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While toys today are widely associated with children, historically toys were the province of adults and were only gradually passed on and relegated to the young. Playthings, long rare and slowly changing, became far more varied and transient in modern society, reflecting conflicting cultural and economic influences over the childhood experience.

Origins of Modern Toys

For all but the rich, the preindustrial family's need to work meant play and toys were not encouraged by parents. In ancient and medieval times, adults shared objects of play with children primarily during festivals as occasions for emotional release. Common play objects, such as hoops, tops, balls, and even hobbyhorses, were only gradually abandoned by adults as childish. The passing of toys to children was closely related to the sixteenth-century shift from community spectacle to domestic celebrations (with the miniaturization of crèche, battle, and animal scenes for family amusement and edification). Miniature scenes eventually became children's play sets (e.g., the sixteenth-century wooden Noah's Ark). Only in the late sixteenth century did miniature soldiers shift from being adult to children's toys. In the eighteenth century domestic miniatures, which had formerly been custom-built for luxurious display for adult women, became doll cabinets and houses to instruct girls in the arts of housekeeping and domestic fashion. Domestic automata, mechanical figures or animals that were powered by water and even steam, had amused wealthy men from ancient times, but it was not until the nineteenth century that mass production and cheap clock and winding works let adults pass these novelties down to children as toys.

Poor children, of course, found time to make their own rag- and straw-stuffed dolls or balls from animal skins, and created games in unsupervised groups with whittled sticks and castaway bits of cloth. Traditional toys, such as hoops pushed along the street with a stick, or hand-made cup-and-ball toys, let children display skill until the end of the nineteenth century.

The toy industry began in southern Germany (Nuremberg and Groeden Valley especially) in the fourteenth century. At first, seasonal craftspeople specialized in carving wooden animal figures sold regionally through peddlers. But by the end of the eighteenth century, cheap tin toy armies for boys and miniature kitchens for girls were manufactured according to the strict specifications of powerful merchants and distributed across Europe and North America to children in middle-class families. European toy makers also found new, cheaper materials (like sawdust-based "composition" for dolls' heads by 1850 and lithographed paper on wood to simulate domestic interiors or hand painted scenes on play sets by 1890). These innovations not only put more playthings into the hands of less wealthy children, but also made for more variety and more rapid change in toys, thus turning playthings into a fashion industry. Nevertheless, older craft production and distribution through merchants survived in many branches of the toy industry throughout the nineteenth century, delaying mechanization. German toys prevailed until World War I, when Germany still exported 75 percent of its output.

Toys in the United States

Until the mid-nineteenth century, American children had relatively few playthings, especially after the toddler years. Parents seldom thought of toys as tools of learning or character building, but rather as frivolities that interfered with the learning of sex work roles through assisting adults in their daily tasks. Religious strictures against idleness, especially in Puritan New England, made toys suspect, except perhaps on Sundays or holidays. Only after the Civil War, with the spread of factories and the coming of department stores and mail order catalogs, did the American toy industry begin to emerge. Innovative interlocking building blocks and comical windup toys appeared in the 1860s and 1870s. But more common were simple miniatures of adult work tools (toy hammers, saws, and garden tool sets for boys and dolls and miniature houseware sets for girls).

Toys became part of an ideal childhood in the middle-class home. Industrialization removed production from the home and reduced the need for child labor, making playthings essential to preparing the young for adult roles. Parlor board and card games and "scientific" toys (featuring optical illusions) replaced shared domestic work to create family loyalties and to train the child in the values of honesty and competition. Such "educational" playthings served aspiring middle-class parents to isolate their young from often-unruly street gangs while also providing antidotes for loneliness. With greater affluence, the young were increasingly encouraged to enjoy the spontaneity and the pleasures of their freedom from work and responsibility. Playthings were both vehicles to introduce the real world and fantasy objects that shut off the child from that world.

