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Exploring the V&A Museum of Childhood’s collection

An interview with Catherine Howell on the history of play
Toys have been around as long as humans have been around really, I suppose, because we always want to play with something. So we’ve got really say from at least a couple of thousand years ago, we know that there are miniature versions of adult objects, pottery in particular actually, that comes from the Middle East and Egypt. And so we don’t know whether things we found in the ground are actually toys, but obviously, they are handmade. They could be just grave goods or they could be something that the child played with. Well, copies of the early toys would be copies of things that adults have or copies of things in the world.
I would say actually the dolls are probably one of the oldest toys that children would have played with, because they’re easy to make out of anything at all, any material that you happen to have lying around. And then you copy things like other things in the world, like animals in particular, so animals they could be made out of different materials, but they would be a very popular toy. Children will always play. They play nicely. They might play aggressively. So I suppose you’re going to come across weapons as well.
Some weapons may not be identifiable in the early period, but once you start having things like guns made, and you have similarly with toy soldiers– would be quite an early toy as well, they are going to copy that as well. Handmade toys have been made of all sorts of different materials. So you do find across the world, I suppose, that different materials are more popular in different countries and also depending on the time period as well. So obviously things like wood would’ve been around forever, so you get a lot of wooden toys, but then later on you’ll start to get paper toys. When metal is produced, you start to get metal toys.
Natural materials as well, like bone, or straw, bits of palm. As I say, it depends which country you’re in, you tend to get a version of a toy made in that material. So, for instance, in Africa, you get metal being used quite a lot and scrap metal. So you’ve got, for instance, wire toys from Botswana, which are very well-known. But also children will pick up bits of old cans and make cars and things like that. Whereas if you look at somewhere like India, for instance, where they have a great tradition of little moving toys as well, they tend to use a lot of paper and that sort of material.
With handmade toys, of course, you’ve either got them being made by the children themselves, or they could be being made by the adults for them depending on the time. For instance, you have a time during the wars, certainly the Second World War, I know a lot of adults and parents made toys for their children, because they couldn’t get them in the shops, and so they would produce things that the child would be familiar with, like a knitted toy or some furniture for a doll’s house, things like that, a little toy vehicle. The children themselves, I think, they tend obviously to use a lot more imagination if they’re making their own toys.
And so they would tend to make them out of scraps of material, whatever they could find around. Children will always make toys of their own. If they’re out in the countryside, for instance, and they haven’t got any toys with them, they’ll improvise. So something like just a stick and a feather will make a boat. The commercial production of toys varies depending on the type of toy. You would have had things like dolls and games particularly would’ve been around. They’ve been around for centuries really, and dolls houses as well, of course, and dolls house furniture.
But it’s not really till you get to the latter half of the 19th century when you get companies, manufacturers who are actually looking at children as the consumer, and so they’re thinking we need to start making toys and a range of toys for these children. Bringing it up to the present day, one of the new things around is 3D printers and they’re of the moment and at the moment quite expensive to produce things. I know toys can be made on 3D printers. Obviously anything can. And it could be that in a few years’ time, we’ll all have one in our house and we’ll be producing the toys that we want.
But actually, I don’t think they’ll ever produce anything that’s really quite the same as a toy and people will want to make their own. And children are always creative, always have been, always will be. I think we underestimate the imagination of children. And I think that they will always make their own toys. They might find themselves in a situation that they haven’t got any of their favourite toys with them, or it might just be their own creativity, but they will want to make their own, even if it’s only a version of something that’s out there already.

In this video, Catherine Howell, formerly Collections Manager at the V&A Museum of Childhood in London, shares some handmade toys they hold in their collection.

As you watch the video, consider the following questions:

  • What are the most common handmade toys found across cultures?
  • How does the local environment shape the kinds of handmade toys to be found in a particular culture?
  • How did the industrial revolution impact on the production of handmade toys?

Use the comments section below to reflect on these questions, in addition to any other aspects of the video that you found of interest.

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Exploring Play: The Importance of Play in Everyday Life

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