Story: Children’s play

Page 7. Toys, commercialism and technology

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Doll crazes

The arrival of the Barbie doll in 1959 coincided with the introduction of television to New Zealand in the 1960s. Advertised on television, Barbie became the doll that young girls had to have. Barbie was soon challenged by the Sindy dolls. In the 1980s there were Jem dolls, originally from a television series, while in the 2000s the Bratz dolls spawned their own spinoff films, a television series and music albums. In contrast to the glamour of these doll ranges, the Cabbage Patch Kids of the 1980s had exaggerated chubby, baby-like features.

GI Joe and Action Man action figures produced for boys were extremely popular from the 1960s onwards. The term ‘action figure’ was used to avoid any idea that boys were in fact playing with dolls, an activity traditionally seen as strictly for girls.

Controversial toys

The golliwog – a doll with dark skin, frizzy hair and outlandish clothing, which first appeared in the 1890s – fell out of favour in the 1960s, condemned as a racist caricature. The Barbie doll, representing a young, slim, blonde white female, came under fire from feminists in the 1970s, accused of presenting girls with an impossible body image and a poor role model. The multi-ethnic Bratz dolls of the 2000s were seen as sexualising children through their somewhat raunchy outfits.

Indoor games, collectables and models

In the late 19th century quieter indoor pursuits became more fashionable, including playing with painting sets, jigsaw puzzles, board games and card games, and collecting activities. Children cut out pictures from newspapers and magazines, then pasted them into newsprint scrapbooks. Building up stamp, cigarette card and postcard collections involved the joys of both collecting and swapping. The spread of indoor pursuits reflected an increase in prosperity and the wider availability of games and collectable materials.

Collectable items were often used to promote products. Cigarettes, tea, chewing gum and breakfast cereals are among the products that have used cards in this way. Some companies also produced albums for pasting in entire sets of cards. Small plastic animals in cornflakes packets were used as toys by young children and as collectors’ items by older children. Fast-food companies such as McDonalds gave away plastic toys with food purchases.

Toy soldiers were available in lead and tin forms in the 19th century, to be replaced by plastic soldiers in the 20th. In the 20th century building model aircraft and other vehicles from kits became a common hobby for boys. Models and collectables were both influenced by television and films, such as Thunderbirds, Star wars and the James Bond films.

Top toys of 2011

Top sellers from the 2011 pre-Christmas survey by the retailer Toyworld included Cookie Pie Pup, a toy dog that responds to commands and barks; Elmo Rock singing toy; Lego building blocks; Transformers plastic toys; Sylvanian Families animal figures; and outdoor gym sets. The biggest seller was the Beyblade Battle Set, a spinning-top game.

Computer games

Many children played Space Invaders and other games in the video arcades that were set up in the 1970s. By the end of the 1980s gaming consoles were widespread. The general availability of home computers in the 21st century meant that for many children computer games became a standard form of entertainment. This has led to public concerns over both the content of some games and whether children are now spending too much time in front of screens.

How to cite this page:

Peter Clayworth, 'Children’s play - Toys, commercialism and technology', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/childrens-play/page-7 (accessed 20 April 2019)

Story by Peter Clayworth, published 5 Sep 2013