Beginning around 1900 toy manufacturing diversified greatly and began to offer almost annual changes. As boys were withheld longer from the workforce and girls spent less time caring for younger siblings and doing household duties, playthings for older children became more common. Boys up to sixteen years old could look to sophisticated toy construction sets, toy microscopes, chemistry sets, and electric trains as fun, but also as practical preparation for modern careers in engineering, business, and science. Toys became even more sex stereotyped as boys' toys increasingly idealized technology, constant innovation, and the values of competition and teamwork. By contrast, a new generation of playthings for females featured companion and baby dolls, meant to encourage emotional attachments and nurturing "instincts." New interest in early child development created a demand for building blocks, crafts, and other educational playthings. The didactic and often austere character of educational toys (rejecting, for example, any association with popular film or comic book characters) limited their appeal and led to their declining role in children's lives by the 1960s.

Other popular toys encouraged fantasy. They were sometimes drawn from folk literature (like the Scottish elf Brownies figures and play sets of the 1890s) but more often from the ever-changing stories and characters of comics and movies, including Kewpie dolls (1912), Charlie Chaplin dolls (1914), and eventually Mickey Mouse figures (1930). The teddy bear, based on a story of Teddy Roosevelt sparing a baby bear on a hunt, became an international craze in 1906. This toy, in contrast to the hard wooden or stiff cloth animals of the past, was cuddly (made of upholstering fabric and filled with soft stuffing) and provided children security and protection. Teddies also made children seem innocent and charming and later reminded adults of their own childhoods. Most toys of the early twentieth century were intended to convey adult messages to children either by giving them the adult's image of their future or by presenting adult fantasies or nostalgia about ideal childhood.

Growing Fantasy and Autonomy in Toys

A major shift in playthings began in the 1930s during the Great Depression. In response to reduced sales, toy makers

offered cheaper toys, often sold by the piece rather than in sets (as they had often been sold in the past). This tended to encourage children to purchase their own toys, bypassing parental control. Toy companies also began to use licensed images of popular radio and movie personalities in their toys to increase sales. Buck Rogers toy guns, Little Orphan Annie decoder rings, Popeye wind-up figures, and Shirley Temple dolls served as props to reenact stories or to identify with heroes. Military figures, science fiction play sets, and cowboy cap guns gained a new prominence in boys' play in the 1930s as war approached and the optimism that had characterized the previous generation of construction and scientific toys declined.

In many ways, toys during the post-1945 baby boom generation returned to the era before 1930. In a period of new scientific and technological advances and perhaps closer bonds between fathers and sons, space toys and miniature cars and trucks were common. Adult fascination with the rugged individualism and moral certainty of the pioneer, cowboy, and Indian fighter led to parents' buying cowboy suits, holster sets, and Lincoln Logs as well as frontier ranch and Fort Apache play sets for their sons. These often featured movie and TV western heroes such as Roy Rogers, Davy Crockett, and the Lone Ranger. By contrast, parents gave their baby boomer daughters miniatures of mother's work, including kitchen sets and replicas of name-brand products like Toni home permanents, presumably to teach girls their future roles as homemakers and consumers. As in the past, baby and companion dolls continued to invite girls to build play around relationships and emotional ties.

While the 1950s seemed to be a throwback to the past, there was one significant innovation in the world of toys during this periodthe beginning of mass advertising of toys directly to children on TV programs. The Mickey Mouse Club was not the first children's show to promote toys when it first appeared on TV in 1955, but its advertising was designed to appeal to the child's imagination rather than the parent's values. Mattel toys proved that year-round advertising featuring children actors could create a mass demand for "burp guns" and Barbie dolls even outside of the Christmas gift season. Increasingly children pressured their parents into buying the "must-have" toys seen on TV.

Changes since 1960

In 1959, Mattel's Barbie doll, with her model's body, broke from the friendship and nurturing themes of the companion and baby dolls that had predominated since the 1900s, and put grown-up fashion and spending in its place. To the eight-year-old of 1960, Barbie represented a hoped-for future of teenage freedom from the dependencies of childhood that ignored the likely future responsibilities of her own mother. Barbie certainly did not teach girls to shed female sex stereotypes. Rather, she encouraged girls to associate being grown up with Barbie's "shapely" female body and with her freedom and carefree consumption.

