In Praise of Traditional Toys

By Sara Evans

Photograph by Clem Rutter, Rochester, Kent. ( - I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the following license:, CC BY-SA 3.0,

During last winter’s endless cold, breakthroughs, and lockdowns, Mr. Covid paid our family a visit on Christmas morning. I was so sad.  No grandchildren, no gathering, no Christmas as planned.  But (shhh, don’t tell anyone), a teeny little part of my grandmotherly soul was relieved.  I would not have to witness the over-the-top largesse that is the way of the world these days nor deal with the tsunami of lifeless plastic toys. I am not alone. My feelings are shared, albeit quietly, among my cohort of Nanas and Nonas, Omas and Grandmas.  It’s time to consider the astonishing range of benefits children get from playing with traditional toys.

Prehistoric Toys

Archeology confirms that there have been toys for as long as there have been children. In 2018, finds in the Qesem cave in Israel, dating from 400,000 years ago, confirm that early hominids, (pre Homo Sapiens), had small axes and carved stones or flints, preparing young boys for a life of hunting.

Exquisitely carved stone animals and toy artifacts have been found dating back some 265,000 years. The children of our Neanderthal forebears had small carved animals, miniature tools and dolls. The eternal gender divide seems to have occurred early, with “girl” toys (child-like dolls and baskets)  and “boy” toys (small spears and knives). 

Findings from the Stone Age include beautifully carved horses, and extraordinary disks with images of animals and a piece of sinew strung through a hole in the center.  When spun, they gave an exciting sense of action.

Some academics now say that the “Venus” figures, obese human forms found throughout the Northern hemisphere as old as  200,000 to 30,000 years, may not  be ritual items or totems, as widely believed.  They may, in fact, be dolls.  Archeologists and anthropologists are increasingly  focusing on the important status of children in prehistoric times, realizing the key roles children played in their societies. The small spears, arrows, projectile heads, baskets and human and animal figures placed in children’s graves were there to journey with them to the next world, also had a function in daily life.  They prepared children for their adult role much in the same ways that children’s toys do for our young people today.

Found in the Vogelherd cave in south-western Germany, this horse is carved from mammoth ivory with flint tools in the Aurignacian period, from 40,000 to 28,000 BCE.
Neolithic carving from the Yarmukian culture in the Levant.. Photo by Yosef Garfinkel/Wikimedia (Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0)
The Venus of Willendorf is an 11.1-centimetre-tall (4.4 in) Venus figurine estimated to have been made around 25,000 years ago, now in the National History Museum in Austria.

Kindergarten Toys

In 1837, Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852), who had grown up lonely and motherless in Germany, established a “Kindergarten,” a children’s garden, schools for children under seven.  His core belief was that children teach themselves, that they learn by playing and doing and from one another. Froebel was adamant that schools for young children should have real gardens, with lots of outdoor free play, and the tending of vegetable and flower beds, with growing seeds and bulbs indoors and with lots of interactions with nature.

“Children,” he wrote, “are like tiny flowers.   They are varied and need care, but each is beautiful alone and glorious when seen in the community of peers.”

In Froebel’s vision, the teacher’s role should be that of guide, not instructor. He proposed that we give our children four gifts: Sand and water, blocks and balls.  “Play,” he maintained, “is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.”

Photo by Nicole Buchenholz

Gretchen Buchenholz, Director of The Association to Benefit Children in New York City notes: “Blocks and boxes, balls and water, clay, a bell and a drum, some paint, snow, water, sand or earth, any found object,  spur the imagination and enhance a child’s development.  These basics engender the ability to help little ones to coordinate such complex capacities as directional orientation, the acquisition of basic facts, visual discrimination, and the ability to make symbols. What may seem to be frivolous activities, like running, climbing, and jumping, all of these are the child’s way of learning about the world.  Children use balls and ropes to develop gross motor skills. Blocks, simple musical instruments, Legos, crayons, and paintbrushes,  are helpful here as well.   Further running and walking, skipping, and hopping, all also enhance their social, physical, and emotional development.  as well as their meaningful relationships with others.”

Pediatric occupational therapist Erin Lynch uses Froebel’s gifts in helping children who fall behind in their small or gross motor development with their physical coordination. What she teaches goes beyond movement.“Tossing balls back and forth,” she says,  “provides an important way for children to learn how to initiate and maintain social interactions with caregivers and peers.  During these playful interactions, kids learn how to read social cues, have cooperative interactions, and learn social rules.”

Children playig soccer, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Nearly 200 years on, Friedrich Froebel’s vision of a garden for children, a discrete environment in which children learn through play, has morphed and flourished in many classrooms, some rigidly prescriptive, some wildly open-ended.  In progressive societies, universal preschool, based on his model, is becoming a norm.

Child development is a vast area of study; there is endless research into how children play and how they learn.  The one constant in all of this explosion of child-centered learning is children themselves.  They are hard-wired to be joyous—and to learn through play. As Dylan Thomas observed, “…the bells that the children could hear were inside them.”

American Traditions

In colonial and 19th century America, toys were often simple and usually homemade.  Kites, hoops, wooden swords, whirligigs, dolls and dollhouses, small china tea sets, balls and blocks were the staples of childhood. Among more puritanical communities, all these were put aside on Sundays, with one exception.  Noah’s arks, usually carved by some loving grandparent or imported from Germany, were “Sunday toys,” and so they were permitted.

