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Just for fun : children's toys

'No toy ever comes into significance until it enters a child's imagination.'
Whittaker, Nicholas. Toys were us: a history of twentieth-century toys and toy-making, 2001 p.181

'Toys are the first thing we possess and command, that we understand to be ours. We give them affection, and cry when they are lost or taken away' (Orme, p. 164). Play during infancy and childhood utilises many objects and activities, and has many outcomes for the adult. Play for children is a necessary part of growing up; through play they develop physical and mental skills and a general preparedness for life. The Greeks and Romans recognised the importance of play for children and its role in preparing the child for adulthood and the wider responsibilities of citizenship. The Greek philosopher Plato discussed this and the place of the mother in the child's upbringing in his treatise The Republic. Toys considered appropriate to the child's role in adulthood might be played with: dolls for girls, toy carts and tools for boys. Then, and still common today, were toys that were considered suitable for both sexes: balls or knucklebones, for example. Today a teddy bear would be considered common to both sexes.

The majority of the toys in the Children's Literature Research Collection are expensive manufactured items rather than home made or cheap toys that generally perished quickly. Expensive toys have survived better because their young owners were admonished to look after their toys or, in some instances, they were only played with under the supervision of nursemaids or parents.

Most toys in Australia in the latter half of the 19th century were imported:

The only Toys we make for ourselves are wooden horses, waggons, carts, and wheelbarrows, and wickerwork baskets, dolls' perambulators, &c.

The toys in use among us are chiefly of European manufacture, and are imported from England; a few also come from China. The importation amounts to about £12,000 a year. Every novelty for the amusement of the young that is introduced in London very speedily makes its appearance here also. (Official record, p.180)  

Later, toys and board games would be manufactured locally (Ezy-bilt a local version of Meccano manufactured in Adelaide, for instance, and the National board games produced in Victoria), but imports would, and still do, form a large part of the toy market.

Toys have also in many ways maintained their basic function: a ball is still a ball whether manufactured from wood, rubber or plastic, or whether it is created from bush materials. A doll is still a doll whether it is a simple stick, a hand-made rag doll, a plastic moulded Barbie doll, or an action figure, perhaps capable of transforming into some other form. And children will climb whether it is a tree, or a ladder leading to an elaborate tree house, or a climbing apparatus in the local playground.

Children imitate the life and the society around them. Many toys down the centuries have been developed for children to prepare them for their adult life; even the Romans provided young girls with miniature kitchens to play with while boys played with toy chariots. Manufactured toys are not essential to this concept of learning through play, as a patch of mud may be sufficient for playing at cooking and a broomstick becomes a horse for playing at cavalry or cowboys, or Harry Potter playing Quidditch. 'Essentially the toy is still powered by a child's nimble fingers, a bit of aggro and a lot of imagination' (Whittaker, p. 181).

From the 1980s there was a strong move against stereotyping in children's playthings. Dolls in particular seemed to come under attack, along with their associated paraphernalia as did guns with their overtones of war and destruction. Many childhood experts believed more cross-gender play should be available: that if children play doctors and nurses, why shouldn't the girl be the doctor and the boy the nurse? And why shouldn't the girl be the train driver on the engine in the park? Legal barriers and restrictive guidelines have fallen and in many western cultures there is now much more equality in the workplace: previously gender-linked roles are now often routinely undertaken by either sex. This is, however, not reflected in the toy market. Boys do play with dolls, but they are called 'action figures' and the advertising is subtly different from the nurturing role portrayed on the boxes for girls' toys, which predominantly use hues of pink and mauve. Despite the best efforts of educators and parents, boys still play with boys' toys and girls with girls' toys reflecting the traditional roles, rather than the contemporary roles of men and women in society.

In the 21st century, many 'toys' are less recognisable as such than ever before in the history of children's playthings. Mobile phones fulfill many of the criteria of a toy - at least in the eyes of their young owners, particularly the criteria of a high status item. The electronic toys so popular during the latter part of the 20th century can in many ways be supplanted by the latest phone which comes equipped with games and internet connection, camera, and music - almost everything the young may demand. What developments does the future hold for children's toys?

Further reading:

Burton, Anthony. Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood: a guide, [London]: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1996

Jaffe, Deborah. The history of toys: from spinning tops to robots, Stroud [England]: Sutton, 2006

Opie, Iona. The treasures of childhood: books, toys and games from the Opie   collection, London: Pavilion, 1989

Whittaker, Nicholas. Toys were us: a history of twentieth-century toys and toy-making, London: Orion, 2001

Clark, Beverly Lyon and Margaret R. Higonnet (eds.) Girls, boys, books, toys: gender in children's literature and culture, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999

Orme, Nicholas. Medieval children, New Haven: Yale University Press, c2001

Official record: containing introduction, catalogues, official awards of the Commissioners, reports and recommendations of the experts and essays and statistics on the social and economic resources of the Colony of Victoria, Melbourne: Published by authority of the Commissioners, 1875 (M'Carron, Bird & Co., Printers)

Aboriginal boy cutting bark disc
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Anchor stone puzzles
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Bayko building sets
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Boy with his train set
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Boy with toy wheelbarrow
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Cap gun
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Celluloid doll
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Children on tricycles
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Children playing in the sand
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Children playing on swing
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Children sailing toy boats
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Children with fish trap, Yirrkala
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