G.I. Joe, introduced in 1964, was at first a boy's military dress-up doll modeled after real soldiers. During the Vietnam War when military toys became controversial, Joe and his friends became a line of adventure figures (who searched for treasure, for example). By 1975 G.I. Joe was again a fighter, but in a science fiction world divorced from the experience of real war. By 1978 boys' toys had become props to reenact the fantastic gadget-filled adventure of the Star Wars series, when the producers sold the rights to produce millions of action figures of the movie heroes and villains to Kenner Toys.

Since 1982, toy companies have produced TV cartoons based on their own toy lines. Mattel's series, He-Man and Masters of the Universe, featured warring characters from a TV program. However, with these toys, unlike the toy guns of the past, the tiny figures, not the boy, pulled the triggers.

Following on the success of action figures, toy makers introduced little girls to their own world of fantasy figures and play sets. In the early 1980s, greeting card companies developed lines of minidolls (Strawberry Shortcake, Care Bears, and others) popularized with Saturday morning cartoons and movies. In the 1990s, the periodic release of movies like Little Mermaid or Aladdin created demand for toy figures associated with movie characters. Each child received her or his own "heroes" based on the media craze of the moment. While the American toy industry grew to sales of over 20 billion by the end of the twentieth century, parents' values and memories had little to do with children's toys even as children experienced more autonomy, albeit in a highly commercialized form of play.

Fate of the Toy Industry Outside the United States

In contrast, toys remained relatively static after 1920 in Europe and elsewhere. American toy innovations penetrated European childhood, especially with Walt Disney's aggressive marketing of character licenses to European doll and toy makers in 1935. The Americanization of toys meant a shift of play away from an adult world of training and toward an international culture of childhood created by linking children's movies and other media to toys. Of course, older toys survived after World War II in Europe: British Meccano construction sets returned and the Lesney "Matchbox" cars updated a tradition of play based on realistic miniatures of adult life. The Swedish Brio Company perpetuated a tradition of high-quality wooden toys (simple trains, cars, animals, and blocks) and promoted them as an educational alternative to licensed character toys. In the 1960s, the German Playmobil Company thrived by offering sturdy plastic updates of traditional wooden play sets. German toy makers abandoned war toys and specialized in electric trains, stuffed animals, and fine character dolls.

Where TV advertising was minimal or prohibited (e.g., Sweden), TV toys were somewhat slower to dominate the European market. Traditional craft toys (such as dolls, miniature animals, jumping jacks, and kites), made of common materials and featuring generic humor, still exist in the street markets of Asia and Africa in great regional variation. But even in poor countries, where parents cannot afford American name-brand action figures and dolls, local manufacturers make cheap imitations.

From the 1960s, European toy companies survived by imitating or becoming subsidiaries of aggressive American toy makers (e.g., with imitations of Barbie or European translations of G.I. Joe as Action Man). American control of licensed characters, associated with globally distributed movies like Star Wars, assured American dominance of the new type of toy line. The most dramatic exception was the Danish Lego interlocking blocks, which, starting in the mid-1960s, became a global boy's toy. By the late 1980s, however, Lego compromised with the American toy industry by introducing kits or "systems" designed to construct a single model based on exotic science fiction or fantasy themes. While educational toys survived in specialized upscale stores, appealing especially to parents intent on giving their infants and toddlers a head start, the older child has become part of a global consumer culture through satellite TV, movies, comic books, and after 1991 especially video games. Toys are increasingly designed and marketed through American and Japanese companies and manufactured in South China near the international commercial center of Hong Kong for global distribution.

While some toy companies have undertaken research on children's response to new toys (such as Mattel and Lego) and development through toys (e.g., Fisher Price), only recently have children's playthings attracted impartial scholarly research (such as that by the International Toy Research Association). Toy collections are often small and specialized reflecting the particular interests of collectors. But major displays of historic toys are available at the Margaret Strong Museum (Rochester, New York), the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood (London, England), Legoland (Billund, Denmark), and the Brio Toy Museum (Osby, Sweden).

See also: Boyhood; Child Development, History of the Concept of; Construction Toys; Early Modern Europe; Economics and Children in Western Societies; European Industrialization; Girlhood; Theories of Play.


