A close-up detail from "Children’s Games" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, illustrating children playing on a fence.

Playtime in Tudor England: Toys, Games, and Childhood


Content warning: Animal Cruelty and Violence

In describing childhood, following infancy, this is what Shakespeare wrote:

‘…And then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel,/And shining morning face, creeping like snail/Unwillingly to school.’
‘All the world’s a stage’ (As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7)

I think most of us can relate to this, dragging yourself to school, zero enthusiasm, having abandonned whichever game or toy we were playing with until then. Do you remember what your favourite toys were growing up? Or the games you loved playing with your friends? I’m sure most of us do. But have you ever wondered what childhood was like in Tudor England, before psychologists on Instagram were reminding us of how crucial playing is for a child’s development? Imagine a time when toys were crafted from everyday objects, games involved surprising amounts of animal cruelty, and play was both a joy and a subject of stern discipline by the Church and schools. It also followed a calendar deeply connected to the seasons and religious holidays. Some things would have been so familiar to us, like the boy creeping like a snail to school, and other things seem just unimaginable. So, join me as we uncover the intriguing and often unexpected world of Tudor childhood, from their imaginative toys to their harsh realities.

Children and Toys

In the passage I quoted earlier, Shakespeare was describing how life was composed of a series of phases, seven, to be precise. Infancy was a time of growth, childhood was for play, and youth was marked by lust. He was not alone in this; Thomas More, wrote ‘I am called Childhood, in play is all my mind’ in the 1490s, mentioning several games. So, there was an expectation that play was important for children. This was why toys would be made or bought for children by adults, whether a parent, friend, or a professional toymaker. But of course, just like today, children could make their own toys. I mean, if you’re a parent, I’m sure you’ve had the experience of giving a gift to your child only for them to prefer playing with the box, turning it into a spaceship or, in my child’s case, a giant alien’s head, which she generously gave me as a gift. So, just like today, popular toys would have included dolls, figurines, and miniature versions of utensils, allowing children to imitate the world of adults. We know that small models of adult objects were widely manufactured in Tudor England by pewterers and ‘whitesmiths’, who worked with soft metals. These toys were commonly made of pewter, a mixture of lead and tin, and it’s probably fair to assume that these objects were often side projects to complement the main business of producing utensils for adults. In London, these items seem to have been popular and have been found in the mud of the River Thames, as well as in Yorkshire. They could be figurines, boats, or miniature kitchen objects such as cups, ewers, and dishes, like miniature kitchen sets; because even in the 16th century, children loved to pretend-cook, apparently! And so, toy kitchens, mud kitchens an imaginative play were already a thing.

And, although the word ‘toy’ only became common during the 16th century, meaning any kind of frivolity, what we call toys today have arguably existed for as long as humans have. Children are creative, and so they turned universally accessible things that cost nothing or very little into toys – think of stones and pebbles, animal bones, nuts and conkers, cherry stones, discarded fabric and metal objects. Again, this is still true today and, even though in Tudor times there wouldn’t have been any talk of being environmentally sustainable or reusing and recycling, a scarcity of resources, especially for children who were not wealthy, meant that they could be creative when making their own toys. The same goes for adults, too. For instance, shepherds made musical objects like pipes from hollow stalks or straw, with which to entertain themselves. So did children. In fact, in 1633 a herbalist even wrote down how dangerous this could be, with children accidentally poisoning themselves using plants like hemlock to do so. A definite ‘do not try this at home’ moment here!

But there were more sophisticated toys, too. Babies often received rattles, which could be made of metal, and sometimes even imported. Shakespeare mentioned rattles in The Merry Wives of Windsor, when Mistress Page says ‘…my little son and three or four more of their growth we’ll dress like urchins, ouphes and fairies, green and white, with rounds of waxen tapers on their heads, and rattles in their hands” (IV.iv.51). And you can see a fancy rattle in Portrait of a Child with a Rattle, attributed to Paul van Somer I. For older children, dolls were very common. Again, the word doll itself didn’t exist yet; it’s thought to be a diminutive of the name Dorothy, and I couldn’t find a reference to it before the 17th century. They would have been called ‘poppet’ or ‘puppet’, ‘popyn’, or simply ‘babe’ or ‘baby’. From a gender perspective – which I’m always interested in, these dolls were not always female. Nor were they exclusive to girls. Boys played with them, too. These toys could easily have been made at home, using scraps of fabric, such as rags sewn together. Again, Shakespeare wrote of a ‘babe of clouts’ in “King John” (III.iii.58). By the reign of Elizabeth I, fancy well-dressed dolls were being produced commercially. Wooden dolls were imported from German or Dutch areas and earthenware cones or tubes could form the body of the doll on which clothes could be added. Wax dolls were likely popular too. Plus, wealthier children could have dollhouses and play castles. Toys like dolls could all be sold at shops, at fairs, or by itinerant peddlers who carried them as part of their stock as they travelled through the countryside. Some of these dolls were sold for a few pence, so they were fairly accessible to buy. 

