A Short History of Educational Toys in the Western World

It can be difficult to imagine a childhood without playtime or toys. Today’s young ones are spoilt for choice when it comes to toys but this wasn’t always the case. Here’s how educational toys came to be. 

Who coined the term “educational toys”?

Philosopher John Locke was among the first to discuss educational toys in recorded history, specifically in his 1693 publication Some Thoughts Concerning Education, in which he argued that education (and not God) played a vital role in a child’s formation and that children must not be hindered from playing. Further, Locke argued that children must have “play-things” such as alphabet blocks for learning. 

The politician Richard Lovell (R.L.) Edgeworth and his daughter Maria Edgeworth referred to wooden building blocks as “rational toys”, which could teach children about physics, gravity, and spatial relationships in their 1798 publication Practical Education – one of the earliest recorded mentions of wooden educational toys.  

In 1837, Friedrich Froebel, who is widely credited with inventing the concept of kindergarten, introduced “Froebel’s Gifts”, a play set that consisted of wooden blocks, spheres, cylinders, and woolen balls meant to help children learn more about themselves and their physical surroundings.

Teachers Choice keeps classic educational toys in stock for your child’s benefit. Our collection includes everything from wooden building blocks to puzzles. 

Childhood as a social construct

Although the concept of childhood is believed to be a fairly recent social construct from the 20th century, with children perceived and treated more like “little adults” until this point, notable historian and educator Hugh Cunningham argues that childhood was acknowledged as a distinct period of a person’s life from the Middle Ages. 

Generally, historians agree that there is a marked shift in the treatment of children today compared to the Victorian era, when it was acceptable for children to work in factories. Childhood in the 21st century places an emphasis on play and school, with fewer responsibilities than children in previous centuries. 

The educational toy boom from the 20th century onward is the result of the change in our treatment of children, with a focus on their health, safety, and education. 

Childhood in the 16th and 17th centuries

There were no designated toys or books for children before the 18th century. They participated in the same recreational activities as the adults around them. But that would change in 1693 when John Locke, a philosopher of the enlightenment, put forth the idea of playtime for children, as mentioned previously. 

Childhood in the 1800s to the early 20th century

The changing attitude towards children paved the way for the development and creation of new toys. The first known jigsaw puzzle, which taught children about geography, was introduced in 1767. The rocking horse was also invented around this time to help children from affluent English families learn to maintain proper balance while horse riding. More toys, such as kites, hoops, puppets, spinning wheels, and toy wagons soon followed. 

Across the pond, in the New World, parents grew more preoccupied with their children’s happiness and well-being, and this was reflected in the number of toy shops that sold whistles, dolls, and toy instruments.

By the time the 18th century came to a close, toy development began shifting towards the educational purposes of toys, with children’s books, playing cards, puzzles, and board games, entering the market.  Optics-based toys like kaleidoscopes, zoetropes, and magic lanterns also grew in popularity during this time.

Dr. Maria Montessori and educational toys

In the early 1900s, a teacher and physician, Dr. Maria Montessori, developed the Montessori Method, a style of learning that aids in children’s development in a fun way. This is accomplished with specialised toys, materials, and settings that lets children participate in natural processes that must occur in their young brains as they grow.

Montessori perfected this method by observing children’s behaviour at different stages of development and identifying their needs based on age. 

From the 20th to 21st century

Toy inventors continued to refine wooden building blocks as toys for learning throughout the 20th century. Among them was George Cuisenaire, a musician and arithmetic teacher who introduced his version of cube-shaped educational toys called Cuisenaire Rods in the 1950s. These toys were meant to help children learn basic arithmetic and other mathematical concepts. 

Today, parents can choose from a wide range of wooden educational toys based on their child’s changing developmental needs. Teachers Choice brings you some of the best quality toys in the market today. Visit our shop today to find a toy that your child will love.  

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