Chanan, Gabriel, and Hazel Francis. 1984. Toys and Games of Children of the World. Paris: UNESCO.

Cross, Gary. 1997. Kids' Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hewitt, Karen, and Louis Roomet, eds. 1983. Educational Toys in America: 1800 to the Present. Burlington, VT: Robert Hull Fleming Museum.

Kline, Stephen. 1993. Out of the Garden: Toys and Children's Culture in the Age of TV Marketing. New York: Verso.

McClintock, Inez, and Marshall McClintock. 1961. Toys in America. Washington, DC: Public Affairs Press.

Gary Cross

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Toys are physical items used in play by children.


An estimated 2.6 billion toys, including electronic toys and video games , are sold in the United States each year, according to the Toy Industry Association, Inc. Toys can support cognitive growth, development of fine motor and gross motor skills , and improve problem solving and attention. Children may find extended periods of play with a toy, whether it was purchased in a store or found in the home (recycled plastic containers and empty spools of thread, for example). Most children will be happy to play with a few favorite toysthe size of the toy inventory is not critical to successful play. Parents and others who choose toys for children should take into account the following characteristics of the child for whom the toy is intended. These include the age and developmental stage, his or her interests, ease of use of the toy, the necessity for adult supervision, the presence of younger siblings for whom the toy could pose a hazard, and whether the toy is designed for independent play or group play.

While computer and video game sales have more than tripled in the past decade, to nearly $240 million last year from $65 million in 1996, toys were expected to have their third straight year of slight decline in 2004. Children are still riding bikes, sipping from play tea sets, and enjoying some of the same toys their parents did, including building blocks, erector sets, and Lincoln Logs. But the pressures bearing down on traditional toys are many. Kids are growing up faster and putting down Barbie dolls and G.I. Joe action figures at an earlier age, increasingly smitten by the grownup images of young celebrities such as high-profile athletes, movie and television stars, and recording artists. The prime audience for toys has shrunk as the children of the immense baby boom generation have grown into teenagers and beyond. And as in other industries, giant retailers have taken sales from specialized toy chains and squeezed some of the incentive to devise the next great toy.

Toy labeling

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has developed guidelines for age grading of toys and related products. Most toy manufacturers use these guidelines in labeling toys and games for age-appropriateness. Manufacturers also consider recommendations of experts in child development regarding the stages of physical, emotional, and intellectual development. Four main criteria are considered in establishing age guidelines:

  • Physical skills: Can the child manipulate and play with the features of the toy as it was designed?
  • Understanding: Can the child understand how to use the toy?
  • Interest: Is the toy of interest to a child of a particular age?
  • Safety: Is the toy safe for a child at this particular stage?

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has established a number of regulations related to toy safety. These are published by the American Society for Testing and Measurement (ASTM) under the safety standard known as ASTM F963. This standard is voluntary, but the majority of U.S. toy manufacturers comply with its guidelines. In fact, many incorporate a message about the toy's compliance with ASTM F963 on the toy packaging.

Infancy and toddlerhood

Toy manufacturers consider the size of toy partswhich are likely to be put into the mouth by an older infant or toddlerin designing toys. Anyone purchasing a toy for the youngest children must take the choking hazard seriously and make appropriate selections. When a new toy is brought into the home or child-care setting, all wrapping material should be promptly discarded. Plastic wrapping in particular may pose a suffocation hazard to the youngest children. The U.S. government maintains statistics on toy-related injuries and deaths. Many accidents involving toys are not caused by the toy itself; for example, a child may trip over a toy that was not put away after play. When an unsafe toy reaches the marketplace, U.S. government inspectors may discover it and order its recall; additionally, vigilant parents and caregivers can observations about toy safety to the CPSC. Manufacturers routinely cooperate with the CPSC in recalling products that are deemed unsafe or dangerous.

In 2002, the medical journal Clinical Reference Systems issued pediatric advisories on age-appropriate toys. Some of the recommendations follow. Suggested play things for infants include: interesting objects hung in view, such as brightly colored mobiles, crib decals, and colorful wall posters; sturdy rattles; large plastic rings; soft toys for throwing; colorful balls; light plastic blocks; cloth cubes; music boxes; teething toys; floating bath animals; washable squeak toys; nests of hollow blocks; and rough-smooth touching books; washable cloth picture books; and sturdy, colorful picture books.