There were many other toys, of course. A very popular one seems to have been small windmills to wave around. John Florio described them in 1598 as “a piece of card or paper cut like a cross and with a pin put in at the end of a stick which, running against the wind, doth twirl about.” Hobby-horses were also, of course, popular in a society where horses were central to everyday life. These could be anything from a simple stick to a polished stick with a modelled horse head at the end. Spinning tops came in all kinds and sizes, from small ones spun with fingers to larger ones whipped to revolve. An English to Latin dictionary, “Promptorium Parvulorum,” compiled for schools in 1440 and printed in England as late as 1528, lists four kinds of tops for children’s play: top, prill, spilcock, and whirligig. I love that word, it really gives the idea of a fun toy, doesn’t it?!

Playing Games

Just as with the toys mentioned above, there was such a richness and variety in terms of games at the time that there’s no way to mention them all – just take a look at this table I made of the ones I found in Tudor and Stuart sources while researching this text! And no, I don’t pretend to know the rules to all of them.

Blind man’s buffLeap-frogScourge-topShove-board
Blow-pointMorell (nine-men’s morris)Span-counterHandy-dandy
Barley breakHot cocklesKing-by-your-leaveStool-ball
FootballNine holesTrap-outChess

Some of them were also adult games. Many remained popular into the 19th century, and they were catalogued by the incredible folklorist Alice Bertha, Lady Gomme. Games were divided into those of skill (whether manual dexterity or intelligence) and those requiring physical strength. In the first category, there were actions using parts of the body, such as whistling, bird calls, popping noises, or finger tricks. “Handy-dandy”, for instance, involved moving small objects from hand to hand while someone guessed where they were. “Cherry-pits” or “cherry-stones” was more interactive and competitive. Children would throw cherry stones at a hole to score, and they would usually lose the stones that missed the target. Similarly, using nuts or conkers, children created miniature versions of bowls. The same could be done with marbles, which were often called ‘stones’, too.

Games requiring intellectual ability included ‘morells’ or ‘merels’, played with stones on a grid of three concentric squares, or what people today call shove ha’penny, and that some people still play in pubs. An older version of this game was mentioned by Shakespeare, who seems to be coming up more often than I would have thought in this text, when the character Falstaff orders Bardolph to throw Pistol downstairs ‘like a shove-groat shilling’ (Henry IV Part 2), since in this game the players would shove five coins onto the board when it was their turn. Using this image is interesting because we know that Shakespeare was writing to a broad audience at the time, and so it’s reasonable to assume that most people would have understood this reference, which indicates that this must have been a fairly common game. More sophisticated games like backgammon and chess required special boards and sometimes cards. During school breaks, children might play “trump,” a popular and easy game, which is why it was described as being played by those of around eight-years-old. As for more physical games using strength, they were mainly for teenagers and adults but, as always, were copied and adapted by children, too, like I mentioned with bowls using nuts before. Many of these were games of throwing. “Loggats”, as the name indicates, involved throwing logs at a target, probably a less intense version of what people still do at the Highland Games, “quoits” used discs made of metal or stone, and “mumble-the-peg” was a knife-throwing game which I’m sure was just as dangerous as it sounds!

Games of action and skill were played by adult men, boys, youths, and sometimes even girls and women (the shock!). Ball games, for instance, involved using hands, feet, bats, or a combination of them and “stool-ball” involved defending a kind of wicket stool with a bat while another player tried to topple it, so, similar to cricket or baseball today. It was considered harmless enough for girls and women to play by themselves or with boys. Tennis was widespread and particularly popular at court, as a game where players hit a ball against a wall or the ground or over a net, using their hands or a racket. And although most ball games were played primarily by boys, girls sometimes joined in. As I’m sure you noticed, though, the primary sources used for this text focus mainly on boys, about whom there are more documents, such as exercise books used at grammar schools. Because people worried more about their education, their play was discussed at length, and so we know more about it. As it’s often the case, with girls and women we are largely left to imagine and fill in the gaps using educated guesses. For boys and men, though, it’s important to keep in mind how much overlap there was between playing games that required strength and developping athletic and military skills which could be useful, especially for those of wealthy families. 

