Let’s Use Toys to Teach about Playing in the Past!

The other week when I was teaching a lovely group of 7th graders, I demonstrated how a colonial buzz saw toy works. Grasping both handles firmly, I spun the toy’s wheel around its string a few times and then firmly pulled the handles away from the wheel. I let the string unwind and then repeated this motion – spinning, pulling, and relaxing, until the entire class could hear the “whooshing” sound the toy made. The students were engrossed. (It’s rare when I have everyone’s undivided attention.) This lasted until I accidentally hit my knuckles with the toy’s wheel, drawing blood. One student yelled, “Oh my gosh! Life in colonial New York was really dangerous!” The peaceful moment was lost, but after we laughed together at his outburst, we were able to have a discussion about how children living hundreds of years ago could very well have had an experience like the one I had.

What I’ve noticed in teaching students about colonial toys is that they automatically start playing with the (reproduction) artifacts. There is no barrier to entry for the students in understanding these objects: they can interpret and infer about the culture through play and close observation. Teaching students about 19th century board games (of which the New-York Historical Society has a marvelous collection) has a higher barrier of entry. Students have to “read” the board game, try and understand its rules, and decode images from a visual culture that’s new to them – all before they can even try to play the game. For time and convenience’s sake, playing with toys (rather than games) is a much better way to introduce students to the history of toys, games, and play. In my experience, playing with historical reproductions of toys encourages students to ask great questions like, “How much time did children have to play? Who would have made these toys? Would rich and poor children play with the same toys? Did Native Americans have toys like this, too?” They ask so many wonderful questions that I don’t always have the answers, and then we can have a conversation about doing historical research to find those answers.

Over two years ago, Play the Past contributor Rob MacDougall asked where the historical toys were. I’m suggesting that they’re in our museums and can be easily made at home. Rob (in the post I linked to before) very articulately explains how playful historical thinking can be best elicited by hitting the “sweet spot on the spectrum from ludus to paidia.” He offers a metaphor, saying that it’s the playset (a setting, a story) that gives the toy (the character, or action figure) context. The “playset” in K-12 education could be the background knowledge about the culture that created the toy, or prior knowledge about toys and the materials used to make the toy. It could also be an introduction, a worksheet, or a series of questions (but that is educator driven and therefore less fun, hah!). But what can educators do to create the “emergent, infectious, recombinant histories” that Rob (and I!) want? I’m partial to the idea of giving students a group of toys from different cultures and different times along with some contemporary materials and asking them to create a toy that reflects our contemporary culture but stays true to the history of play over the ages. But I would love to hear other ideas, so: how can we use toys to teach students about playing in the past in a way that encourages playful historical thinking? (While this type of thing is popular in the K-12 crowd, pretty much everyone loves toys, so all educators, teachers, and professors should feel comfortable sharing!)

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