The History and Psychology of Toys

The Place of Play

We begin to play as soon as we’re born, moving our arms and legs, discovering the new world we’ve come into. Eventually toys get added to play. Whether store bought, or found sticks, objects become representative of the world around us, and we learn through our play with them.

While not considered by anthropologists until 1989, children, likely more than 40% of the population in prehistoric times, left behind evidence of play – small tools, imitating what they’d use in adulthood, pinched clay animals, split twig animals (seen below), clay disks. Anthropologists have determined this evidence of play analyzing the fingerprints left in the clay of these items, and the pieces left in the burial sites of children. While there’s debate over whether certain items are ritual pieces or toys, there’s a wealth of evidence pointing to the latter.

Toys or ritual votives? "Split-twig figurines" from the Archaic Period of southwest North America.
Toys or ritual votives “Split-twig figurines” from the Archaic Period of southwest North America.

Play in Development

While play is of course for fun, it also leads to development in childhood whether in socializing or exploring. Traditional “girl” toys and activities help with the development of cooperation, communicating and problem-solving. While traditional “boy” toys help with the development of competition skills and overcoming challenges. The benefit here then is children being able to play with toys designed for both genders, as well as gender-neutral toys so that they can develop a more wide variety of strengths through play and better develop the cognitive functions.

Play has been recognized as an important part of child development at least as far back as the 1930s, but in discovering that there was make-believe play in prehistoric times, it’s clear that play has been molding children since the beginning of time.

Slime and Super Impulse World’s Smallest Gumby, Pokey and Rubik’s cube, Tourmaline .

Toys as We Grow

Our social circle expands and the priorities we hold change when we hit puberty. At this time our brains no longer need a concrete object to help us process a situation, our brains are advanced enough to process through something on their own. Most of us stop playing with our toys around this time.

“The play in collecting doesn’t come from the object sitting on the shelf, but in the pursuit of it, the bargaining for it, the mastery of the subject, and the suspense before a completion that never quite happens.”

-Scott Eberle, Ph.D., vice president for play studies at The Strong National Museum of Play and editor of the American Journal of Play

We never lose our imagination, even as our time with toys lessens, and as we age toys often remain. Sometimes those toys become more specific, more technical – a telescope, a computer, power tools – but other times we collect toys we would have loved as a child, or re-collect toys we had as a child, a nostalgia maybe, but also a play in the hunt itself.

“A survey carried out last year found that 44% of adults have held on to their childhood teddies”

‘My Bears are my lifeline,’ The Guardian

Some of us even hold onto special toys from childhood, or at least the rituals created with them. For the adults who sleep with stuffed toys (34% of adults), it’s thought that they developed a sleep ritual at a very young age that they have maintained through adulthood. This then is a product of childhood development through toys and speaks to our adult selves still feeling comfort or a need for toys in other spaces of our lives.


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