How did children play?, part 3

In so many ways throughout the 20th century, children always found creative ways to play. Whether it was with a toy, a game, or simply their imagination, play has “played” a major part in every generation. In every decade of the 20th century, children responded to their circumstance through their play time.

Simply watch any child. According to Tara M. Hall,, Fifteen Effective Play Therapy Techniques (Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 2002, Vol. 33, No. 6), “For children, toys are their words, and play is their conversation.”

Throughout this month’s lifeskill, Childcare, we learned in the first half of the 20th century kids played outdoors a lot with their often times homemade ball and bat. And their imaginations were at the center of their “play.” It came natural to them most out of necessity of the times where families couldn’t afford to buy lots of toys, particularly kids of coal mining families.

But that didn’t stop kids from grabbing the moments between school and jobs they did at home and in factories around the nation. American families traversed the decades during significant technological changes, life-changing wars, and changing educational, physical, and economic landscapes. Yet, kids still were kids, even when they had to grow up a little too fast. Popular toys in the early 20th century were tin cars, train sets, and soft toys such as teddy bears. Then came the crayons or crayolas.

Kids had their toys and more of them as the decades rolled on. However, during World War II most toy factories were turned over to war production. With material shortages toy manufacturers came up creative dolls and trains, puzzles, games such as board games, and hobby sets with military and war motifs. . . most all made from heavy-duty paper stock. Then in the 1950s Lego became a popular toy; next Mr. Potato Head, Skateboard, and Barbie dolls.

Remember the Mickey Mouse Club? This iconic TV program debuted in October 1955. I remember Mom and Dad buying a television and watching it every time Mickey showed up on the screen! According to Alix Spiegel, Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills (NPR Morning Edition, February 21, 2008), “What is less remembered but equally, if not more, important, is that another transformative cultural event happened that day: The Mattel toy company began advertising a gun called the ‘Thunder Burp.’ The reason the advertisement is significant is because it marked the first time that any toy company had attempted to peddle merchandise on television outside of the Christmas season.”

Toys that became favorites from the 1960 to 1990s, just to name a few, were Toy Trolls, Easy Bake Oven, G.I. Joe, to Twister; then Skateboarding, Cabbage Patch Kids doll, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Rollerblading, Beanie Babies, Tickle Me Elmo, and Rescue Heroes. Those four decades revolutionized the toy industry and how kids played and transformed their imaginations.

Now as we are moving through the 21st century, what do you think has shown up so far? You may know these from 2005 . . . as Yu-Gi-Oh; then came Nintendo Wii U, 2DS, Rainbow Loom, Bratz, Mindflex, and Zhu Zhu. By the time we get to 2010, here were the top ones: Sing-a-ma-jigs, Morphology, LEGO Board Games, Toy Story Mania, Paper Jamz, Doodle Track Car, Fisher Price Kid Tough Digital Camera, Razor Sole Skate, Computer Engineer Barbie, and Disney Princess & Me Doll. What do you think may be the top toys for 2016? Some say Pokémon Toys, Lego Star Wars games, even Barbie is still around! I guess it all depends on what floats your “toy” boat.

With this journey down toy memory lane, it seems like toys do reflect the play signs of the time. How do you see the next generation playing? How can the current focus on that latest “toy” thing be moderated with the kind of activity and imagination needed for our 21st century children? The final article next week on this month’s lifeskill, Childcare, will hopefully give us hope for our children’s “play” future.

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