Thursday 2 Oct, 2014

Extra Credit: Early American Games Challenge

Ever played a game of noughts and crosses? Chances are that you have, except now it’s called tic-tac-toe. What about Americans and English? You call it tug-of-war.

In fact, aside from their names, the games children played in colonial and early America aren’t much different from the ones played today. Introducing them into your classroom is a great way to help your students connect on a more personal (and entertaining) level to the history you’re teaching.


Try the Early American Games Challenge and see for yourself. Ask students to do it for fun, extra credit or as part of your lessons—it’s up to you. Here’s how it works:

Choose a time period.

It can be specific, like the 1860s, or wide open to students can pick one that excites them.

Have students pick a game popular at that time.

They can start with the list below or find one on their own.

Let students research, explore and learn.

Here are some questions to explore:

  • What are the rules of the game?
  • Who invented it and when?
  • Has it had different names? What did they mean and why have they changed?
  • What might students of the time have been talking about when they played? What would they have worn?
  • Do students still play today? How and where?

Create a forum for students to play and present.

Make it as ambitious or simple as you want. Students could produce a skit (huzzlecap on July 4, 1776, anyone?). You could require written reports. Or make a whole Old Times Game party out of it. It’s your call because it’s your class.

When it’s done, your students will have had fun; learned something new; practiced their research, collaboration and presentation skills; and gained a better understanding of what it was like to be young during some of the most important moments in history. And you’ll know how to play some timeless games. Here are some games to get you started:


ancient roman battle helmet

Also known as: Tic-Tac-Toe

Variations can be found as early as Ancient Rome and the first game in America took place in 1856 (around the time the name noughts and crosses became popular). Almost 100 years later, it was the basis for one of the first known video games.

two coins falling into an old school hat

Also known as: Cards in the Hat or Pitching Pennies

Some play with pennies, some with cards. You can use a hat, draw a circle in the dirt or simply play against a wall. There are many variations, reflecting the many times and places it’s been played, but they’re all simple: the goal is to pitch the playing piece into the target and on top of somebody else’s.


Also known as: Tug-of-war

The name speaks volumes about the history of this ancient game, which was actually played in one form or another long before Columbus set sail. In fact, some legends say the Sun and Moon played it in a fight of over the light and dark.  It was even an Olympic sport in the early 1900s.

classical statue with blind fold

Also known as: Marco Polo

Before there were pools to stumble around in with your eyes closed, early Americans brought this game over from their homeland of England. The difference is that it’s played on land, and no one is allowed to speak. Early versions of this tag-like game were played in in China in 500 B.C. and in Ancient Greece.

two hoops with a stick in the middle of each

Also known as: Hoop-and-stick

Versions of this game have been played in civilizations from all around the world—from Ancient Greece to present-day tribal communities. Native Americans used to play it too, and in 1898 it was voted the favorite toy among children in Massachusetts. The object of the game is simple: just keep a wooden hoop rolling steadily along with the aid of a stick.

four piles of stacked draughts

Also known as: Checkers

People played a game recognizable as checkers as early as 3000 B.C. and today you can find countless versions of it to play on your smartphone. It’s about as timeless as a game gets, with an extraordinary array of regional and national variations.


Portions of this article were inspired by Teaching with Historic Places (’s/GamesChildrenPlayed.pdf), a lesson plan from Saugus (MA) Public Schools.