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Back in the Day:
Lessons From Colonial Classrooms

Encourage your students to experience the lives of colonial children by providing some of the same activities children enjoyed -- or endured -- more than 200 years ago. Included: Authentic lessons from colonial times and similar lessons -- updated for the technological age. Plus! Colonial WebQuests!

"Since nothing below a man can think, man in being thoughtless, must needs fall below himself."
                                        -- William Penn

As every teacher knows, when it comes to education, there are no absolutes. That's as true in the history books as it is in the classroom! The kind of education American colonial children received during the 17th century depended on a number of factors, including gender, class, and location. The one constant in colonial education was an inevitable link to religious and moral instruction.

To read about some of the subtle educational differences between the New England, middle, and southern colonies, see Education in the Colonies.

In 21st-century classrooms, teachers can help students experience the lives of colonial children by participating in some of the same activities children enjoyed -- and endured -- more than 200 years ago. To that end, Education World provides ten activities that help teach about life in a colonial classroom.

Home Connection

In colonial times, children were often expected to help tend the family's herb and vegetable gardens.

Families who have an area suitable for an outdoor garden might try the challenge of growing Monster Pumpkins [archived copy], using gardening tips from Old Sturbridge Village.


The alphabet and poetry. In colonial primary schools, most early instruction centered on reading, writing, spelling, and religion. The hornbook, a wooden paddle with parchment attached, was one of the first devices used to teach reading. Really Neat Books [archived copy] describes the history of hornbooks. Encourage your students to make their own hornbooks: Cut hornbook-shaped paddles from cardboard or oak tag. Have students write a positive character trait -- such as bravery or obedience -- on a piece of butcher paper. (The butcher paper simulates the parchment used on hornbooks of colonial times.) Suggest that students emphasize the first letter of the character trait they selected by making it larger or a different color or by decorating it in a special way. Then ask students to draw a picture illustrating that character trait. Glue the character trait pictures to the paddles. Students can also personalize their hornbooks with names or special decorations. Create a classroom bulletin board.

Today, students can create an ABC book about any subject in the curriculum, such as this Michigan ABC Book (video version) created by first-graders.

Phonics. The New England Primer was also used in colonial schools to teach reading. Have your students see how many words they can make using any of the word parts from the primer's "Easy Syllables for Children" page (scroll down).

Today, students can find online Phonics Activities too.

Spelling. Spelling was also an important subject in colonial schools. In many ways, spelling lessons have probably not changed much in hundreds of years. Students likely wrote their spelling words many times, and practiced spelling them aloud. It was not until 1783 that Noah Webster published the first spelling book, his "Blue-Backed" Speller. The small textbook contained lessons in spelling, grammar, reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and morals. Like most books of that time, spellers combined instruction in reading and spelling with a study of the Bible. Encourage your students to create a dictionary of words used during colonial times, such as apprentice, shilling, boxwood, colony, town crier, Almanack, flax, springhouse, tallow, and corncob.

Today, students can also take this Funbrain Spell Check online.

Penmanship and character education. Colonial students practiced their handwriting by painstakingly copying passages from the Bible or other works that set forth rules for proper moral behavior. In the "Exercise of a Schoolboy," George Washington copied all 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation. Invite students to take a look at the rules and to choose one to illustrate. Teachers of younger students might choose specific rules, such as the ones bulleted below, for students to illustrate. Create a class book that reflects the rules of colonial classrooms. Point out to students the differences in spelling and capitalization used in colonial times.

  • Shew Nothing to your Freind that may affright him.
  • In the Presence of Others Sing not to yourself with a humming Noise, nor Drum with your Fingers or Feet.
  • If You Cough, Sneeze, Sigh, or Yawn, do it not Loud but Privately; and Speak not in your Yawning, but put Your handkercheif or Hand before your face and turnaside.
  • Sleep not when others Speak, Sit not when others stand, Speak not when you Should hold your Peace, walk not on when others Stop.
  • When you Sit down, Keep your Feet firm and Even, without putting one on the other or Crossing them.
  • Shift not yourself in the Sight of others nor Gnaw your nails.
  • Kill no Vermin as Fleas, lice ticks in the Sight of Others.
  • Keep your Nails clean and Short, also your Hands and Teeth Clean.
  • Do not laugh too loud or too much at any Publick Spectacle.
Today, students might follow Ron Clark's 55 Essential Rules for Discovering the Successful Student in Every Child (buy the book). In colonial days, the Internet was not to come a couple of centuries, so students did not have to worry about learning Netiquette For Kids.

