Make Your Own Battledore

Duration: 5-30 minutes
Recommended Ages: 5-8 with some adult assistance, 9-12 with minimal adult supervision
Description: Turn arts-and-crafts into a chance to learn about schools in the 18th century by making a battledore!

Colonial Learning

When Betsy, Nancy, John, Thomson, and the other Mason children were young, Virginia and the other colonies did not have a system of public schools like we have today.

Everyone learned skills.  Some people learned how to tend chickens, grow crops, make clothes, or be a blacksmith.  Only some children had the opportunity to learn how to read and write.

At Gunston Hall, the Mason children had a schoolhouse all to themselves.  Their parents hired teachers for them. One teacher was a man named Mr. McPherson.  He lived in a little room upstairs in the schoolhouse. He taught the children subjects such as reading, writing, math, science, and geography.

As they got older, the boys spent time with their father learning how to do his work.  The boys also went away to live at small private schools. The older girls learned skills from their mother and from another teacher called Mrs. Newman.

Colonial children who were able to attend school did not have many special books or supplies for school.  One learning tool many used was called a battledore. You can make your own by following the directions below.

Activity: Make your own battledore

What You Need:

Use what you have on hand

Paper such as light-colored construction paper, copy paper, card stock, or thin cardboard.  Cut it to 5 x 11 inches.
Writing materials such as a pencil, colored pencils, crayons, markers, pens

1. Read all the instructions before you do anything.

2.  Turn the paper sideways, so it is in landscape orientation. Cut 3½ inches at the top, so you have a long rectangle that is 11 inches long and 5 inches high.

3.  Use your ruler to fold over an inch of the left hand side of the paper.  Then fold the rest of the paper in thirds. See the drawing to the left for more information.

4.  Now you have six big sections, or pages, plus the little section on the left hand side.

5.  Start filling the pages of your battledore.  Battledores helped children learn the alphabet.


  • Use your best handwriting to print the alphabet.  Can you write it in cursive, also?




  • Add some proverbs, wise sayings, or a prayer.




  • Make a grid of boxes.  Write a letter of the alphabet in the corner and draw a picture in the box of something that starts with that letter.

6.  Think about what else to put in your battledore.  Here are some ideas from colonial examples:


  • Write out all the vowels.




  • Make a row of numbers from 1 to 10.  Add more, if you would like.




  • Include a list of words that you think are good for beginning readers.  Do you want them to rhyme? Or should they all start with the same letter?


7.  Decide on a title.  Turn your battledore sideways, and write your title and the date on the outside of the little section.

Do you want to make your battledore look more like one from the colonial period?  In the 1700s, many people thought the letter “i” was the same as the letter “j” and that “u” was the same as “v.”  To make your battledore look colonial, don’t include “j” and “u” in your alphabet.

Show how much you know about life during the colonial period by drawing only objects that existed during that time.  What will you need to leave out? There were not any cars, televisions, or computers! What else should be missing?

More about learning in the colonial period

In colonial Virginia, the more money a family had, the better chance a child had to learn to read and write.  Very wealthy families hired teachers just for their own children. Sometimes families with lots of money sent their children to live with teachers.  These students attended tiny schools instructors had in their homes.

Kids who did not attend school learned from their parents.  If they were apprentices, they might have some lessons from the master craftsman.  Some people during the colonial period learned how to read but not how to write. Historians estimate that most white men at least knew how to sign their names.  About half of white women seem to have been able to write their names. During the colonial period, it was not against the law to teach people who were enslaved in Virginia to read and write.  Still, historians believe that fewer than ten percent of enslaved Virginians knew how to read and write.

Not everyone could afford printed learning materials.  They might have a slate they could use to practice writing by copying what someone else wrote or what they saw in a book or newspaper.

Some Virginians who were really poor, including some people who were enslaved, practiced writing by using a stick to mark in the dirt.

“The Royal Battledore: Being the first Introductory Part of the Circle of the Sciences, &tc.,” by John, c. 1760, as collected in Landmarks in the Early History and Development of Books for Children by Charles Welsh, 1909. Courtesy of Special Collections and Rare Books, University of Missouri Libraries