Traditional handmade objects used by children at play. Folk toys are artifacts of the
cultures that produce them, and as such they serve as one of many possible ways to begin
investigating the traditions of a culture. They are especially important as one aspect of the
study of children and play and as one form of material culture.
Traditions of toymaking have likely existed for thousands of years. Some of the
miniature models of people, animals, and objects of clay or stone frequently found by
archaeologists at sites around the world are thought to have been toys. In addition, some
religious objects have a secondary use as toys once they have fulfilled their primary
religious function (for example, Hopi kachina dolls). A small animal on wheels made of
clay found in excavations of an eady Mexican culture in which no other evidence of the
wheel has been discovered is perhaps a toy; it is said to demonstrate the degree of
creativity achieved by toymakers.
Folk toys can be made by children themselves, in which case they are often quite
temporary (“cootie catchers” and paper folded into a specific form and used to tell
fortunes). They can be made by adults for use by children, usually by parents or
caretakers, in which case they are generally more permanent (cornhusk dolls), or they can
be made by trained craftspeople for a larger clientele, in which case they are often not
only more permanent but more elaborate (limberjacks, a jointed human figure that dances
on a board).
Folk toys are made of any convenient materials, including wood, clay, plants, paper,
fabric, metal, sand, or snow. If made by children, they most often utilize recycled or
“found” materials (as when rubberbands are saved to make a “Chinese jump rope”).
Adults, especially those who make toys for sale, are more likely to purchase new
materials as needed. Folk toys come in many varieties: Dolls are common (often made of
natural materials such as nuts, apples, or corncobs dressed in scraps of fabric), but there
are also toys that move or require specific physical skills for their use (such as a ball and
cup tied together by a string, in which the task is to get the ball into the cup), balance toys
(such as a fisherman, pole, and fish, constructed so that he stands upright at the edge of a
table and the fish swims under the table), puzzles (in which several pieces of wood or
metal are combined in various ways and the puzzle is to assemble and reassemble them),
and toys integral to various games (such as balls).
Folk toys have been most popular in places where there is litde money to spare for
store-bought toys. Thus, in the United States, Appalachia has been a major source of folk
toys, made by parents for their children out of available materials, in lieu of spending
money for commercially produced toys. In the 1990s, these same toys may be made for
sale to outsiders, bringing money into the area. In places where folk toys have been
usurped by mass-produced toys, they may still be found in attics and in boxes on back
shelves, unused but functioning still as reminders of the family’s past, or in museum
collections where they serve as communal reminders of the past (Leeds-Hurwitz 1984).
In the modern urban United States, folk toys made by adults for their own children are
becoming rare, as parents are often too busy to make toys, tending rather to purchase
them. Anecdotal histories suggest that many folk toys were made by grandparents for
their grandchildren as part of child-care responsibilities. Thus, it is to be expected that as more children are in day-care settings, separated from previous generations, some
traditional folk toys will disappear. Also, the widespread increase of time spent watching
television implies a decrease in the time children spend learning how to turn natural and
discarded materials into toys. In addition, watching television generally includes
watching ads for mass-produced toys, increasing interest in them.
However, there is simultaneous movement in the opposite direction: Folk toys are
being rediscovered by craftspeople (Spotswood 1975) and are showing up at art and craft
shows, there to be purchased by parents who have less time but more money to spend on
their children’s needs and desires. And, despite the fact that mass-produced toys are
available to a majority of children in this country, most children still make some toys for
their own use. A few questions to any group of children or parents quickly reveal that
many of the same toys made a generation ago are still being made in the late 1990s,
including slingshots, paper airplanes, and cat’s cradles. Notwithstanding the widespread
use of television and other media, children continue to pass a wide variety of traditions
from one generation to the next, so it is unlikely that folk toys will ever completely
Folk toys fulfill too many uses to be eliminated merely because of the availability of
commercial toys. As with any toys, folk toys encourage the growth of the child in a
variety of ways, including physical, social, and cognitive development. In addition, toys
created by children for their own use encourage creativity and a feeling of
accomplishment. Wherever children manipulate the elements in their environment,
whether that entails using leaves to represent family members in pretend play (Clavaud
1977) or combining a stick with a rubberband to make a slingshot, they can be said to
have created folk toys. Wherever adults make toys by hand for children, whether they are
trained specialists carving elaborate wooden vehicles or parents putting string through a
button to make the moonspinner remembered from their own childhood, they also can be
said to have created folk toys. Clearly, folk toys of some sort are to be found virtually
everywhere there are children.
Despite their wide presence, folk toys have never become a major topic of interest in
and of themselves in folklore (or any other field). In folklore, the strong historic emphasis
on verbal art can be blamed for discouraging substantial attention to physical objects such
as toys. Even with the growing current appreciation for studies of material culture, toys
must overcome what has been termed the “triviality barrier” affecting all of children’s
folklore (Sutton-Smidi 1970); that is, they don’t seem to be highly significant. In
addition, there is a practical constraint: Folk toys, especially those made by children for
their own use, frequently have a short lifespan. Even once they have been noticed and
granted stature as a potential research topic, it is difficult to study ephemeral objects—
like sand castles, snow sculptures, or string figures—that may be created and abandoned in
the same day.