Young men studying in Oxford could take part in running competitions and the widely successful Book of the Courtier, by Baldassare Castiglione, which had been translated into English in 1561, recommended exercise for the ideal courtier, in the form of wrestling, running, jumping, and throwing weights as military training. The Elizabethan historian John Stow similarly described young people in London ‘leaping, dancing, shooting, wrestling, casting of the stone or ball’ during the holidays. Wrestling was particularly popular. Swimming was recommended by educational writers but was likely more common among those whose work involved boats, such as sailors and their children. Again, the distinction between playing and what we would today call exercising is a faint one here. Just think of running games, in which players crossed the ground from refuge to refuge while avoiding being caught. ‘Running-and-chasing’ games like this have a long history and during the Tudor times, were called “base” or “prisoners’ base.” These games involved an area that was like a prison, and were sometimes called ‘barley-break’, with barley meaning a place where children couldn’t be caught. Coming back to Shakespeare, my unlikely source of examples of playing for this text, he wrote in Cymbeline that boys “more like to run the country base” than to commit to killing in battle. There would be many more examples of games played in this period, but I hope that I was able to give you an idea of just how diverse and vibrant was the world of childhood play in this period; clearly, Tudor kids were fitter than I’ll ever be! But let’s talk now about what adults thought, and how they sought to restrict all this fun.

Restrictions on Playing

I started this text with Shakespeare and Thomas More describing play as the main characteristic of childhood. Still, most adults would have believed there should be certain limits to this. Children were seen as clay that needed to be molded, in a way; otherwise, they might grow up to become idle, beggars or even criminals. Children needed to learn essential skills for adult life, so, as they grew older, and especially when they began going to school or entered the world of work, their playing was reduced. These were economic motivations, but religious and moral beliefs were also crucial in determining what was acceptable. For teenagers, games involving both boys and girls could be considered improper or even dangerous. Gambling and violent sports were condemned for promoting idleness, reckless behavious, injuries, social unrest and unchristian values. For instance playing dice was very popular but it was linked to immorality, as you can tell from this passage of Chaucer’s ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’, meant to evocate debauchery:

‘In Flanders, once, there was a company/Of young companions practised to folly,/Riot and gambling, brothels and taverns;/And, to the music of harps, lutes, gitterns,/They danced and played at dice both day and night.’

Card playing was criticised too, mainly because of the gambling aspect that often came with it. Still, some writers like Sir Thomas Elyot believed that games like these, and even more so chess and backgammon, helped develop intelligence, and so would recommend them in moderation. So, while play was seen as a part of childhood and youthful enjoyment, and games could have their advantages in building physical and mental strength, play was often met with criticism too, and attempts at restricting it were common.

Besides parents and family, as children grew, these restrictions could come from their employers, if they were apprentices, for instance. But also, if they went to school, from school masters. By then, many children were going to school, especially boys. Those who attended school studied for long hours and followed strict lessons and so, they would play on their before and after classes, on their way to and from school, and during their midday break.  Of course, teachers realised how interested children were in playing and so they often made it a subject of discussion in class. For instance, in grammar schools boys could translate sentences from Latin into English describing games and hunting, which presumably could have made the lesson lighter and more fun, I guess. In the Vulgaria, a Latin exercise book by William Horman, who taught at Eton and Winchester, the exercises mentioned things like chess, dice, and playing tennis.

The Church also worried about excessive time spent playing, but not so much where children were concerned; their focus tended to be on teenagers. Up until the Reformation, there wasn’t an obligation for children to attend church, although it was encouraged. After puberty, though, similar expectations applied to teenagers as to adults; they were required to behave and to attend church, especially on Sundays. Afterwards, they were expected not to indulge in games or play – and that didn’t usually apply to children. After the Reformation, Puritans took this even further, and had a marked hostility towards games, as they could distract youngsters from worshipping God. The writer Philip Stubbes criticised games in general in his fabulously-named Anatomy of the Abuses in England, going beyond the issue of gambling.