Suggested toys for toddlers include: pyramid rings; large nesting blocks; large and small colored building blocks; cuddly stuffed animals; large, soft balls; washable, unbreakable dolls; push-pull toys with rounded handles; simple musical instruments; sand box and sand toys; water toys; transportation toys (trucks, cars, trains, and airplanes); objects to imitate adults such as plastic garden tools, toy telephones, and toy dishes or pots; and sturdy, colorful picture books.

Preschool and school age

U.S. law requires that toys and games for young children (ages three to six) carry a warning about choking hazards. If the toy or game includes small parts, marbles, or balloons, it must be marked that it is not appropriate for children under the age of three. Beyond toddlerhood, children begin to develop their own ideas about play activities and the toys that they want. They will be influenced by what they see advertised on television and by their peers. Toy fads and television show tieins can be powerfully persuasive to children. Parents may experience their first opportunities to teach about peer pressure and independent decision-making over toy requests. Toys should be selected to stimulate play and related cognitive and physical development; fad toys are less likely to sustain play activity and support development beyond the fad stage.

Toys and play items appropriate for preschool-age children include: large and small transportation toys; cuddly toy animals; simple musical instruments; farm and zoo animal sets; miniature circus; hospital, police, and fire station sets; bean bags; large balls; art materials such as paints, modeling clay, paste, and colored paper; wagons; tricycles; crawl-through play equipment; simple construction sets; nursery rhyme books; humorous and playful books; activity books; and books about familiar people and places.

For early school-age children, six to nine years old, suggested toys include: construction sets; art materials such as crayons, chalk, paint, modeling clay, and simple weaving materials; chalk, Velcro, or flannel boards; small bicycles; wagons; jump ropes; simple board games; playhouses; puzzles; kites; globes or planetarium sets; aquariums; terrariums; and books about jokes, riddles, tongue twisters, animals, insects, birds, reptiles, and children from other lands and cultures.

Appropriate toys for older school-age children, nine to 12 years, include: croquet, badminton, and shuffleboard sets; sports equipment (baseball, basketball, soccer, football, and tennis); skates and skateboards; aquariums and terrariums; craft sets; hobby sets; electric trains; radio-controlled vehicles; model kits; board games; microscopes; binoculars; compact disc players; camping and backpacking equipment; and books about adventure, science fiction, fantasy, science topics, simple biographies, and jokes, puzzles, riddles, and tongue twisters.

Parental concerns

Violent toys and video games

In addition to product safety, one of the biggest concerns of parents is the growing trend towards toys and video games that promote violence, crime, and war. In 2002, a national department store chain published an advertisement on its web site for a toy called "Forward Command Post" that featured an American soldier standing in a bombed-out house. It's an example of the growing collaboration, in recent years, between the toy and entertainment industry and the U.S. military, according to the activist group Worldwatch Institute. Video games with themes of terrorism and war in Middle-Eastern settings are selling well. In video games, kids can experience virtual combat, are exposed to exploding virtual body parts, and practice committing murder and theft to win games.

Traditionally, boys' and girls' toys have often been contrasted as being "rough-and-tumble" versus "nurturing." But that distinction may be disappearing, not only for healthy reasons of waning gender stereotyping, but for more questionable reasons such as the growing tolerance ofor obliviousness toaggression and hostility in play by both sexes, according to an article in the May-June 2003 issue of World Watch, the institute's official publication.

Many parents are concerned about the growing number and level of acceptance of toys and video games that promote violence and war. However, not everyone agrees on what constitutes a violent toy. Most parents agree guns are symbols of violence. But at what point is the line drawn between a child perceiving a play gun as a toy or a device of violence? Many might agree a BB gun is violent since it can kill and wound small animals and birds and injure humans. But what about a squirt gun that shots water or a Nerf gun that shoots foam balls? To help answer these questions, Daphne White, founder of the Lion & Lamb Project, published a list of guidelines in the November-December 2004 issue of Mothering magazine. Lion & Lamb is an organization founded in 1995 to stop the marketing of violent toys and entertainment to children.

