Colonial life wasn’t all fun and games, but it wasn’t without its share of recreation. Colonists worked hard to carve out their lives and survive. They also enjoyed their leisure time, which provided a welcome break from the hardships and harsh realities they often faced. Wondering what they did for fun? Hint: Many of their favorite pastimes are still enjoyed today.
Life in the Colonies
Living in the American colonies exposed the hopeful settlers who made their homes there to unexpected hardships. They often chose lives in the colonies to escape poverty and persecution. They found freedom, but they also found dangerous wilderness living conditions and harsh winters.
Colonists worked hard to plant and harvest crops as well as develop the hunting skills necessary to feed their families and avoid starvation. Malnutrition was common, but with the passing of time, they started to overcome these early hardships and develop their own lifestyles. By the 18th century, colonists successfully established small towns and cities in many locations. Women worked in the home, and men usually farmed or earned their living as craftsmen.
They Played Familiar Games
Despite their rigorous schedules, the early settlers still made time for fun. Noah Webster House notes that children often had to help their families by performing boring chores like gathering eggs, carrying wood and churning butter. When they weren't doing their chores, they were often in school. In their free time, they played some very familiar games.
This game has roots that go all the way back to the Roman Empire and Ancient Britain. It’s played by drawing a court on the ground. Each player tosses a marker like a twig or a stone into one of the squares. If the marker bounces out of that square or lands on a line, the next player takes their turn. If the toss is successful, the player hops through the court, skipping the square containing their marker.
Tag, you’re it! That's the most common way people play tag, of course, but the colonists had several variations. For the popular Fox and Geese version, they drew a wheel with eight spokes, and the person who was "it" was the fox. The fox had to chase the geese along the rim and spokes of the wheel. Anyone who got tagged became another fox until all the geese were tagged.
They called it “hop frog” in 17th century England and probably in the American colonies as well, according to Plimoth Plantation. This classic children’s game involves at least two players in a line. Each player crouches down, and the second player hops over the first, adopting the crouched "frog" position when landing. Each player that follows has to hop over the players that hopped before them.
Music Was an Enjoyable Leisure Activity
Historic Jamestown notes that music played a big role in the leisure activities of many settlers. Educated individuals were expected to develop some skill on at least one instrument in addition to learning to read music. It was a common form of entertainment among English society at all class levels.
Colonial music defined the people who came to America to create new lives, according to the Colonial Music Society. Music drew on inspiration from other countries, including England, Ireland and Scotland. It included ballads, minuets, folk songs and sonatas. Violins were the most popular instrument, and colonists also played flutes.
England's King Charles II loved gambling, and playing games of chance was a key part of life in his court. The love of gaming wasn't lost on those who set sail for new lands, according to the a Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Native Americans also loved gambling on everything from games of chance to athletic events.
Dice games were particularly popular among Colonial soldiers. Gambling with cards and dice often landed soldiers in hot water with their leaders. After getting caught gambling three times, they received a year's punishment.
Turning Chores into Fun
Free time was limited in the early days of America, so children often turned their daily chores into a game. They had contests to see who could carry more wood or carry eggs the fastest without breaking any. In school, they sometimes sang their lessons to make them more fun. When they carded wool — a process that straightened the fibers in preparation for spinning them into wool — they challenged each other to see who could finish the most in the least amount of time.
Pass the Time with Nursery Rhymes
If children couldn’t turn their chores into a game, they often sang songs and nursery rhymes to make their work more fun. A few of the popular nursery rhymes are still around to this day, including:
- "Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush"
- "London Bridge"
- "Ring Around the Rosie"