DAVID WILSON contrasts the toys York children used to play with in the past with how they play today

MY neighbour’s kids used to play Lego and Castle Crashers video games when they were little, and a quick trawl of the Internet will reveal that there’s a whole host of video games produced for 21st century children.

There’s a choice of titles such as Paw Patrol for 3-6-year-olds, available in PS4, XboxOne and Nintendo Switch formats.

There’s Dragons: Dawn of New Riders aimed at five-year-olds but also suitable for kids up to 12. And Minecraft (for ages 7+) where players have an avatar which they have the responsibility to feed, build a shelter for and ward off enemies.

The online publicity states that parents can also set the game to ‘peaceful’ mode, so no monsters are encountered, and there are two main game modes: Survival and Creative. But are video games really toys?

My gran, who was ten years-old in 1894, once told me that all she had to play with as a child was a wooden hoop and stick.

I was much more fortunate. I had a model farmyard with plastic animals and when I got older, a Hornby train set that went round and round on a railway track. Now, this is a collector’s item which can easily sell for a three-figure sum.

York Press: Spacehoppers were popular in the 1970sSpacehoppers were popular in the 1970s

Children have always played with toys, but here in Britain not so long ago, many families would have been too poor to afford manufactured toys and people had to find creative ways of making them for their children.

Outdoor spaces were arguably safer than they are now because there was less traffic and fear of child abduction, and more affluent children tended to play outside with toys such as pedal cars, stilts and pogo sticks.

A visit to the Toy Stories section of York Castle Museum can take you back 150 years and remind you of what you, your parents, and your grandparents played with.

The toys exhibited include original Lego, toy soldiers, model carts and dolls. Toys reflect social values such as gender roles, and dolls were very much girls’ toys, seen as play which socialised young girls for their future expected roles as wives and mothers.

Boys, on the other hand, tended to play with model cars and military vehicles such as tanks and model airplanes. You can still see a fascinating range of these at the Monk Bar Model Shop. Modern toys, including computer games, tend to be less gender-stereotyped and appeal equally to girls and boys.

Then there are the teddy bears. I still have mine in a drawer at home, but it no longer sits with me on the sofa as it used to do. The teddy is a perennial and is still popular: just consider the range of items at Stonegate Teddy Bears. Dolls are also perennial favourites as the Mary Shortle shop in Lord Mayor’s Walk proves. This shop has just celebrated 46 years and ships an entire range of dolls worldwide, including collectors’ items.

York Press: Mary Shortle doll shop in YorkMary Shortle doll shop in York

But not all toys have such a long shelf-life as teddy bears. Small boys in the 1950s and 60s often played with cap guns. These are out of favour nowadays, not only because they’re considered to encourage violent behaviour, but more especially because they are seen as dangerous.

Not so many decades ago toys had metal parts that children could easily cut themselves on or small components that could be accidentally swallowed. The sale of lead-based paint was banned in the UK in 1995, so we need to be wary about giving those lead toy soldier heirlooms to our children to play with.

York Press: Victorian dolls - from York Castle MuseumVictorian dolls - from York Castle Museum

All toys now sold in this country must comply with the Toys (Safety) Regulations 2011 (British Standard BS EN71). They must be clearly labelled as being age-appropriate. The regulations also cover other safety issues around toys such as flammability and dangerous chemicals.

A generation or two ago many children played with toys that were handed down from older siblings or from relatives or friends.

Nowadays, children tend to get huge quantities of expensive plastic toys that they quickly lose interest in.

Some older children seem happier to play with improvised ‘toys’ such as spoons and pans than with the sophisticated toys they are often given.

My York friend Rebecca says that modern toys break more easily as they’re made of plastic material that is inferior to what was used in toy-making in previous generations. Rebecca also bemoans the excess of plastic packaging used for contemporary toys.

Popular toys from the past included Spacehoppers and Rubik's Cubes - perhaps you even had them!

And York had many toy shops included Precious in Petergate and Londons in Heworth.


Read next:
Lost shops of York: Precious toys in Low Petergate

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Computer games have now largely replaced conventional toys for children. In the 1980s, children often played video games seated side-by-side and were in total control.

York Press: Inside Precious toy shop in Petergate, YorkInside Precious toy shop in Petergate, York

Today, things are different. Computer games such as Roblox require children to go online, and unless their friends have the same software, they can’t play together.

Additionally, many York parents I spoke to, like Rebecca, are concerned about who their children might be talking to online. And at least one parent told me that he was concerned about the potentially addictive nature of some computer games.

Children will always need toys and play. But perhaps we need to be careful in our complex modern world, for as the Anglo-Afghan writer Idries Shah once said: “People used to play with toys, now the toys play with them.”

David Wilson is a community writer with The Press