According to White's guidelines, violent toys and video games:

Age range Toys
Birth to two months Activity centers to look at and listen to; mobiles over cribs
Two to four months Rattles, teethers, activity centers to hit or kick while on back.
Four to six months Soft books, roly poly toys
Seven to nine months Nesting cups, pop-up toys
Ten to twelve months Push and pull toys, large blocks, board books, toys that require hand manipulation to "make something happen"
Thirteen to fifteen months Toy telephone, walk-behind toys like doll stroller, soft dolls and animals, balls
Sixteen to eighteen months Simple toy musical instruments, playing with water or sand, shape sorters
Nineteen months to two years Rocking horse, easy puzzles, make-believe toys (plastic houses and people, toy cars and trucks, play food and dishes), crayons and paper
Two to three years Tricycle, toy basketball hoop and balls, toy trains with tracks, dolls with bottles and other equipment, toy kitchen equipment, coloring books and crayons, books
Three to four years Simple crafts (including scissors, glue, and paper), beginning board games, toys for imaginative play
Four to five years Simple sports equipment, books, board and card games, computer games, collections, building blocks
Five to six years Small blocks and building sets, art supplies, activity books, beginning reader books, games
Six years and up Music, books, games, sports equipment. By this age, kids may get particular about their toys according to what is popular with their friends
  • Promote violence and aggression as the best way to settle disputes.
  • Depict violent actions as fun, harmless, and "cool."
  • Encourage children to act out aggressive scenarios.
  • Foster aggressive competition.
  • Depend on "enemies" that must be "destroyed."

When to call the doctor

An inability to play with or lack of interest in toys at an early age may indicate a developmental problem in such areas as gross and fine motor skills . If this is suspected, a pediatrician, psychologist, or other specialist should be consulted.


Cognitive The ability (or lack of) to think, learn, and memorize.

Fine motor skill The abilities required to control the smaller muscles of the body for writing, playing an instrument, artistic expression and craft work. The muscles required to perform fine motor skills are generally found in the hands, feet and head.

Gross motor skills The abilities required to control the large muscles of the body for walking, running, sitting, crawling, and other activities. The muscles required to perform gross motor skills are generally found in the arms, legs, back, abdomen and torso.

See also Cognitive development; Fine motor skills; Gross motor skills.



Neufeld, Les. Making Toys That Teach: With Step-by-Step Instructions and Plans. Newtown, CT: Taunton Press, 2003.

Oppenheim, Joanne, et al. Oppenheim Toy Portfolio, 2005: The Best Toys, Books, Videos, Music, and Software for Kids. New York: Oppenheim Toy Portfolio (Publishers), 2004.

Whittaker, Nicholas. Toys Were Us: A Twentieth-Century History of Toys and Toy-Making. Collingdale, PA: Diane Publishing Co., 2004.


(No author). "Between the Lines." World Watch (May-June 2003): 2829.

Morantz, Carrie, and Brian Torrey. "Selecting Toys for Young Children." American Family Physician (Aug. 15, 2003): 763.

Rubin, Judith L. "No More Junk Toys: Rethinking Children's Gifts." Mothering (November-December 2003): 4653.

Walker, Andrea K. "Joystick and Mouse Cut Regular Toy Sales." The Detroit News (Dec. 15, 2004): Business 1.

White, Daphne. "From War Chests to Toy Chests: How to Change Your Child's Worldview for the Better, One Toy at a Time." Mothering (November-December 2004): 4042.


Toy Industry Association, Inc. 1115 Broadway, Suite 400, New York, NY 10010. (212) 675-1141. Web site: <>.

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Washington, DC 20207-0001. (800) 638-2772. Web site: <>.


U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Toy Safety Publications. Dec. 13, 2004. Available online at: <> (accessed Jan. 2, 2005).

Ken R. Wells

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The term "toy" generally applies to any object used by children in play. However, there is a huge business in creating objects, usually in miniature, designed specifically for children's play. These toys generally model adult culture and society, frequently with great accuracy. In the last half of the twentieth century, model National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) spacecraft, toy ray guns with light and sound action, and spaceships and action figures related to popular films reflected the recent growth of interest in science fiction and space exploration.

