Holidays & the History of Toys

toy history

While toys are a constant theme throughout childhood, during the holidays the purchasing of toys happen more than any other time of year. Looking forward to the arrival of Santa, many children fantasize about all of the new exciting playthings they might receive as holiday gifts while parents are inundated by internet advertisements, big box sales, e-mail offers, and specially printed catalogs bombard us with lists and lists of things that we could buy for our children.

During the holidays, when we are more aware of the commercial toy industry than ever, that it can be empowering for children to consider the history of toys and the role that they play (and have played) within our society. This theme can be explored on many different levels with children of all ages, and learning about the history of toys can help children to gain perspective on the toys with which that they themselves play. In addition to serving as a lens through which to consider American history and culture, a study of toys can help children to reflect on the role that toys play in their lives – helping them to recognize their preferred activities and unique learning style.

There are numerous resources that families can use to support studies of toy history. A great place to begin is with a real-life experience with the toys of childhoods past. This holiday season, the Springfield Museums is home to an exhibit of antique cast-iron toys. The exhibit, “A Peek Inside Santa’s Sack,” features rare collectibles like fire trucks, horse-drawn carriages, and airplanes – all early examples of mass-produced toys. While visiting the exhibit, families can learn about the manufacturing process used to create such sturdy pieces, and can learn how to identify subtle signs of this process on each of the toys.

In addition to the antique toy exhibit, the Springfield Museums is also home to Hasbro Gameland, an exciting and interactive portion of the Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History. Hasbro, one of the biggest names in games, has its roots in Springfield and in celebration of the company’s role in the community’s history, the exhibit explores the role of games in American culture. Families can play life-size skill, strategy, and logic games (many of which are bilingual) and learn how many popular games were developed!

For further examination of toys throughout American history, families can research the collection at the National Toy Hall of Fame. Housed at The Strong, an institution dedicated to the study of play, the National Toy Hall of Fame honors 53 toys that have played an important role in the play of children of multiple generations. Located in Rochester, New York, the museum is a bit far away for a day trip, but lots of learning material is available online. Ranging from Barbies and Tonka Trucks to cardboard boxes and sticks, the collection includes information on the history, development, and popularity of each toy and, in some cases, details the role that the toys play within children’s early education.

Throughout all of these resources runs a common theme: the evolution of play. Children of all ages can work to recognize changes in American technology and culture by comparing the toys of the past to those of today, and can consider changes in children’s role in society as well. Older students might pair pre-existing knowledge of American history with what they learn about toys in order to put new information into broader context, while younger students might use toy-related facts as an entry point for further learning about important periods in history. Check out Unexpected Retailers Behind Some of the Hottest Holiday Toys of all Time for a slide show of innovative toys over the years.

And, after all that learning, kids with a sense of humor and dignity can take a look at some of the more ridiculous toys of today thanks to Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood‘s TOADY (Toys Oppressive and Destructive to Young children) awards, CCFC’s satirical response to the Toy Industry Association of America’s annual TOTY (Toy Of The Year) Awards.  The TOADY award is an annual event that highlights disturbing toy industry trends, like the iPotty and The Case for The Real Tooth Fairies.

Want to continue your study of toys? Check out these titles:

Have a resource to share?  Please feel encouraged to post in the comment field below!

[Photo credit: (cc) Jenny Spadafora]

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