When I was a child, my brothers and I had plenty of lovely toys to play with, yet we weren’t overwhelmed by too many playthings. What we had was beloved and became well-worn. But just as much as we loved our toys, we loved natural things that we used in outdoor play and perhaps used these things just as much.
I grew up in the 60s and 70s, long before video games, cell phones, and computers. It was a simpler time in so many ways. During summer vacations, we woke each morning with play in mind. The minute we finished our breakfast cereal, we were out the door, and there we remained, only coming back indoors for bathroom breaks and meals. Sometimes after supper, we even went out and played some more until dusk.
So what could be so entertaining, you might ask? We entertained ourselves with our imaginations and the natural world. We climbed in trees and pretended we were in towers or were animals living in the trees. We made little forts and villages with rocks and sticks. We drew pictures in the dirt. We collected found treasures like quartz and crinoid stems from gravel, as well as any animal bones, feathers, or broken bird eggshells we could examine. We had sword fights with sticks, jumped in puddles, rolled down hillsides, made clover chains, and caught butterflies, caterpillars, and fireflies in jars and nets. We ate mulberries and stole grapes from the neighbor’s grape arbor. We chased, somersaulted, jumped, kart-wheeled, biked, swam, camped, and laid on our backs, searching clouds for animal shapes. You’d think we would run out of things to do outside. But the truth is there was never enough time to do all we wanted. The days were too short.
In my former employment, I had the opportunity to teach many children about fun and games of the past. In Native American cultures during prehistoric and historical times, children had few toys. Still, they played lots of games, many of which improved physical skills like hand-eye coordination.
One toy, commonly used, was Ring and Pin. It came in many forms, but basically, one or more rings (made of leather, wood, or bone) were attached to some string (sinew.) The opposite end of the string was attached to a pointed stick. The objective in playing ring and pin is to swing the string and spear the ring with the pointy stick. As an adult, threading needles or even spearing animals would require similar hand-eye coordination, so in a way, playing ring and pin helped sharpen those skills.
Native American children also played lots of running games like chunkey and stickball in which balls or flat round stones were rolled or hurled at goalposts, much like in Lacrosse. Little boys also played target practice with bows and arrows. And little girls mimicked mothering with dolls made from leather and adorned with beads, horsehair, or tiny shells.
Native American children also enjoyed stories told to them by the adults in their families. These stories often were oral histories of family origins, relationships, brave acts, or significant lessons kept alive by word of mouth. Adults told the stories many times until children memorized them. Since early Native Americans didn’t use any forms of writing, oral traditions were the only way to keep stories alive. Other types of stories explained hard-to-understand phenomena in the world or spiritual and cultural beliefs.
When European arrived in North America, they brought with them their ways of playing too. Little girls likewise played with dolls, and little boys played with slingshots. They played dice games, stick games, card games, ball games, string games, and marble games. One toy similar to the Native American ring and pin was Cup & Ball. A small cup had a string attached to one side and at the opposite end of the string was a small ball. The objective was to toss the string and scoop the ball into the cup.
Another simple game was “Jack Straws.” It can be played in different ways. The most common way is like “pick-up-sticks.” Straws are dumped onto a surface and players are to remove the straws from the pile, one at a time, without causing other straws to tumble. An alternate way to use Jack Straws is for a player to place one straw on the back of their hand, toss it into the air, then try to catch it with one hand. If they catch the straw, then the player next places two straws on the back of their hand, tosses, and catches them. Every time they catch the straws, they add more straws to the back of their hand in the next attempt. If the straws fall to the ground, the player must begin again, with only one straw on the back of their hand.
In terms of entertaining stories, pioneer children didn’t usually have access to many books. Books were expensive luxuries. Families often read together at the end of a day, gathered around a fire. A parent would read aloud from the bible or another cherished. Stories told for entertainment, and educational purposes often included Aesop’s Fables. This collection of ancient Greek stories (attributed to a Greek slave named Aesop who lived between 620 -524 B.C.) uses animal characters to teach important lessons that reinforce good choices and moral behavior.
I can’t argue that playtime in the past was better than how kids play today. In all honesty, I’ve been highly entertained and educated by toys and books that my daughter and granddaughter have grown up using. I also can’t deny the delight they (or I) experienced watching Sesame Street and Disney movies or playing electronic games. Life changes and we roll with the times. But I will say that sometimes it’s good to revisit the ways of the past. Left without the tantalizing playthings we rely on today, what kind of games and amusements might we invent? If you have kids and a place for them to play outdoors, turn them loose and watch. I’m pretty sure their excellent little minds will come up with something wonderfully creative, all on their own.
Be sure to check out the “Activities” section of my blog, on how to make Some Simply Simple Toys.