GUILFORD — All work and no play made Constance and Theopolis dull Puritans. Or, did it? For centuries, the Puritans, the first settlers of New England, have been misunderstood and much maligned. So much so, that the very word Puritan has taken on a negative connotation. So before we can answer the question about work and play, we need to understand who these people really were.

Historians continue to debate Puritanism and its influence religiously, politically, socially and economically. Even the Puritans themselves disagreed on how to ‘purify’ or reform the Church of England and how to live and worship here in the colonies. So, like many historical topics, it’s not an easy answer.

The Puritan movement began in 16th century England, when Protestant reformers became dissatisfied with the lack of change taking place in the Church of England. King Henry VIII had separated from the Roman Catholic Church in the 1530s when the Pope would not allow him to divorce. Instead of introducing revisions to the new English church, Henry and later monarchs kept most of the doctrine and organization the same. This was viewed by many as ‘too Catholic.’

Despite some successes politically, Puritans grew increasingly frustrated with their situation. In the early 1600s, Puritans began leaving England to settle New England. By 1641, there were more than 21,000 in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. The migration was reduced to a trickle during the 1640s because the Puritans back home, after making alliances with other dissident groups, forced King Charles I into the first English Civil War. They were successful and for about a decade the government and church in England were Puritan. King Charles II would later force another civil war and the monarchy was restored, forcing the Puritans to once again flee or worship secretly. Interestingly, the Puritan ban on theater during their control of England would later contribute greatly to the later claim they were rigid and against all merriment.

Back in New England, the Puritans would control church and state for over a century. Their insistence on public education is a legacy that most people forget. Their physical separation from England and the framework for government and commerce they created are the roots of the American Revolution. Early in the 18th century, the Puritans were still trying to figure out a definitive and unified form of religion. Eventually, the movement fragmented with some returning to the Anglican or Church of England, some joining other Protestant denominations, and the largest segment becoming the Congregational Church.

So, why are they viewed as being so strict and so anti-fun? A big misconception is that only Puritans were strict. Society and religion at that time were strict. It didn’t matter what your religious beliefs were, everyone had their place. In the age of monarchies, everything was regulated and everyone knew what the consequences were for non-compliance. For a majority of the population, there was no leisure time. People didn’t “go” to work, their very survival was work. Failure to produce crops or goods meant starvation and often debtor’s prison. The Puritans carried these concepts to the New World.

The other aspect to consider is how children and child life was viewed. Simply put, there was no time to be a kid. In a time when just surviving childhood was a challenge, it is no surprise that adults were often detached from their offspring. As soon as a child was old enough to contribute to the family they were put to work.

As they approached their teen years, they were segregated into training for their lives as adults. Boys learned to farm or were apprenticed out to learn a trade. Girls would learn the domestic arts for their future role as wives and mothers. Social class determined what type of education, if any, a child would receive.

While Puritan adults, like most adults of the time, were likely to be strict due to religious and social norms, Puritan children seem to begin to have time and the approval to be kids. Of course, this would only be allowed after fulfilling their duties for the day and certainly not on the Sabbath. The Puritan view of life, their belief in good works, and an emerging belief that childhood was a distinct period of a person’s life, supports this theory. So, the Puritans were not just religious reformers but, to an extent, social innovators.

Were Constance and Theopolis dull Puritan children? There’s a good chance that they weren’t necessarily all work and no play. A large part of this is likely due to the Puritan movement itself and the social changes that were leading adults to consider childhood and children’s activities distinctive.

Enjoy old time toys and games at Puritans at Play, a free program that is part of Connecticut Open House Day, on Saturday, June 9 from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., at the Henry Whitfield State Museum, 248 Old Whitfield St. Guilford.. 203-453-2457, whitfieldmuseum@ct.gov, www.cultureandtourism.org, www.facebook.com/henrywhitfieldstatemuseum. Admission is free that day.

The museum will have a variety of games and activities for children (and the young at heart) to try, including bubble wands, rolling hoops, knicker boxes, pick-up sticks, cup-and-ball toys, jacks, marbles, tops, and draughts (checkers).