Arithmetic. Most colonial students, both boys and girls, learned enough arithmetic to manage household expenses. Colonial Currency was based on British monetary units, in which 1 pound sterling (1) was worth 20 shillings, 1 shilling was worth 12 pence, 1 penny was worth 4 farthings, and 1 guinea was worth 21 shillings or 1 pound sterling 1 shilling. Your students can use the Arithmetic Work Sheet to solve the kinds of problems colonial children might have tackled.

Answer Key:
1. 240 pence; 2. 48 farthings; 3. 42 shillings; 4. 2 shillings, 4 pence; 5. 75 pence; 6. 2 shillings, 6 pence; 7. 2 pounds, 8 pence; 8. 2 guineas, 9. 4 guineas, 16 shillings; 10. 2040 farthings.

Challenge Problem:
Sarah and Nathaniel sold 32 tomatoes for 32 farthings or 8 pence; 16 bunches of carrots for 16 pence; 96, or 8 dozen, ears of corn for 8 shillings, or 96 pence; 48 potatoes for 24 pence. They made a total of 144 pence, or 12 shillings -- 6 shillings each.

Today, encourage your students to create a budget for a family of four for one week. Then have them use a Currency Converter to convert their budgets to British monetary units (pounds).

Crafts. Colonial children played with handmade toys, and every child knew How to Make Corn Husk Dolls. Your students can use the directions at this site to make those dolls too!

Today, children can Get A Grip On Robotics by manipulating a robotic arm online.

Navigation. Older boys from wealthy colonial families often studied more advanced subjects, such as celestial navigation. Invite your students to explore early methods of navigation as they Create a Quadrant. Encourage them to use the instrument to calculate the altitude of a star.

Colonial Web Quest

Encourage your students to learn more about life in colonial times by completing this colonial WebQuest.

Life on Plymouth Plantation
Students assume the character of a child who traveled to America aboard the Mayflower and send letters back to England describing Plymouth.

Art and careers. The middle colonies in particular emphasized the importance of a practical education. Often, children apprenticed with a craftsman to learn a trade. Benjamin Franklin learned the printing business as an apprentice to his brother. Help your students learn about Printmaking by introducing them to different printing techniques and media, such as those found at this site.

Fun and games. Colonial children didn't have much free time, but when they did, there were lots of ways to have fun. They played such games as tag, marbles, hopscotch, leapfrog, hide-and-seek, blindman's buff, hoop races, and quoits. Your students might want to play another favorite colonial game called duck and hunter: The players, or "hunters," stand in a circle holding hands. The "deer" weaves in and out of the circle, under the hands of the players. When the deer taps one of the hunters, the hunter must follow the deer and imitate its movements exactly. If the hunter catches the deer before it has gone around the circle once, the deer goes into the middle of the circle. If the hunter doesn't catch the deer or doesn't imitate its movements exactly, the hunter goes into the middle of the circle. The game continues until the players on the outside of the circle can't encircle the players inside the circle.

The schoolhouse. According to Education For Boys And Girls, in colonial days, "the tutor or governess had more authority over their students than teachers do today. They could spank or whip the students or sit them in the corner if they misbehaved. When a student talked too much, the tutor placed a whispering stick in the talkative student's mouth. This stick, held in place with a band of cloth, prevented any further talking. Tutors sometimes used dunce caps and nose pinchers to keep students in line."

History. You might also invite your students to study a Time Line showing some of the laws and other milestones of American education that occurred during the 17th century. Encourage older students to extend the timeline to the present time.


An Outline of American History
This section of A Hypertext on American History is concerned with schooling and culture during the colonial period.

The History of American Education Web Project
This collection of articles traces the history of American education from the medieval universities to the present.

The Blackwell History of Education Research Museum
provides a search engine that allows visitors to explore topics such as The New-England Primer.

Documents of Freedom
This site contains a collection of such historically important documents as the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution.

Perspectives on Liberty
At this PBS site, students can click on an object in the picture to learn about daily life in the colonies.

Colonial America
This Awesome Library site provides links to lessons, documents, projects, and other materials related to colonial America.

Thanksgiving Information
This page, from the Center for World Indigenous Studies, includes a number of interesting essays, lessons, and activities designed to introduce the Native American perspective into Thanksgiving units. It includes an American Indian prayer, a lesson on avoiding stereotypes, American Indian recipes, and more.

Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 2010 Education World


Last updated 06/21/2013