There are a wide range of space toys available in the market today. Children have access to transparent model Saturn V rockets, models of the International Space Station, models of the Apollo 15 Lunar Lander with the Lunar Rover, and a complete Cape Canaveral launch pad. The toy manufacturer Brio has a Space Discovery Set suitable for very young children that includes an astronaut, a launch vehicle, and a launch control center with a ground crew member. Lego has three toys in its Life on Mars series: the Excavation Searcher, the Mars Solar Explorer, and the Red Planet Protector. Action Products sells the Complete Space Explorer with models of the space shuttle, Apollo Lunar Lander, Skylab, and dozens of small action figures representing astronauts and ground crews.

The Mars Pathfinder mission, one of a series of robotic explorations of other planets, created many business opportunities for toy manufacturers. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and NASA have signed thirty-seven licensing agreements for products related to this mission, including T-shirts, caps, and toys. One of the most interesting and ambitious toys was the Mattel Hot Wheels JPL Sojourner Mars Rover Action Pack set. This set includes toy models of Sojourner, the Pathfinder spacecraft, and a lander. Many of the Sojourner rover's unique attributes are included, such as its six-wheel independent suspension that allows it to navigate rough terrain. According to Joan Horvath, a business alliance manager with JPL's Technology Affiliates Program, these toy models helped educate both kids and parents alike about the Mars Pathfinder mission in the most user-friendly manner possible. Moreover, it made the business community aware of the many different aspects of the JPL's technology transfer programs.

The success of the Mattel Mars Pathfinder set led to another license agreement. JPL and Mattel teamed up for a toy version of NASA's Galileo spacecraft. The Hot Wheels Jupiter/Europa Encounter Action Pack includes a highly detailed reproduction of the Galileo spacecraft, the Galileo descent probe, and of one of the ground-based antenna dishes.

Toys in Space

Toys have also ventured into space. Carolyn Sumners of the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Houston, Texas, assembled a small group of toys to be flown on space shuttle mission 51-D in April 1985. During the flight, crew members experimented with the toys, demonstrating the behavior of objects under conditions of apparent weightlessness. The first "Toys in Space" mission was so successful, a second group of toys was flown on the STS-54 mission in January 1993. During the second Toys in Space mission, astronauts John Casper and Susan Helms demonstrated how the behavior of several simple toys was quite different under microgravity conditions.

In June 2001, The Lego company teamed up with Space Media, Inc. and RSC Energia to conduct the first experiment on the International Space Station using toys. The Life on Mars: Red Planet Protector was used to measure the mass of an object under zero-gravity conditions. Cosmonauts Talgat Musabayev and Yuri Baturin demonstrated how an object's mass can be determined from oscillation frequency in a weightless environment.

Educational toys related to space exploration can serve the dual roles of providing a good return on investment for toy manufacturers while at the same time providing a rich learning opportunity for children. The vision of Lego, sparking an interest in science and space, can provide a sound basis for socially conscious free enterprise. The cooperative model developed by Mattel and JPL has been mutually beneficial, serving as a strong profit center for Mattel while effectively publicizing NASA and JPL's commitment to technology transfer.

see also Education (volume 1); Mars (volume 2); Microgravity (volume 2); Robotic Exploration of Space (volume 2).

Elliot Richmond


Cross, Gary. Kids' Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Maurer, Richard. Rocket! How a Toy Launched the Space Age. New York: Crown Publishers, 1995.

McCurdy, Howard. Space and the American Imagination. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997.

Payton, Crystal, and Leland Payton. Space Toys: A Collector's Guide to Science Fiction and Astronautical Toys. Sedalia, MO: Collector's Compass, 1982.

Sumners, Carolyn R. Toys in Space: Exploring Science with the Astronauts. New York:TAB Books, 1994.

Young, S. Mark. America, Blast Off! Rockets, Robots, Ray Guns, and Rarities from the Golden Age of Space Toys. New York: Dark House Books, 2001.

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