Anyone who has taken a long-distance road trip with little ones understands the importance of providing entertainment. Portable DVD players, iPads, and video games weren’t available in the 1840s and ’50s. So, how did families on the emigrant trails keep their youngest members entertained?

Learn more about pioneer toys and games available to these intrepid kids on the move.

Children On The California Trail

According to the Oregon-California Trails Association, of the 250,000 emigrants who traveled west along overland trails, many of them were children. As you can imagine, youngsters on the California Trail had to help with chores. They also were subjected to the same dangers and hardships as their elders.

Fortunately, months of dusty miles from Missouri to California also meant downtime and, because kids will be kids, toys could be made out of even the simplest items.

“Pioneer children sang as they walked and walked and walked and walked.

Pioneer children sang as they walked and walked and walked and walked.

They washed at streams and worked and played.

Sundays they camped and read and prayed.

Week after week, they sang as they walked and walked and walked and walked and walked.”

— A popular Latter Day Saint children’s song, written by Elizabeth Fetzer Bates after meeting 104-year-old Ruth May Fox, who had walked the 2,000 mile California Trail on foot as a child.

What Games Did Pioneer Children Play?

Besides singing, pioneer children played a variety of games, both as they walked and camped. Some games required only a little imagination, like shadow tag, where the child who is “it” tries to step on everyone else’s shadow. In Fox and Geese, kids got creative in the snow, stamping down a wheel shape with spokes and pretending to be geese on the run from a designated fox.

Pioneer children played other games with whatever was available, a stick, a potato sack, or a thimble.

  • Drop The Handkerchief & Poor Doggie — Both are similar to tag.
  • Ducks Fly — Similar to Simon Says
  • I Have A Basket — Like the ABC game.
  • Stick Pulling
  • Corn Cob Darts
  • Fox & Geese
  • Shinney — Similar to Hockey.
  • Hunt The Thimble — Similar to Hot & Cold.
  • Jack Straws — Just like Pickup Sticks.

Did Pioneer Children Have Toys?

Just like the tools used to play pioneer games, toys were simple and often created with just what was on hand. An old rag or discarded corn husk could become a doll. A button and piece of string could quickly be made into a whirligig or “buzz saw” toy.</p>

  • Spinning Tops
  • Pecking Chickens
  • Shadow Puppets
  • Rolling The Hoop
  • Rag Or Corn Husk Dolls
  • Cup & Ball Toys
  • Jump Ropes
  • Stick Horses
  • Limberjack — Wooden Dancing Dolls
  • Climbing Bear — A Rope Climbing Toy
  • Jaw Harps
  • Whirligig Aka Buzz Saw

Pioneer Games We Still Play Today

Believe it or not, families, camping groups, scouts, and friends still enjoy many of the same activities, play items, and games as pioneer children on the trail. The materials may have changed, exchanging wood, rocks, and straw, for plastic and pre-boxed games, but kids can have just as much fun discovering or rediscovering these old favorites.

Outdoor Activities

  • Skipping, Hopscotch & Leapfrog
  • Races — Like 3 Legged Races & Sack Races
  • Tag Or “It”
  • Hide & Seek
  • Tug-Of-War
  • Ring Toss

Guessing Games

  • I Spy
  • Charades
  • Hot & Cold
  • Who Has The Button?


  • Whistles
  • Marbles Aka Ring Taw
  • Ball & Jacks
  • Cat’s Cradle
  • Yo-Yo’s

Tabletop Games

  • Cards
  • Checkers
  • Tic-Tac-Toe
  • Dominoes

Learn More About California Trail Travelers Of All Ages

Early American settlers’ lives were full of hardship and toil, but parents still found ways to entertain their kids, and kids found ways to entertain themselves on this most ultimate of cross-country trips. Stop by and see us at the California Trail Interpretive Center in Elko, Nevada, to learn more about the daily lives of emigrants of all ages on the trail.

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