During the long nights of winter, Mrs. Sharp's family retires after supper to the front parlor for what Victorian families called "cozy home circle evenings."
"What's so old-fashioned about this tradition, Mrs. Sharp?" you ask. "We spend every evening in the living room together."
Yes, dear readers, but with the television off? Perhaps you will object when I say that the television must be turned off if you are to have enriching home circle evenings. Please do not panic and and run away. Mrs. Sharp will hold your hand through the withdrawal stage. She'll even suggest what your family could be doing together instead of watching television.
It is called having fun.
One of our delightful after-dinner pastimes was a family study project, such as a nature study. Mother Nature is a kind and loving parent who gives many pleasures to those who observe her wonders and think about them. We are never too young or too old to delight in unraveling her mysteries.
Starting Nature Projects
Sharing a nature project can be a wonderful family adventure. We not only enjoy our own discoveries but share in the pleasure and enthusiasm of others. The following resource books can get your family happily started on nature and science projects together this winter:
"The Science Book" by Sara Stein ($7.95, Workman Publishing) begins at home and stays there with biology, botany experiments and amusing physics projects using ingredients that are familiar and handy. It is aimed at elementary school students.
"Snips and Snails and Walnut Whales" by Phillis Fiarotta ($8.95, Workman Publishing) describes more than 150 simple but fascinating nature crafts (preschoolers and up). These projects encourage children to "see how nature provides the artist or craftsman with raw materials as well as the sense of form, color, and harmony from which all beautiful or useful things are born." Living in this time of increased awareness of the need for conservation, this imaginative book helps teach even young children to value recycling resources.
Other winter evenings, the family might turn our attention to board games, a Victorian family staple ever since the first American board game appeared in 1843. The Mansion of Happiness taught our young ones what was good and what was naughty behavior. Good children were grateful and honest, thereby reaping good rewards. So in the game, players that land on the squares marked Gratitude and Honesty move more quickly to their goal: The Mansion of Happiness. Bad children, on the other hand, who were cruel and boastful, quickly learned that naughtiness doesn't pay; any player landing on the squares Cruelty and Audacity loses a turn.
Toys for Victorian children were tools intended to "amuse and instruct the rising generation." Board games were recommended as healthful home circle pursuits because they imparted gentle moral instruction and often religious training. Some popular Victorian board games included The Seige of the Stronghold of Satan by the Christian Army, and Pilgrim's Progress.
But toys have always accurately reflected a society's preoccupations. During the Civil War, board games took on a military flavor, such as Union Games. And in the 1880s with the rise of the affluent middle class, a very popular game known as The Monopolist was concerned with banking and commerce, preceding Monopoly by more than half a century.
Where to Find Board Games
There are many board games in toy stores today. Old-fashioned petticoat that she is, Mrs. Sharp says bring back The Mansion of Happiness as a favorite family entertainment! Its lessons are still worthwhile. A reproduction of the game board with complete instructions are included in "The Metropolitan Museum of Art Activity Book" ($6.95, Random House, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, available through the mail order service of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. For more information or a catalogue, call (718) 326-7050). This book also contains a fascinating assortment of crafts, models, toys, puzzles and mazes inspired by treasures in the museum's collection for many, happy fun-filled winter evening hours.
Some of the best board games are available from the Animal Town Game Company, P.O. Box 2002, Santa Barbara, Calif. 93120, (805) 962-8368. Write for their free, informative catalogue of family pastimes.
Mrs. Sharp is keen on board games as a way to draw families closer. Playing together provides some of our fondest memories. The dynamics of the games make them fascinating windows for viewing the people who make up our family. Amid the laughter and good cheer, the oldsters gain valuable insights into their youngsters' personalities; children gain a glimmer of their parents' limitations and everyone helps create memories of home as a place where some of our best hours are spent.