As a result of these influences, publications on folk toys are few. These tend to fall
into several distinct categories: Some treat toys as a craft, providing detailed instructions
mainly intended for parents wishing to make toys for their own children (Schnacke
1973); others treat toys as one of several expressive forms indigenous to an area,
documenting them for future generations (Page and Smith 1985). Some brief descriptions
of toys are included in works by anthropologists or folklorists primarily interested in
children’s play more generally (Bronner 1988:199–236; Dargan and Zeitlin 1990:11–
120). Historically, the majority of the writing on folk toys has emphasized the objects
themselves, much as early research on verbal art separated the forms of interest from
their speakers and context, compiling lists of proverbs or jokes while ignoring the context
from which they were drawn. As our ideas of how to study other forms of folklore
change, the goal in studying folk toys is likely to change as well, moving from simple
documentation of form to consideration of additional issues.
Theoretically, there are at least five major issues requiring investigation. The first
concerns the definition of folk: What is it exacdy that separates folk toys from other toys?
How many children need to play with a toy, how long-standing does the tradition need to
be, before it is defined as folk? How many changes are permitted to the original design?
What of the means of passing on traditions: When an adult learns the design from a book,
and then begins making similar toys, is that still traditional?
The second issue is one of boundaries: When commercial toy companies adopt
designs for traditional toys and massproduce them (as happened with the “clutch ball” for
infants, now available from several manufacturers), is it still a folk toy? Where should the
line between traditionally made toys and mass-produced toys be drawn? What are the
critical elements: the design? the maker? the quantity available? the materials? the
connection between the toymaker and the child given the toy?
The third issue is related to community: What is the community that should be studied
as the appropriate environment for a folk toy? Traditionally, it was sufficient to assume a
geographic region or an ethnic group as the obvious community, but in the heterogeneous
world of the late 20th century, in which people move around and ethnic groups are far
from the distinct homogeneous communities they once were, it is a more complex matter.
When someone from Appalachia moves to the Midwest and gives new neighbors
traditional toys, which they then pass on to their own children, what is the group within
which the particular toy should be understood to exist?
The fourth issue concerns context: Serious thought needs to be given to what
information must be included in a study of folk toys. To date (1995), the emphasis has
been on the toy itself, but that is rather limited. At the minimum, information concerning
three critical components—the toy, the maker, and the user (the functional roles of maker
and user should be distinguished, even though the same person may fulfill both roles)—
seems essential. This implies incorporating into a single study description of the
particular objects used as toys (how they are made and of what materials, how they are
used, the geographic region in which they are common), description of the maker and the
role of toy making in his or her life (how the skill was acquired, how often toys are made,
the reasons for making them—for their own use or for others, as gifts or for sale), and
description of the larger social context (how the toys function for the children who play
with them, what sort of games or play they encourage, what sorts of identity they express,
how they serve to develop creativity).
The fifth issue is one of creativity: Folk toys are often said to require creativity on the
part of their makers and to encourage the development of creativity on the part of the
children who use them. This should be investigated. What do toy makers have to tell us?
What other arts or crafts are toy makers involved in? What do studies of children making
their own toys demonstrate? Are there, for example, any connections between early
interest in toys demonstrating scientific principles (such as balance toys) and later interest
Answering these and other related questions will provide a strong foundation for the
study of folk toys as it develops in the future. Documenting what folk toys look like and
how they are made is important, but it is only one part of what there is to understand.
Discovering the roles folk toys play in the social world, for the children who use them as
well as for everyone who makes them, should be the ultimate concern.
Abernathy, Francis Edward, ed. 1989. Texas Toys and Games. Publications of the Texas Folklore
Society No. 48. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press.
Bronner, Simon. 1988. American Children’s Folklore. Little Rock, AR: August House.
Clavaud, Donna. 1977. Playing Leaves: A Study of a Traditional Kashaya Pomo Play Behavior.
Journal of California Anthropology 4 (2): 197–205.
Dargan, Amanda, and Steven Zeidin. 1990. City Play. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University
Johnston, Kathryn. 1974. Anyone for a Whimmydiddle? Smithsonian 5 (9): 54–57.
Leeds-Hurwitz, Wendy. 1984. Folk Toys in the Milwaukee Public Museum. Wisconsin Academy
Page, Linda Garland, and Hilton Smith, eds. 1985. The Foxfire Book of Toys and Games:
Reminiscences and Instructions from Appalachia. New York: E.P.Dutton.
Schnacke, Dick. 1973. American Folk Toys: How to Make Them. Harmondsworth, England:
Spotswood, Beverly. 1975. Toys: A Portfolio of Magic. In The Craftsman in America, ed. National
Geographic Society. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, pp. 150–163.
Sutton-Smith, Brian. 1970. Psychology of Childlore: The Triviality Barrier. Western Folklore
Traditional handmade objects used by children at play. Folk toys are artifacts of the