Colonial Education


The primary education of upper class children in colonial days included reading, writing, simple math, poems, and prayers. Paper and textbooks were scarce so boys and girls recited their lessons until they memorized them. The three most commonly used books were the Bible, a primer, and a hornbook. As children grew older their schooling prepared them for their eventual roles in plantation life. While boys studied more advanced, academic subjects, the girls learned to assume the duties of the mistress of a plantation.  Education was provided for white students only and was privately taught.

The sons of a planter typically would be taught the basics at home. The boys’ school day started around 7 a.m. in the school room with their male tutor. They had several breaks during the day. Around 9 a.m. they had breakfast, and dinner was served from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. The boys studied higher math, Greek, Latin, science, celestial navigation (navigating ships by the stars), geography, history, fencing, social etiquette, and plantation management. At this point, the sons of wealthy planters often were sent to boarding schools in England for a higher education. They sometimes stayed over in England to study law or medicine. Otherwise, they would return home to help their fathers run the plantation.

The school days for girls were somewhat different. Girls learned enough reading, writing, and arithmetic to read their Bibles and be able to record household expenses. They were taught by a governess, who was usually from England and somewhat educated. They studied art, music, French, social etiquette, needlework, spinning, weaving, cooking, and nursing. The girls did not have the opportunity to go to England for higher education because this was not considered important for them.

Source: Stratford Hall | Teacher Resources: Colonial Education

Children of poor families did not receive education in literacy and religious as those of the upper class did.  Instead, they took on apprenticeships which lasted from 3 - 10 years.  These were meant to give them a skill that would help them to survive live in the colonies.



Deluder Satan Act

bulletPuritans - towns of 50 or more must hire a man to teach reading
bulletTown schools / moving schools
bulletReading scripture can save the soul.


A poorly lit Latin Grammar School room


The middle colonies were characterized by schools which were sponsored by many different kinds of religious denominations, rather than just the Puritan Church (as it was in New England). There was more interest, in the middle colonies, in practical education. William Penn and Benjamin Franklin stressed such education in Pennsylvania.


Learn More About:

Colonial Education


The Education of Children  by Cotton Mather



A Colonial girl holds a Hornbook.



The New England Primer

A page from a Hornbook.




The Dame School was what we might call today an informal day care center. It involved parents leaving their children with a neighborhood lady (a "dame," as such ladies were then called) who would teach the children their letters (abc's), numbers, and prayers while she went about her daily household tasks.



In the latter part of the Colonial years, the New England Colonies established school districts for the purpose of expanding education to more people.  The schools taught reading, writing, and arithmetic.  

bulletMinimal female participation
bulletNo minority participation
bulletCrude, one-room buildings, students brought wood for the fire, 20-30 multiage students
bulletNew England Primer
bulletRigid discipline



Visit some Colonial Schoolhouses

Old Schoolhouse, Mt. Holly, NJ

Keeney Schoolhouse in Manchester, Connecticut

Visit some Dame Schools

Dame Howell's School

Salem Dame School

Meet the People behind Colonial Education

Cotton Mather

Anthony Benezet

Benjamin Franklin


Back to Introduction

To Early National Education


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