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Five best toys of all time

Imagine That!

Mike Mann

Howard Chudacoff, a professor of history at Brown University and author of Children at Play: An American History (New York University Press), has written, “For most of human history, what children did when they played was roam outdoors in packs, more or less unsupervised, and engage in freewheeling imaginative play; in 1960 that all began to change.” In 1960 my cohorts and I roamed the streets of our neighborhood at play, doing the work of childhood. We were nine boys aged 7 to 11 and all with the same wish for Christmas. That year the Hubley Toy Company made a toy Winchester rifle that looked exactly like the one that Chuck Connors used in The Rifleman TV show. My friends and I wanted that rifle. We methodically begged, bargained, and pleaded with our parents in hopes that we would each find that rifle under the Christmas tree that year. I even told my mother the big fib that, if I were to obtain the rifle, I would share it with my little brother.
Only one of the gang of nine boys got that rifle for Christmas. All the rest of us somehow managed to complete a healthy pre-adolescence without the rifle.
Today when a toy resonates with children like that one did with me and my friends, the result is often very different. Parents or grandparents would stand in line at the big box store for hours just to get the chance to buy it. It is likely that all nine boys would get that toy.

From a culture of character to a culture of personality

What happened to change how families react to toy marketing and ultimately transform the nature of how children play in America? 1960 was the first year that television sets could be found in 90 percent of U.S. homes. America had begun its march from a culture of character to a culture of personality some years earlier, but television turbo-charged the revolution. Where play had once been child-based, it would soon become product- based. Children are systematically bombarded with messages that play requires special equipment.
As the final weeks of summer present opportunity to us, let’s have a look at the truly creative toys that children can use to turbo-charge their imaginations. As one expert said, “Toys should be 90 percent child and 10 percent toy.“
With help from the folks at, here are the five best toys of all time:
1. Stick. This versatile toy is a real classic. Chances are good that your great-great-grandparents played with one, and your kids have probably discovered it for themselves as well. It is a required ingredient for Stickball, of course, but it’s so much more. It can be combined with many other toys (both from this list and otherwise) to perform even more functions.
2. Box. Warning: It may be the most expensive item on the list, but we all know and have witnessed first hand when a gift is discarded for the possibilities offered by the box it came in.
3. String. When used safely and age appropriately, kids can really have a ball with string. Most often three feet of it is enough.
4. Cardboard Tube. Usually you have to wait for these because they come into your house with other things wrapped around them. They are worth the wait.
5. Dirt. You can’t argue with success. Dirt has been around longer than any of the other toys on the list and shows no signs of going away. As long as it is kept in its proper place, it can be loads of fun.
These toys and a few simple rules for safety offer hours of great fun, inspiration, and essential learning.
As Dr. David Walsh says, “Imagination and creativity don’t just happen. Children develop these important traits the same way they build others — by practice.”
Imagine That!
Mike Mann is a speaker, trainer, and award-winning storyteller. He is co-founder of the Center for Imagination ( His daughter Laura, with whom he regularly collaborates on “Imagine That!,” recently graduated in Emerging Media and Communications from the University of Texas, and writes for The Dallas Observer. This column was written by Mike.

© Michael Mann, 2012, all rights retained. Printed by permission of the author.

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