To Instruct and Amuse: Fun & Games in George’s Day

The fall season at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore is finally upon us! This is a busy time of year for the education team because as cooler temperatures roll in, so do the school buses! Students who take field trips to our sites learn about the Washington and Lewis families, archaeology, and daily life in the 18th century. A favorite activity during field trips (for students and chaperones alike!) is learning how children in the past entertained themselves by playing a few popular eighteenth-century games. Our youngest visitors especially love learning what life was like for George and Betty Washington when they were children at Ferry Farm.

Ferry Farm Field Trip

A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, a children’s book published in 1744 by John Newbery, depicts some games and activities from the 18th century that today’s children are likely still familiar with, like flying kites, hopscotch, and leapfrog. Other games may be less familiar to some readers, such as “Tip Cat,” a game similar to cricket where a large stick is used to strike a smaller piece of wood into the air, and “Peg Farthing,” a game involving wooden spinning tops. An interesting fact for sports fans is that Newbery’s little book contains what is believed to be the first printed reference to baseball. The Pocket Book’s illustration for “base ball” depicts three boys standing next to their “post” or base.

A page from A Little Pretty Pocket Book depicting swimming and “Base Ball.” Source: Library of Congress

Each game or activity is presented as a rhyme, a letter of the alphabet, and a “Rule of Life” or moral lesson. Interestingly, the book was also marketed with either a ball or pincushion gift to further help children understand good morals. Boys and girls were to track their good or bad deeds by sticking a pin in either the black (bad) or red (good) side of their toy. The book speaks to the practical element of many children’s games at this time; it was intended to instruct as well as amuse. The Library of Congress has a copy of A Little Pretty Pocket Book printed in Massachusetts by Isaiah Thomas in 1787. Clearly, the popularity of the book was long-lived.

Opening pages of A Little Pretty Pocket Book. Source: British Library

Two popular games today’s students can play at Ferry Farm and Kenmore are hoop rolling (or trundling) and Graces. Hoop rolling has a long history across many different cultures. Images from ancient Greek and Roman art depict youth playing with hoops. Dutch painter Peter Bruegel’s, Children’s Games was painted in 1560 and showed 230 children playing 83 different games, one of which was hoop rolling. In George Washington’s time, the stick and hoop were made of wood, and the goal was to push the hoop along with the stick without it falling over.

Graces, or French Hoops, was a popular game in the early 1800s and was said to have been introduced to England from France. It was considered an appropriate pastime for young girls, as the game was supposed to inspire graceful movement in the players. The game requires two players, two sets of sticks, and one hoop (or two for added difficulty!) One player holds the sticks crossed in front of themselves with their hoop hanging off the end. To toss the hoop, they pull the sticks apart. The second player has to catch the hoops on their sticks. Each player gains one point when they catch the hoop, and the goal is not to let it hit the ground.

Two books published in the 19th century illustrate the game of graces: American Girl’s Book by Eliza Leslie, published in 1831, and The Girl’s Own Book by Lydia Maria Child, published in 1833. Both authors mention particular benefits of the game, such as encouraging healthy exercise, graceful movements, dexterity and coordination, and of course, fun!

Today, students who visit Ferry Farm and Kenmore might try their hand at graces or hoop rolling or play with other 18th-century toys. These games, along with those depicted in children’s books like Newbury’s, may have been familiar to children like George and Betty Washington. Often, these children’s games were seen as having some kind of practical instructional value.

While some games have withstood the test of time and others have faded from popularity, it’s clear that children across time have always found ways to amuse and entertain themselves! [1][2][3]

Ann Waters

Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

[1] Child, L. M. (1833). The Girl’s Own Book. Ireland: Clark Austin & Company.

[2] Leslie, E. (1863) The American girl’s book: or, Occupation for play hours. New York: J. Miller. [Image] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

[3] Thomas, I. & Miniature Book Collection. (1787) A little pretty pocket-book: intended for the instruction and amusement of little Master Tommy, and pretty Miss Polly: with two letters from Jack the giant-killer, as also a ball and pincushion, the use of which will infallibly make Tommy, a good boy, and Polly a good girl: to which is added, A little song-book, being a new attempt to teach children the use of the English alphabet, by way of diversion. Printed at Worcester, Massachusetts: by Isaiah Thomas, and sold, wholesale and retail, at his bookstore. [Pdf] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,