Toys of the Past

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 22 2021
Look Toys of the Past

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy Ceylon Today Features 

We all grew up playing with toys. Toys are important in a child’s growth as they help in a child’s imagination, creativity, communication, and decisionmaking skills. In today’s world toys are abundant as they are massproduced in toy factories. Hence today’s children have seen toys of all sorts. However, in folk culture and tradition, the way people produced toys is different from how they are produced in factories.

 In folk culture and tradition, toys were and are still made out of natural materials and materials that can be found in the household. Parts of trees, wood, pebbles, old clothes, clay, and so forth are used to make these toys. Also, they are not produced in large numbers. These toys revealed the thinking patterns and the natural environments of the cultures and societies that produced them. 

Children of the past also loved and played with toys. What we see today as toys are the result of a long journey that started from the times when our ancestors dwelt as hunter-gatherers. Toys were learning and training tools for the children of the past. In that sense, the purpose of toys has not changed largely over time. Like everything, toys also have a history of their own. The history of toys is creative, fun, vibrant, informative, exciting, and adventurous, just as toys are. 

Why did people make toys for children? 

The culture and life of children of the past is not the same as today. Only some children went to school or had a formal education. Others trained and learned traditional crafts or industries that were passed down from generation to generation. Royals and the elite had a more formal education and this included religion, literature, arts and crafts, various sciences, mathematics, and military training with weapons, horses, and elephants. 

This was during historic times. During prehistoric times, children had more leisure time, had no formal education or training but had to learn harder things such as hunting and life skills. The sons learned hunting from their fathers and adult males, whilst the daughters learned cooking, gathering fruits, berries, and other food items from mothers and adult females. 

However, it must be noted that recent research revealed that women also participated in hunting. These children of the past used toys as learning tools as well as objects to spend their leisure time with. Miniature bow and arrows, spears, although seeming to be toys, anthropologists believe must have been learning tools of young children. Balls and kites were toys of both genders while counting toys must have been toys used by both genders to learn. 

Who made the first toys?

 It is natural that little children play with whatever they have around them. Animal babies also play with objects around them. This is a natural instinct. Therefore, anthropologists believe that children first played with things around them, such as sticks, pebbles, flowers, shells, seeds, nuts, and so forth. Their adults must have helped them by shaping these into more playable objects. This practice evolved into creating ‘toys’. In prehistoric times, when our human ancestors were huntergatherers, children were taught to use weapons and tools.

 For this, anthropologists believe that miniature models of bow and arrows, spears, sticks, and clubs were used. This could be the prototype of military-related toys such as swords, guns, army vehicles and so forth.

 It is evident that by the Middle Ages in Europe military-related toys such as army vehicles and soldiers were toys for little boys. As human cognitive skills improved, along with their needs and physical abilities, they produced objects for their children taking inspiration from the surroundings such as miniature carts, animals, cooking sets, weapons, musical instruments and so forth. 

Archaeology of toys 

Evidence of toys have been unearthed from many parts of the world including the ancient Indus valley, Egypt, China, Greece, Rome, Africa, and Europe. 

Dolls: oldest known toys 

Although the ball, kite, and yo-yos are known as the oldest types of toys, some scholars argue that the doll is the oldest known toy. According to Antonia Fraser’s 1973 book Dolls, this belief is based on archaeological evidence; a doll from Egypt being the oldest toy discovered. It is a wooden paddle doll dating to the 21st century BCE. Barry B. Powell in Classical Myth (2001) writes that in ancient Greece, on the eve of their wedding day, young girls had to sacrifice their dolls to the gods in temples as a ritual. 

This symbolised the end of their childhood and entrance into adulthood. Dolls with movable limbs made of wood were discovered in Greece, says Robert Garland in the 2008 published Ancient Greece; Everyday Life in the Birthplace of Western Civilization. These dolls made of clay and wood could be moved at the hip and shoulders. 

Their clothes could be changed. In Rome dolls among little girls were popular. These dolls were made of clay, wood, and ivory, and some dolls were buried along with their owners. Although dolls are mainly for children as toys, dolls were and still are being used as ritual objects. Therefore, sometimes it is a hard task to identify for which purposes these dolls were used. Some of these dolls were used in black magic and witchcraft. In African folk culture toys are made in homes for their daughters as well as dolls for ritual purposes. 

These dolls (toys) are considered precious and are passed down from mother to daughter and they had great cultural and spiritual significance for them. Other countries that have great importance for dolls are Japan and Russia. Japanese dolls are beautiful and they have great cultural and religious significance. They are dressed in traditional Japanese attire and made of straw and wood. Russian dolls are made of wood and beautifully hand-painted. 

Animals, carts and other toys 

Miniature carts made of clay were found from the Indus Valley civilisation. One of these carts is a cart that is driven by two water buffaloes with a driver seated. The large wheels are notable. Among other toys are miniature models of birds and monkeys. Remains of toys have also been found in ancient Sumer dating to 2600 BCE. In Egypt, although a large number of miniature models were discovered, archaeologists find it difficult to identify which ones are toys and which are not. Among these many models, there are religious objects too. 

There are small human figures, animals, carts, houses and so forth. However, the models found at common peoples’ household sites are believed to be toys. Among them are balls, spinning toys, and animals made of wood. Ancient Greeks made toys for their children out of terracotta and wax and there are dolls, yo-yos, bows and arrows, and sticks among the many toys. Another interesting thing about toys in ancient Greece was that the oldest known mechanical puzzle also comes from Greece. This is believed to belong to the 3rd century BCE. 

Yo-yos and kites

 Although yo-yos are mentioned in ancient Greek literature and arts, some scholars believe that they were originally invented in China. The kite’s origin is also believed to be Chinese. During the Middle Ages in Europe, toys have evolved a lot and after the industrial revolution, toy production had a great leap. Mass production of toys and trading them all over the world happened. Yet, folk and traditional toys made of degradable natural material are still used and cherished all over the world. 

Our folk and traditional toys 

To understand the toys of ancient Sri Lanka, one must visit a rural village or indigenous community. Even a decade or so ago, in Sri Lanka, we used to make toys with natural raw materials to play with. These toys were kurumbatti mashima, polpithi haraka, kos kola otunna, puwak bonikka, clay cooking sets (used or broken utensils of the kitchen), and paper animals and so forth. 

The knowledge of making these toys was passed down to us by our adults or older children. We need to find out more about the ancient toys used by our children in Sri Lanka. We hardly have done research about this. We need to expand our research and see beyond monarchs, monks and the elite and peep into the lives of commoners and peasants.

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 22 2021

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