Exploring Toys and Play

Students learn about the history and importance of play, and consider games, good and bad.


Students will 

  • Learn about the uses and importance of play
  • Read a short history of play
  • Develop criteria for toys that encourage creative play
  • Consider examples of toys that are considered good and harmful
  • Discuss these toys in light of criteria they have developed
  • Think about what new kind of play they might enjoy 


  • Research
  • Critical thinking

 Materials needed:




Ask students to name their favorite game or pastime when they were young. What gave them the most pleasure? These should be short answers.
Check agenda and objectives.

Web: What is play?

Write the word "Play" on in the center of a piece of chart paper and ask students to call out all the words they associate with it.  Write the words around it with lines radiating out as in a web.
Elicit from the students all types of play, from pretend scenarios to solitary activities to organized sports.  Encourage examples of a wide range of what is considered play and what different students consider to be play.
Point out that play is necessary for creativity. We cannot learn about new things if we are not playful. All creative people, from artists to scientists and inventors, have a playful side, because play helps us see the world in new ways.  There is an old saying that goes, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." That is, without play a person becomes uninteresting and uninterested in the world. Four hundred years ago, when this saying was first written down, people did not have scientific studies to show that this statement is true. Now we do. 


Student Reading:
A Brief History of Play

Children have always played, but play has not always looked the way it does now in the United States. 

For centuries, children were seen as small adults. As soon as they could walk and understand language, they were expected to take part in the life of the community. Older girls (as young as four or five) looked after babies and did chores. Older boys helped their fathers in the fields or as hunters, and by the age of seven or so often became apprentices (that is, they were learning a  trade or occupation by living with the person whose work they were learning).  Children had to work and did so in the West up until child labor in factories, mines, and stores was outlawed. (Child labor was not completely outlawed in the U.S. until 1938.) In many countries children are still forced to work and are not able to go to school.
But even when children had to work, they still played running and hiding games with each other or used whatever objects they could find to play with. A child could make a doll from a corn husk or dried grass tied together. Another could make a slingshot and practice with it before using it to hunt small animals. 
Archeologists have found spinning tops and game pieces for what we would call board games in Egyptian tombs dating from 2000 B.C.E.  Card games are said to have been invented in China around 1100 C.E. and brought to Europe around 1400 C.E.  What we call bowling today has existed in many different countries under different names for hundreds of years. One ancient legend has it that thunder was caused by the Norse gods playing ninepins.
A few hundred years ago, adults realized the importance of play in helping children learn and invented learning games, such as matching pairs of cards or teaching geography through map puzzles. (The first puzzles cost as much as the weekly wage of a laborer and were therefore only for the rich.)
In the West, there was a push to end child labor and raise the wages of adult workers so that they could support their families. Eventually, Western countries adopted systems of free public education. Prior to that, people paid for schools or for tutors and would take their children out of school when their labor was needed for the harvest or planting or if an adult wage earner died.
As more children left the workforce and spent more time at home, a toy industry rose up to fill their free hours. At first the toys were aimed at middle class or wealthy children, since poor children still had much work to do at home.  

In the twentieth century, educational experts began to study children's play and recognize how important it is to help children grow into adults who can function in society.  By playing house, playing school , making up plays or acting out parts, or playing sports, children learn to work with others, solve problems, achieve goals, and overcome challenges. 
A baby playing with pots and pans or plastic cups can learn about noise, size, pouring water, building towers. They can invent other uses for every day materials.  A piece of fabric can be a magic carpet, a magic cape, a tent for an explorer at the North Pole, butterfly wings... whatever the wearer wants it to be.
On its website, the National Museum of Play lists the benefits of play, according to researchers. Play:

  • builds ability to solve problems, negotiate rules, and resolve conflicts;
  • develops confident, flexible minds that are open to new possibilities;
  • develops creativity, resilience, independence, and leadership;
  • strengthens relationships and empathy; and
  • helps grow strong healthy bodies and reduces stress.

Play is so important that it was even listed as one of the rights of children in the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child:

Article 31
1. States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.
2. States Parties shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity.

The changing nature of play

Games evolve to use new technologies. For instance, the Romans, and perhaps even the Egyptians, played a game much like tic-tac-toe. For thousands of years, this game was played in dirt or with paper and pencil or with game pieces. In 1952 it became one of the first video games and can now be played with a computer. Other games, such as solitaire and Scrabble, have migrated to the screen as have other much more complicated games. Strategy games (think Dungeons and Dragons) that used to be played by teams of people who knew each other can now be played with computers or teams in other countries.

Instead of building blocks, people can now use computer simulations to build whole cities. Even a game such as "dress-up" can now be done on a computer that "dresses" a photo of the player.  Some of these games can be played with people in other countries who never meet each other. Some people think that many of these games are as beneficial as the more old-fashioned games. Others worry that children start looking at screens when they are too young and develop ways of thinking that hinder creativity.

Good toys and bad toys

Ask students to count off into groups of four. Ask each group to spend five to ten minutes responding to this question:

  • Based on what you have read today, what qualities do you think the ideal toy or game should have?

Halfway through, announce that groups should make sure that each person will have enough time to talk. When the time is up, ask each group to report back to the class.

Tell students that in December the toy industry goes all out to promote toy-buying. It's impossible to turn on the television or computer without seeing toy ads. Often there is a "must-have" toy that parents spend a lot of money for because ads have made it seem so desirable. Parents are also often looking for toys that will help their children be smarter, even though research shows that it is the act of playing creatively, not the toy, that helps children's minds develop.
Every year the toy industry gives a Toy of the Year award (TOTY).  Show the students the winners of this year's awards.
After students have read the article, ask: 

  • Given what you have learned about play, do you believe that these toys encourage creative play? (If nobody mentions it, ask what they think about having a category for best toy for boys and best toy for girls.)
  • Have any of you seen anyone playing with these toys? What did the play look like?

 At the same time that the toy manufacturers give out awards, another group, the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, gives out awards for the worst toy of the year. This year, after it had announced the winner of the worst toy, it sent out an email telling its supporters that another toy had come on the market that was even worse. Ask students to read this press release from the Campaign about that toy. Ask students to read it.
Ask:  What do you think about this toy, and the Campaign's criticism of it?


Playing during school-break week

The National Museum of Play has designated the upcoming school break period as  "Let's Move—School Break Week, Dec. 21-31" and is encouraging everyone to play.
Ask students to write down three different games or other activities they could play, perhaps with friends or younger siblings or relatives, that would be different for them. Give them two minutes to think of something.  Ask for volunteers to share their ideas.


Ask students to name one thing they learned today that they hadn't known before about play.