Toys and Play, CM Style

Here are some excerpts from several Parents’ Review* articles about toys and children’s play and playthings:

index card files, vintage illustrations of children at play“Do we mothers sufficiently realise the importance of our children’s play, in the unconscious training and developing of certain moral qualities and powers, far more than they can be by any mere words of ours on the subject; what potent factors their games can be in teaching lessons of self-control, self-reliance, unselfishness, patience, courage and energy?” from this 1906 Parents’ Review article, which also has this good advice:

“In these days, toys play an important part in the lives of our children and they are certainly valuable “in promoting plays as they appeal to the child’s heart, and aid his imagination,” but it is also said that the continually increasing wealth and perfection of toys also serve to produce dullness in children, or else destructiveness as the only form of activity left to them in relation to these too-perfect toys. In contrast to these perfect toys is the wealth of love and of imagination bestowed on the most meager and unpromising objects, idealised by the child into a doll, a horse or dog, etc., and especially is this the case with the curious objects made to do duty as a doll; and far more real love is lavished on these than on the pink and white fashionable perfections bought from a shop. The less individuality a doll has, the better able is the child to idealise it, and it affords far more scope to its imaginative faculties, as being able to represent many various characters.

In choosing toys for the children, how important it is to bear certain points in mind; one special thing to consider is, to give when possible something out of which the child can make other things, or can do something more with.

I read some time ago that children’s toys may be divided into two classes: the finite, and the suggestive.”

The author explains further what she means by finite and suggestive and which toys fall into which categories.  Suggestive toys are to be preferred.  Our term for that today would be open-ended.

From a 1908 PR article:

A word as to toys: most parents are alive to the futility of furnishing the children with so-called educational toys and games. Stones, paper, bricks and balls are within the reach of all children alike, and we shall find that the innate love for these will last when expensive toys are discarded and broken. A child will spend many happy hours at a sand trough, and if such a one can be contrived to be filled with water, on which mock fleets can be sailed, instead of sand from time to time, there will be very little demand for any other kind of toy. But while we deprecate what are termed “educational toys,” we may with advantage make use of geometrical forms for bricks, etc., and thus unconsciously the child becomes familiar with what, when science lessons begin, are otherwise mere abstractions.

and here:
The toys children help to manufacture are twice as much valued by them, the games for which they must make some preparation twice as much appreciated. Vastly too much, even for enjoyment, is usually passively conferred upon them, and their lives are thus robbed of half their natural zest.

On the importance of play for the children’s intellectual development:

Many parents seem to think that all the time is wasted for their children which is not spent in taking in consciously some special idea which some adult already understands. We must get rid of this notion entirely. Miss Mason said at last year’s Conference that a human being comes into the world not chiefly to acquire knowledge or to develop his faculties, but to establish relations; and I would add that a child comes into science, not only to learn facts and to develop the faculty for doing things, but primarily to establish relations with the laws of nature, by which we mean–if we truly mean anything–the laws according to which God governs the world. And in order that relations may be properly established, the grown-ups who are directing the child must, at proper times, do as Miss Mason said, “Stand aside and take a back seat,” and keep silence even from good words…..

….As preparation for hydrostatics, let the child dabble in water, with hands and feet, in warm water and cold, in salt water and fresh, as much as is safe from the health point of view. Let the baby have things to float in his bath, sticks, shells, toys of wood and china. Let him turn the water-tap on and hold his hands under it and experiment on making splashes of many shapes and kinds. I do not mean that you should tolerate such disorderly mischief as turning taps on the sly and flooding the house; that is bad training for the child as well as inconvenient for the household. But when you are by to see that no harm is done, let the child turn the water tap when he wishes; not once in order that you may show him something that you can see happen, but habitually. Let him play with falling water. What is wanted is to get his finger tips, so to speak, quivering in response to the tremor of water at various temperatures and densities, and moving in various ways. All these physical experiences pass up to the brain and produce some impression there. They do not constitute knowledge; a man may dabble in water all his life and remain ignorant of hydrostatics as a fish, but they do form the unconscious material which, when he comes to study hydrostatics later on, will make his knowledge living and real, not shadowy.

As preparation for learning electricity, do not be satisfied with once shewing the child that sealing-wax rubbed on flannel will attract bits of paper, but let him have a stick of wax, or better, a common vulcanite comb and a piece of flannel, and keep them, and try all the experiments he wants to try. Let him learn by experience that after a time the comb discharges and needs to be rubbed again; that if he touches the table with the charged comb, it discharges at once and he has the labour of rubbing over again. As soon as he can be trusted to handle a glass rod without cutting himself, let him have one and an old silk handkerchief. Do not attempt to explain why the comb must be rubbed with wool and the rod with silk; but let him find out that so it is. I have seen a charming set of toys made (from receipts published by Tyndal, for poor boys) out of paper and pith, wire and scraps of sheet tin, some sealing wax and a few needles, with which two children, aged three-and-a-half and five, played the whole afternoon. The habit of using them seemed to have evoked in the small mites a deftness of touch on apparatus, and a sort of personal acquaintance with what scientific people call the “behaviour” of electric force, its manners and customs under a variety of conditions, quite different from any knowledge that would be imparted by any kind of teaching. The amount of electricity which a child can generate with a comb is not in the least dangerous.

(there was really so much of value in this article, I cannot recommend strongly enough that all parents read it)

This article lists some delightful old fashioned ideas about play and toys, ideas which should be in style once more.

Exercise the youngest children in threading beads and needles, tying knots, tearing paper for stuffing pillows, folding paper into various shapes, cutting paper, plaiting string, and ruling lines. Children should make, or help to make, their own playthings. It is said that

The children in Holland take pleasure in making
What the children in England take pleasure in breaking.


Something I learned years ago is that my youngest children were most satisfied with real things rather than flimsy toys- instead of a toy phone, they preferred the more substantial feel of a real telephone. This discovery is the basis and informing idea behind many of my suggestions for keeping your little ones occupied productively while you try to do school with the olders (there’s a really long list here)


When reading older articles about children’s playthings it’s helpful to know that ‘bricks’ refers to blocks, plasticene is simply clay (this is a regional rather than era distinction).
*The Parents’ Review was a magazine educator Charlotte Mason founded and edited in the late 1800s and first quarter of the 20th century, until her death.

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One Comment

  1. Mama Squirrel
    Posted December 17, 2013 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    In the 1906 article, Mrs. Hatchell describes the tremendous play value of a toy crane (she emphasizes that it should not be a fancy one tht does all the hoisting by itself). I noticed that the amazing Lee Valley tool catalogue (do you have those in the U.S,?) lists a toy crane that looks very similar to the one she describes. It makes me wish I had someone young enough to get one for!

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