Have you ever wondered what games pioneer children played? Laura Ingalls Wilder describes many games and activities in her books, and research shows us a few other games that children played during this era. Here you’ll see a full list of games and activities from the “Pioneer Era” that require either easily made items or no equipment whatsoever.
Active and Outdoor Games
Kick The Can – This game is often mentioned in the “Little House on the Prairie” television show and is a fun twist on hide and seek. A can, carton, or other found item serves as the can to kick. See the full set of rules at about.com.
Potato Sack Races – Potato sacks or “gunny sacks” are made of burlap and were used to store root vegetables or feed. These made perfect play things for racing by having each child stand inside a sack and hop to move down the race area. Perfect game for a party!
Three-Legged Races – Another active-playing game, three legged races are played by pairing up all the racers. Each pair of racers has to tie one of their legs to one of the legs of their partners creating “three legs” between the two of them. Teamwork and cooperation are a must if a team is going to win this race!
Hoop Rolling – Hoops from wagon wheels or other implements are natural play things. Remember the Founder’s Day festival in Episode One where hoop rolling was one of the competitions? Simple repurposed items become lots of fun in this game.
Hopscotch – Create the hopscotch outline using chalk or scratching the lines in the dirt, and then all you need is a marker. Rocks work well, making this another inexpensive game option! Toss your marker and then, as the name implies, hop in each square without touching your marker or the lines. There are several variations to play.
Jump Rope – Jump rope has existed for hundreds of years in a few different variations. Shorter lengths of rope could be used by a single person. But, longer lengths of ropes could be held by a different person at each end to allow for a larger group of kids to play at one time. Often chants, rhymes and sayings would be said aloud while players jumped. Here are a few jump rope rhymes, both modern and historic, your kids might enjoy.
Bean Bags – There are so many games to play with bean bags that we won’t outline them all here, however they are an easy-to-make play toy that require very few materials. A scrap of fabric, a few stitches, and a cup of dried beans are all it takes to create hours of play time fun!
Statues – Statues is a variation of freeze tag with a fun twist. The person who is “it” causes the other players to freeze by looking at them with direct eye contact. However, when he is not looking at the other players they are free to move. When a player is finally able to tag him, that player becomes “it” and now has the ability to freeze the statues.
Jacob and Rachel (or Rueben and Rachel) – An interesting circle variation of Blind Man’s Bluff, the game starts with the group in a circle and one player blindfolded in the middle of the circle. The person who is blindfolded spins (and some variations have the circle go around in the opposite direction) with his hand pointed out. When he stops, the person of the opposite sex nearest where he is pointing steps into the circle and must be caught. Once caught, the blindfolded player has to guess the other player’s identity. If successful, the other player will now take his place in the center of the circle and a new turn begins.
Indoor Games for Bad Weather Playing
Hide the Thimble – An easy indoor game, hide the thimble is something that Laura and Mary played to pass the time. Everyone closes their eyes while the thimble is hidden in the room somewhere that is difficult, but not impossible, to find. Whoever finds it first gets to hide it the next time.
Jumping Jack Doll – A cross between a paper doll and a puppet, the Jumping Jack doll was used as a shadow puppet or paper doll. Use strings to make it dance, or use sticks to move the hands and feet.
Paper Dolls – Paper dolls were popular because they used fewer materials than fabric-based rag dolls, or the even more expensive china or porcelain dolls. Paper dolls could be “dressed” with different outfits by coloring the design on a new paper template.
Shadow Puppets – Shadow puppets were an easy way to tell stories with shadow illustrations. Shadow stories could be told by using your hands to cast shadows. The shadow figures could also be made with paper cutouts like the Jumping Jack dolls or paper dolls.
Checkers – Checkers is an age-old game that is played on a checkered board set up the same way as a chess board. Checker pieces could easily be made by carving them from simple wooden disks, making this an affordable social game.
Marbles – Marbles can be played indoors or outdoors. Anywhere you have space to roll the glass marbles is suitable! A typical marble game involves each player trying to knock the marbles of her opponent from inside the circle playing area. The last player with a marble in the circle wins!
Knucklebones – Laura and Mary would have seen this game because historical works of art dating hundreds of years before the pioneer era show knucklebones being played. The original “jacks” were actual foot bones, often from a sheep, that were cleaned and used as the playing pieces. Now plastic or metal jacks can be used. There are several variations to play knucklebones but most involve skillfully tossing and catching them.
Jacks – Jacks is similar to knucklebones because it involves some quick skillful hand-eye coordination. Jacks involves the small playing pieces (called jacks) and a rubber ball. Jacks are scattered in the playing area and a player bounces the ball off the floor, picks up one jack, and catches the ball. That is one turn. If the player successfully picks up one jack, she can go again and try to pick up two jacks, then three, and so on. If she fails to pick up the correct number of jacks (or drops the ball) it becomes the next player’s turn.
Cat’s Cradle – Cat’s cradle games are played with a loop of string, or stretchy elastic loop, and is a 2-person game. By pinching the strings in specific places, players can create intricate designs and pass the cat’s cradle from one player to another. The objective is to keep the game going without making a mistake. This video shows some of the basic string arrangements to get started with cat’s cradle.
Fox and Geese – Fox and Geese is a board game similar to checkers. The board is uneven, however, and requires a different strategy. The goal of the game is for the more-numerous “geese” to box in the fox player, since the fox pieces cannot be eliminated, only prevented from moving. Check out this free printable to download a game board and see the possible variations.
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Mother of five living in rural Oklahoma with her husband and children, Angela is the Founder of Untrained Housewife, co-founder of the Homestead Bloggers Network and Organic Gardening expert at About.com. She is the author of Backyard Farming on an Acre (More or Less), as well as several other books, all with the common theme of helping people embrace the journey towards self-sufficiency.