Regulations on children’s playing from adults also came through the Crown itself. There was a concern about excessively indulging in play and people becoming degenerates, especially among the populace. So, in 1495, for example, apprentices and servants were forbidden to gamble using money; doing so risked being fined. If they played a game, the stakes should be either foodstuffs or drinks. Some historians have linked the concerns over boys and youths being distracted with games and playing in general with neglecting practising shooting with the longbow. I’ll explain. Arguably, it was in the crown’s interest to keep the male population focused on practising archery using longbows, and so this was highly encouraged. Longbows had a long and symbolic history in England; they were part of the national memory and myths hailing from the medieval period. Just think of how popular the Robin Hood ballads were at the time! And this was still very much a world in which the men needed to be ready to fight if a war broke out. So, archery may have seemed like an ideal pastime; it was good exercise and it trained the male population in important military skills. So, in a 1477 Statute of the Realm, it was said that recreational games were endangering the crucial practice of archery and by 1512 an Act of Parliament required men of up to 60 to own a bow and arrow and to practise, with fathers being expected to teach their sons from the time they were 7. These regulations were probably not so much about restricting games in themselves as they were about promoting archery even though, in practice, they must have been incredibly difficult to enforce. In any case though, children and teenagers were portrayed as being happy to hunt and tease animals, especially birds, in what we would today doubtlessly see as cruel games.

Violence and Play

Cruelty and violence in play, especially towards animals, is an aspect of Tudor childhood that can be hard to understand today. It’s always a challenge to look to the past without our modern values and, by our 21st-century standards, the world of play in the Tudor period involved a lot of at best insensitivity towards animals and, at worst, extreme cruelty. In Thomas More’s description of childhood, which I already mentioned, he writes: ‘I am called Childhood, in play is all my mind’, but then he continues ‘To cast a quoit [a ring aimed at a target], a cock-stele, and a ball.’ The second game he mentions, although common at the time, is now something that most of us, hopefully, would consider horrific. Cock-steele is a throwing stick. Children would basically bury a cockerel up to the middle of its body and throw sticks at it, eventually killing it. Cruelty towards birds seems to have been particularly common, and there are many examples in primary sources, especially from the theatre world.

In the 1522 play ‘The Worlde and the Chylde, the character Wanton boasts of cruel acts such as gelding snails and catching cows by their tails, plus robbing sparrow’s nests, while in John Heywood’s ‘The Play of the Weather’, a character also delights in catching birds. Similarly, in William Wager’s play, the boy Moros says, ‘I will bring you a pretty bird’s nest’. And the artist Pieter Brueghel the Younger depicted this in Robbing the Bird’s Nest. Besides nest robbing for fun, there were other forms of violence towards adult birds. Cock-fighting was extremely popular among both adults and children. On Shrove Tuesday, it was traditional for boys to bring birds to school for fights, with the schoolmaster often keeping the dead birds. And, despite occasional bans, such practices continued. Plus, bear-baiting was hugely profitable and it was also attended by children, especially near theatres on the South Bank. You could argue that these practices reflect the social context of the time, that people relied heavily on agriculture and competed with birds for resources and the benefits of human labour. Birds were, of course, also a source of food. But that argument wouldn’t work for bear-baiting or pulling a cow’s tail, would it?

Plus, people were often cruel to each other; for instance, beggars were punished with whipping. Children teased each other, sometimes in cruel ways. The boy Wanton, who represented childhood in the play ‘The Worlde and the Chylde’, enjoyed tormenting other children. And, in William Wager’s 1569 ‘The Longer Thou Livest, the More Fool Thou Art’, yet another foolish boy was depicted with a ball and a list of all the mischief he would get up to, including tormenting animals and other children. But violence was also sometimes part of the way games were supposed to be played among youngsters. ‘King-by-your-leave’ and ‘blind-man’s-buff’ both involved a player being blindfolded and sometimes hit or teased. ‘Hot cockles’ involved a person knelt with their eyes covered who tried to guess which player struck them in the back, which sounds to me like the worst game ever. People writing about how the body should be educated alongside the mind at school recommended many physical activities, including wrestling and ball games. The headmaster of a London school, Richard Mulcaster, wrote so in his 1581 book ‘Positions’, although he criticised the violence involved in football at the time. Football games played by both boys and teenagers could be quite agressive – just think of its cousin, calcio storico, the ancient kind of football still played in Florence today and which resembles a fight more than what we call football today. English versions were even called ‘camp-ball’, from the verb ‘camp’, meaning to fight. The issue with games like this, besides injuries, was arguably that they had the potential for subverting the social order through violence. The Puritan writer I mentioned before, Philip Stubbes, wrote in 1583 how football was more of ‘a bloody and murthering practice than a fellowy sport of pastime’. Still, while according to him it would lead to hatred, it was a common Sunday recreation, especially for older boys and teenagers. So, who knows, maybe in such an environment, sympathy for other creatures like the poor birds was not as instinctive as we might expect. But it’s hard to sympathise with these attitudes towards animals, or at least, I think so.