By Thomas Quine - Antique Noah's Ark toys, CC BY 2.0,

Like Froebel’s kindergartens, toys have evolved, and the industry has positively exploded. One of the offshoots of blocks, Lincoln Logs, has an intriguing origin story.  In 1916, inspired by his father’s ingenious design for an earthquake-proof Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, James Lloyd Wright, created his own version of Froebel’s blocks, and they have been beloved ever since.

Today’s range of toys is nothing short of mind-boggling. Some can trace their lineage back to Herr Froebel; most cannot. Toys can be, like blocks, divergent.  That means they can be configured and reconfigured over and over again, in innumerable ways.  Others are convergent—or more limited in their identity.  A Transformer can be only two things—a monster/good guy or a vehicle.  Both kinds of toys serve a purpose; many contemporary building toys, such as Legos, can be both, depending on the user’s whim.

A child can make the castle of his dreams from his Lego box–or he can follow a very demanding and specific set of instructions to create a specific toy. Watching my eight-year-old grandson working his way, sequentially and logically, through a 182-page manual for a Lego set is fascinating. The picture on the box shows him what it should look like; the instructions exist to take him there. His focus, intent, and sense of accomplishment are impressive. 


There is a progressive pathway that has been followed from infancy–first soft blocks, then wooden ones, next blocks with turrets and crenellations and knights and dragons. Then Lincoln Logs, now advanced Legos and chess.  At each stage, with its age-appropriate toys, a child builds his skill set, and grows closer to adulthood.   

Toys in Books

The literature of toys is rich and fascinating. Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), was a sickly, often bedridden little boy in dark, dank Edinburgh.  In his famous poem, “The Land of Counterpane,” he describes the way his toys kept him happy while he was sick in bed.  He created a magic world for himself, with marching toy soldiers and billowing sailing ships, gifts of the imagination that led to such beloved classics as “Treasure Island,” “The Black Arrow” and “Kidnapped.”

Books about toys have been popular since the early 20th century. In 1915. Johnny Gruelle patented his ragdoll, Raggedy Ann.  (This may be the earliest of all those that followed.) In 1918, a book, Raggedy Ann Stories, appeared. Her male counterpart, Raggedy Andy, soon followed. Generations of children have cherished these two quintessentially American dolls, with the black button-eyes and cornpone clothing.

IMG_0462 (1)
Raggedy Ann and Andy for sale, photo by Valerie Andrews

Three 20th century British fathers, A.A. Milne, Michael Bond, and the Reverend Awdry, all wrote books about toys for beloved family members. A.A. Milne was charmed by the imaginary world his wife, Dorothy, created for their son, Christopher Robin.  Eeyore, Kanga, Roo and Tigger, Piglet, Owl and Rabbit, she gave each one with a distinct personality and sent them, along with her little boy, on endless adventures.  Alan Alexander Milne, who had served in World War I, was a successful playwright.  He tuned in to the imaginary world his wife and son were creating, and wrote Winnie the Pooh, and then The House at Pooh Corner, dedicating it to Dorothy.

“You gave me Christopher Robin then

You breathed new life into Pooh.

Whatever of each has left my pen

Goes homing back to you.

My book is ready and comes to greet

The mother it longs to see.

It would be my present to you, my sweet,

If it weren’t your gift to me.”

Winnie the Pooh in an illusration by E.H. Sheperd, courtesty of Wikimedia commons

Toys were is short supply in wartime Britain, so when Christopher Awdry came down with measles, his father, a pacifist Anglican rector, fashioned a  train engine from a broom handle.  He made up endless railway adventures for his son. After the war, some of the Reverend Awdry’s stories were published as The Railway Series. In the late 1970’s, Awdry added to the series, and the never-ending craze for Thomas the Tank Engine took off.  An extravagance of railway cars, all with commonplace names, Thomas, James, Trevor and Percy, became toy and television history, spawning a franchise that continues to enchant three-year-olds and beggar their parents.  Not bad for a broom handle.


In 1958, an undocumented immigrant tossed up at Paddington Station in London, carrying a small suitcase, wearing a duffle coat, wellington boots and a battered hat.  Around his neck was a poignant label that said, “Please look after this bear.”  Two years before, on Christmas Eve, writer Michael Bond bought a lonely looking stuffed bear for his wife Brenda, because it looked forlorn on the shelf. He felt sorry for it. After he brought the little toy home, stories about it kept running through his head.  A Bear Called Paddington was published quickly, followed by 27 more, until 2017, when Bond died.  Uncountable books, stuffed toys, films and cartoons continue the little refugee bear’s presence in children’s lives.  In an interview with The Guardian, Bond observed that Paddington had been inspired by the streams of Jewish refugee children he had seen entering Britain. Like Paddington, they carried their belongings in little suitcases, with labels around their necks. Like Paddington, they were all looking for a home.

Now it is spring in New York, and the parks are ringing with the joyous sounds of children playing.  It’s time for birthdays, so I shall come bearing gifts. Books, board games and kaleidoscopes to give my grandsons a glimpse of infinity. And balls—black and white soccer balls to kick around in the new, green grass, and brightly colored, inflatable beach balls, with their promise of summer to come.

© Yann Forget / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Sara Evans has contributed articles on child development, gardening, antiques and the arts to The New York Times, Art & Antiques, Town and Country, Travel & Leisure, Parents, House Beautiful, Metropolitan Home, Country Living, Fine Arts Connoisseur, Art of the Times and Martha Stewart Living. She is the East Coast editor for Reinventing Home. 

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