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History of Toys

Updated: Jun 18, 2019

A toy can be defined as any object used for the purpose of play. Children have played with these items throughout History. Toys allow children to make sense of the world around them and can teach them skills such as use of imagination, problem-solving and resilience. The purpose of early toys would not be so much for amusement, as they are today, but for preparing children for adult life.

Toys have been found in Archaeological digs throughout the world, proving that the people from the past would have used them.

Some of the earliest toys include small marbles which have been found in Egypt which date back around 4000 years.

A child's grave found near to Stonehenge was found containing a small stone shaped animal (thought to be a hedgehog) which dates back 3000 years to the late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age. Early toys would have been made out of things found in nature such as stone, wood and straw.

Stone Age animal found in a child's grave

Before the eighteenth century most children would not have had many toys. The amount of time that an average child would have to play would be limited and for poorer children any toy that they had would be precious.

Roman children would have had some toys that we would recognise today, such as wooden or clay horses and dolls, hoops and balls. Roman children would have also played a variety of board games and knucklebones, which is not massively different from modern jacks. Roman boys would have also played with wooden swords and other weapons to help to prepare them for life as an adult Roman Citizen.

By the Tudor times children would have had a wider variety of toys available to them (if they were rich). Some of the toys found in earlier periods were still used, such as balls, hoops and wooden animals, but more complex toys were now available, such as string mill toys. Cloth dolls were common for girls and games such as football and tennis were starting to be played (although the rules were very different from what we know today). By the Tudor times life was becoming more documented allowing us a deeper insight into what life may have been like.

Pieter Bruegel's painting of children's games gives lots of examples of the types of toys and games that would have been around in Tudor times. It shows a wide variety of toys such as dolls, balls, spinning tops, tiddlywinks, hoops and sticks. Children in the painting can also be seen playing 'shops' with their own stall set up, dressing up, climbing fences and setting up their own theatres.

'Children's Games', 1560, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Victorian toys were much more sophisticated than in previous periods of History. Boys would play with toys such as marbles, toy soldiers and clockwork train-sets. Girls would play with tea sets, stuffed bears and dolls-houses full of miniature pieces of furniture. Dolls were made of china or wax. Rich Victorian children also had access to larger toys such as rocking horses and bicycles.

Victorians were fascinated by toys that involved moving pictures. They did not have televisions but had thaumatropes and zoetropes which trick the eye into seeing movement through fast moving still images.

In modern times we have a huge choice when it comes to toys. Many of the toys seen in the past are still available (or at least versions of them), but in addition to those we have a constant stream of new toys available to us. Many modern toys are made based around popular culture, such as television programmes. Toys come and go in crazes, with toys becoming obsolete almost as fast as they can be made. Massive advances in technology mean that a large amount of children's play time is now spent using handheld devices such as phones and tablets.

Throughout every period of time all toys have kept children entertained and taught children important skills and life lessons. All toys help to spark interest and nurture a child's most valuable plaything – their own imagination.

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