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The Brief History of the Educational Toys
- Jan 30, 2019 -

Toys have changed substantially throughout history, as has the concept of childhood itself.[1] In Toys as Culture (1986), anthropologist Brian Sutton Smith discusses the history of toys and states that "in multifarious ways toys are mediating these cultural conflicts within the personal lives of children".[2][3] Educational toys in particular tend to reflect the cultural concerns of their time.


Research on the history of toys and their use tends to focus on western cultures, but work has also been done on North Africa and the Sahara.[4] Puppets or dolls made of wood, clay, wax or cloth may be the earliest known toys. Archaeologists have found them in sites from EgyptGreece and Rome, and Antonia Fraser emphasizes their universality.[5]


Dolls can be seen as an early "educational toy" because dolls acted as substitutes, allowing children to learn to care for living babies and children. Similarly, toy bows and arrows and other weapons acted as substitutes for real weapons, enabling children to develop skills needed for hunting or fighting.[6][7]


Up until the 20th century, however, manufactured toys were not readily available, and most often were owned by wealthy families.[8]:172 Molded miniature dishes and toy soldiers have been found in England dating to as early as 1300.[9]:172–173There are records of wealthy medieval children owning elaborate toy houses and military toys, which could enable them to mimic adult activities such as managing a household or enacting a siege.[9]:174


Nonetheless, "We often forget that throughout history, children have happily played without toys and manufactured playthings."[8]:172Children improvised a wide variety of toys and games using whatever came to hand, including fences, barrels, sticks, stones, and sand.[9]:175–177 Both children and adults played games such as backgammondicechess and cards, which helped to develop manual dexterity, memory, and strategy.[9]:178 In 1560, Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted Children's Games. He depicts around 200 children in at least 75 play activities.[9]:166 Only a few activities involved toys made specifically for children, and even fewer might be classed as "educational toys": dolls, simple musical instruments and a water gun used to shoot at a bird.[10]