Life in the Tudor period followed a seasonal and religious calendar – whether we’re talking about agriculture or children playing. The 12 days of Christmas were known as days of fun and games, Shrove Tuesday was famous for its cockfights and football matches. The period of Lent came with ‘Jack-a-Lent’ (not Jack-o’-lantern!). This was a stuffed puppet of sorts against which children would use as a target against which to to throw stones. Outdoor games were often mentioned in March, when the often-inclement British weather would start to relent and children could play outside again. Spring and summer were, of course, the primetime for outdoor play. By the autumn and winter, the many saint days, such as St Clement’s, St Katherine’s and St Nicholas’ (at least until the Reformation) were an occasion for children to dress up and go around to people’s houses asking for food and drink. Also, in November, when pigs were slaughtered, that meant an ample supply of bladders with which to make balls for ball games. A rather disgusting thought, and definitely not fun for the pigs, but children were pleased.

In this text, I tried telling you the story of an often-neglected aspect of everyday life, the world of children playing and having fun. I have been limited by the sources to focus more on boys than on girls, as it often happens, unfortunately. School masters, educators, and moralists worried about what an education should look like and in describing what not to do would often write about playing with toys and games. Still, we are left with many questions, especially about all the games that I mentioned. How were they played, and by whom? There are few primary sources from children themselves, although they could write about their experiences write once they grew up. Material culture and archaeology can help here. For instance, in the 1960s, an excavation of a former 16th-century school revealed small items fallen through the boards. These were probably rewards or treasures won in games, especially metal objects like pins, beads, and discs. And, because most children wouldn’t have had access to money, these objects could act as currency among them. Pins were particularly common. In the 17th-century tale ‘Tom Thumb’, for instance, children played ‘for pins and points, and cherry stones’, attesting to the habit of keeping treasures.

Still, it’s not every day that we are lucky enough to find clues like this, and so we tend to depend on what adults wrote about children, and especially how they showed up in popular ballads and plays – it’s no coincidence that Shakespeare has featured throughout this text! We know that girls would pretend to be mothers and queens, just like boys would pretend to be kings and knights – just like today. Children use play to make sense of the world around them and to understand their role in it, often by copying what adults do. So their games tend to offer us a mirror to our own society, whether in the Tudor period or today. Understanding childhood in Tudor England gives us a glimpse into the past, revealing a world where play was both a joy and a matter of serious concern. From the imaginative use of simple toys to the harsh realities of their games, Tudor children experienced a rich and varied childhood. It’s easy to relate to children keeping treasured toys and placing bets on ball games. It is also easy to remember our own childhood and the way that our playing was often limited and regulated by adults, even though now we have a completely different understanding of the role playing has in children’s development and just how vital it is. It’s not so easy, hopefully, to sympathise with animal cruelty.

Thank you for joining me on this journey through Tudor childhood. Also, if you want to learn more, I highly recommend you check out this book, Tudor Children, by Nicholas Orme; there’s everything from children in the domestic world, learning at schools, going to Church and, of course, playing. I also have a Patreon, and I would be very grateful if you would consider joining our community and supporting my work and helping me bring you these history texts and videos. Thank you and see you next time!


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Anon., Tom Thumbe, His Life and Death (1630).

Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier (1561).

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (2007).

John Florio, A Worlde of Wordes (1598).

John Gerard, The Herball (1633).

John Heywood, A Play of the Weather (1533). 

Thomas More, Works (1557).

William Shakespeare, The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. by S. Wells, G. Taylor, J. Jowett, and W. Montgomery (2005).

Phillip Stubbes, Anatomy of the Abuses in England (1583).

William Wager, The Longer Thou Livest, The More Fool Thou Art (1569).

The Worlde and the Chylde (1521).

Further Reading

Ilana Krausman Ben-Amos, Adolescence and Youth in Early Modern England (1994).

Anthony Fletcher, Growing Up in England: The Experience of Childhood (2008).

Hazel Forsyth and Geoff Egan, Toys, Trifles and Trinkets: Base Metal Miniatures from London, 1200-1800 (2005).

Alice Bertha Gomme, The Traditional Games of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1894-8).

Paul Griffiths, Youth and Authority: Formative Experiences in England, 1560-1640 (1996).

Colin Heywood, A History of Childhood (2018).

Iona and Peter Opie, Children’s Games with Things (1997).

Nicholas Orme, Tudor Children (2023).

Keith Thomas, Rule and Misrule in in the Schools of Early Modern England (1976).