine is knotted into a loop and two or more players take turns twisting the string into different formations. The first player starts the game by creating the Cat’s Cradle formation. The second  player adjusts the Cat’s Cradle formation by pulling, twisting, or further weaving the string to create a new design and then lifts the string from the first player’s hands onto their own hands, keeping the design intact.

The string is passed from player to player in this manner as the game goes on. As the string is transferred between the players, the designs grow more complex or simple depending on the manipulations and the patterns the players know. The game ends when a player makes a mistake or creates a pattern that cannot be turned into anything further.

Learn the basics of Cat’s Cradle here

4.   Marbles

A young person crouches to shoot their marble into the ring.

Marbles are one of the oldest known toys ever created and predate ancient times. The earliest examples of marbles were made from pebbles worn smooth by streams and rivers. During Colonial times, marbles were made from stones or rolled from natural clay. There are many different games involving marbles from cultures all over the world. One way to play is a bit like a combination of bowling and billiards. Players create a ring and set up a number of marbles clustered together in a shape at the center of the ring. Players then take turns “shooting” larger marbles into the marble cluster trying to knock as many marbles out of the ring as they can. Some players become marble collectors once they’ve outgrown the game. A marble’s value depends on its size, colors, patterns, shape, and rarity.

Learn how to play Marbles here

5.   Cup-and-Ball Game

A wooden cup and ball inspired by the Colonial Toy.

Both children and adults have been playing a version of cup-and-ball since it was created in the 1300s. Still popular today, cup-and-ball is a game of hand-eye coordination, skill, and luck. Children have played it for fun and to improve their motor skills. Adults play it for fun and as a betting game too! Cup and ball toys consist of a cup on one end of a stick with a ball tied to the bottom of the stick. The string tethers the ball to the stick to ensure that players have a limited height at which the ball can be tossed.

To play, simply hold the stick in one hand and with the opposite hand toss the ball in the air and attempt to catch it in the cup. Start with the ball in the cup. Use the cup to launch the ball upward and try to catch it back in the cup. See how many times you can land the ball back in the cup in a row. Playing the game might seem simple, but winning requires some luck and skill!

Learn how to make your own Cup-and-Ball game here