Toys—Past and Present
PHILIP* and his young playmates happily observe how the ball they made by winding pieces of string together bounces. They begin to kick it in an animated game of soccer. Mike is amazed at how his little car responds to the orders of the remote control he holds in his hand. He is able to make it travel forward and backward with ease. At home, Andrea and her little friends dress their dolls in clothing and shoes, all the while talking about how they will dress when they grow up.
What do these children have in common? Toys that they can play with for hours. Sometimes a toy—such as a favorite stuffed bear—becomes a child’s inseparable companion from infancy. It may even earn a place in the family photo album. What is the story behind toys? Why are they so important to children?
The Origin of Toys
Says one encyclopedia: “A toy is often an instrument used in a game. Toys, playthings, and games survive from the most remote past and from a great variety of cultures. They vary from the simplest to the most complex, from the natural stick selected by a child and imagined to be a hobbyhorse to sophisticated and complex mechanical devices.” So any object that can be used for entertainment and play can become a toy. And since by nature humans seek diversion, it is very probable that toys are nearly as ancient as mankind.
For example, dolls—or at least parts of them—have been discovered in lands such as ancient Babylonia and Egypt. Dolls may well be the most ancient of toys. The ball is another ancient toy. Although there is no way of knowing when the first ball was used, stone pins at which a stone ball was rolled in a type of bowling game have been found in the ancient tomb of an Egyptian child.
Yo-yos made of stone existed more than three thousand years ago in Greece, and evidence suggests that they may have been used in ancient China. Puppets and geometric shapes of ivory made to fit together were the toys of Roman children. Greek and Roman boys also played with miniature carts, which shows that transportation toys have been popular down through the years. One museum exhibits a clay animal figure on wheels, which may be a toy from an early Mexican culture. Interestingly, no other wheels have been discovered in connection with this culture. In medieval times, oval or round balls were made of inflated animal bladders. Much like modern footballs, these were kicked or carried toward a goal.
Later, in 18th-century England, puzzles were created for educational purposes, and they became very popular during the beginning of the 20th century. Then, too, crayons started to gain popularity. In the United States alone, a single company has produced more than one hundred billion crayons. As you can see, some of our modern toys had their beginnings in the distant past, and they have played an important role in people’s lives.
Why Play and Have Toys?
“Play is a natural activity for every young child. Play provides many opportunities for children to learn and grow—physically, mentally and socially. If play is the child’s work then toys are the child’s tools, and appropriate toys can help children do their work well.” This is how a governmental guide for selecting suitable playthings described the importance of toys.
Of course, the main reason why toys are so popular is that they are fun to play with. Still, their contribution to a child’s development is noteworthy. Think of the following examples: When a child pushes a toy cart, he strengthens his motor skills. When he skips rope, he improves his coordination. When he stands on one foot to kick a ball or when he rides a bicycle, he learns balance. And when he builds with blocks or paints pictures, he learns to control his movements in a precise way.
What about the child’s intellect? Language skills are developed when a child’s play includes singing and rhyming, perhaps doing so while jumping rope or playing a game of tag. When a child builds a block structure, follows the directions to a game, matches the pieces in a puzzle, acts out stories, or plays with dress-up clothes, his thinking and creative abilities are also stimulated. The same happens when he plays musical instruments or works with art and craft materials.
No less important is the way that play helps children acquire social skills—how to interact with others—as when they team up to play ball games. Says Dr. Bruce Duncan Perry: “The child gains an understanding about those around him and may become more empathic and less egocentric. When playing with peers, children learn a system of social rules, including ways to control themselves and tolerate their frustrations in a social setting.”
Children also use toys to imitate what they see adults doing. The Greek philosopher Aristotle said: “To imitate is instinctive in man from his infancy.” Yes, many of the activities of daily life are imitated and thus learned in children’s games. We can easily picture a little girl rocking her doll to sleep, just as she may do much later with a real baby. Or perhaps she may prepare make-believe dishes for a meal with her little friends. Similarly, boys move their “automobiles” around, even reproducing the sound of the motor, practicing for real driving. However, there are factors that should be taken into account when selecting toys for your children. Why?
Being Selective About Toys
“Toys now promote the vision of a violent, lawless society,” says The Daily Telegraph of London. Although this statement does not apply to all toys, it is ever more common to observe fewer classic toys and more “deformed, muscular figures . . . with an aggressive appearance,” according to an article in the Mexican newspaper La Jornada. This article quotes Patricia Ehrlich, a teacher and researcher at the Xochimilco Autonomous University, as stating that many of the toys on the market promote an ideology of domination in which force, aggression, power, submission, and fear are favored.
The National Association of School Psychologists in the United States affirms that being exposed to toys that promote violence “can have a negative impact on children’s learning and development and can lead to harmful consequences.” Studies suggest that violent video and computer games can give rise to aggressive behavior and lead to delinquency. Thus, every adult who is responsible for a child should give thoughtful consideration to choosing suitable toys.—See the box on page 26.
With the help of modern technological developments, toys are now available in great variety and with sophisticated features. But these may be beyond the family budget, children may quickly get bored with them, or they may simply not be good for the children. Leanne, a single mother of five in Australia, comments: “My older boys are influenced by advertising and often ask for expensive computer games. However, they seem to have more hours of fun and exercise from playing in the backyard with an inexpensive bat and a rubber ball. I find the simple toys are the most durable and provide my children with the most scope to use their imaginations.”
Why Not Make Your Own Toys?
If you are a child and cannot afford the latest toys, you can still be happy by putting your creativity and imagination to work. In many parts of the world, children just like you are making their own toys.
Look at the pictures on these pages. Don’t the children seem to be having fun? Assembling some of the “cars” is not so easy. You have to collect pieces of old wire and bend them into the right shape. For wheels, rubber or plastic cut into round spheres will do. What do you think of that train made out of soft-drink and milk bottles? Or how do you feel about the truck made of pieces of wood? Sometimes it is even possible to ride on these toys, such as on this African scooter made at home. These children find that toys do not have to be expensive to be fun. And making them is part of the fun. Why not try it?
Names have been changed.
[Box/Picture on page 26]
A good toy is . . .
● Suitable and safe for the child’s age, abilities, and physical capabilities
● Well constructed and durable (children tend to take things apart)
● Attractive and interesting enough to engage the child’s attention
● Stimulating to the child’s creativity and imagination
[Box/Picture on page 27]
To Avoid Toy-Related Risks . . .
● Keep toys for older children out of the reach of the young
● Read all security labels and instructions carefully, with your child if possible
● Teach the child and his playmates how to use and store toys properly
● Avoid noise-making toys that could reach harmful noise levels
● Check toys periodically. In many cases a damaged toy should be repaired or thrown away immediately
● Potentially hazardous toys such as target toys, sharp-edged tools, and electrical toys should be used only by older children under adult supervision
● Toys with parts small enough to be swallowed should be kept away from small children
[Picture on page 24]
Lion and hedgehog on rolling platforms, second millennium, B.C.E., Iran
Lion and hedgehog: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY
[Picture on page 25]
Clay doll, c. 600 B.C.E., Italy
[Picture on page 25]
Spinning top, Classical Greek period, c. 480 B.C.E.
[Picture on page 25]
Corn-husk doll, Colonial America
[Picture on page 25]
Crayons, early 1900’s, United States
[Pictures on page 26]
Children with toys made at home
[Picture Credit Lines on page 25]
Clay doll: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY; top: Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource, NY; corn husk doll: Art Resource, NY