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Keeping the Play Alive

Feb 14, 2011

by Michelle Traub handmade and vintage goods

This week, the International Toy Fair is taking place in New York and our very own daniellexo will be speaking on a panel, in addition to various Etsy artists running demos of crocheting, sculpting, and felting. Getting the word out about sustainable, responsible, handmade toy production at a trade show means more meaningful playthings in the little hands that matter most.

Photo by LIFE Magazine

Too often these days, I think of toys as the flood of plastic that subsumes my feet the moment I step into a playroom. Corporate characters claw at my ankles, launching broken bit grenades over untouched dolls and solo-player games sticky with battery acid. My niece is one week away from coming into this world, and I plan on equipping her with the best defense I know: a hand-sewn wool plushie. With a simply stitched face that encourages imagination along with love, I can only hope she finds whatever friend she’s looking for in that fuzzy embrace.

As our society has changed, so too have our toys. Where toy production used to be in the home, traditions passed from generation to generation, or craftsmen at German markets, sharing stories and cultures, now we find ourselves inundated with fads, advertising and cheap anonymity. Our preoccupation with consumption and luxury has led to toddlers who want more, not necessarily better. In A History of Toys, Antonia Fraser writes, “Toys are the starting-point of dreams.” Yet when I watch youths pull Dora the Explorer out of their backpacks, they are merely regurgitating narratives and characters that have been fed to them. Where is the self expression? Where is the creativity?

Photo by LIFE Magazine

Marbles, spinning tops, and yo-yos share universal, ancient histories. They have endured because they capture something fundamental to young humanity. When we support the commercial machine-made toy industry, are we sacrificing a legacy of imaginative play for the next generation?

Children on the Blog | Toys Category

Wolf Mask
Wolf Mask
$12.00 USD
wooden rocking horse
wooden rocking horse
$235.00 USD
Childs Art Smock- Toddler Boys- Cars & Trucks 2T-4T (ready to ship)
Childs Art Smock- Toddler Boys- Cars & Trucks 2T-4T (ready to ship)
Felt Balls - Custom Letters
Felt Balls - Custom Letters
Meet Ingrid
Meet Ingrid


  • blueskyclouds

    blueskyclouds said 5 years ago

    I just love those old Life photos...just so sweet...!

  • TwinkleStarCrafts

    TwinkleStarCrafts said 5 years ago

    Great article and very thought provoking.

  • VictoriaMBaron

    VictoriaMBaron said 5 years ago

    Great article

  • maggiemaevintage

    maggiemaevintage said 5 years ago

    love the good old fashioned toys!

  • DecadesOfVintage

    DecadesOfVintage said 5 years ago

    Great point of view. As I pack up items to be mailed I often think about the fun of playing with empty boxes.

  • dreamversion

    dreamversion said 5 years ago

    Oh! This article awakened many memories of carefree childhood... Thank you!

  • sweetpoppycat

    sweetpoppycat said 5 years ago

    I feel this exact way. Every time I know one of my monsters is going to someone little it makes me so happy. Imagination is a terrible thing to waste. Let's nurture that in our kids, our grandkids and kids of others!

  • JudiPaintedit

    JudiPaintedit said 5 years ago

    Great article!

  • papercutworks

    papercutworks said 5 years ago

    I participated in the ITF twice for my last job, and it was an overwhelmingly commercial experience. I'm glad Danielle will be presenting and hopefully convincing shop owners about the importance of creativity for child's development. Good luck!

  • prettydreamer

    prettydreamer said 5 years ago

    Thank you for the wonderful post!

  • kristieb

    kristieb said 5 years ago

    I couldn't agree more. I refuse to buy children character toys because it breaks my heart when I see children re-enacting something they have seen on tv. I believe in the creativity and imagination of children who are given things to bring to life in the way they see fit. Simple toys are often the most loved. I'm currently making my brand-new niece, Livia, a custom doll that looks like her, complete with hand-sewn, embroidered and knit clothes (I plan to make Livia-sized versions of the same clothes). I hope that Livia and her mini-Liv doll have many secret adventures together.

  • TheVinylChalkboard

    TheVinylChalkboard said 5 years ago

    Great Post! I love the pictures of the little girls!

  • ShoponSherman

    ShoponSherman said 5 years ago

    Toys should be about fun and imagination. Not just about it being the "hot" toy or about learning. More parents should make toys for or with their children.

  • vKnit

    vKnit said 5 years ago

    good read :) i really love those apple cores! xox

  • iWALLS

    iWALLS said 5 years ago

    I just love the handmade toys! What a wonderful article!

  • Floreal

    Floreal said 5 years ago

    Michelle: This is such a great collection of handmade toys for kids...unique, creative and mentally stimulating.

  • inoubliable79

    inoubliable79 said 5 years ago

    great article. hearing from my mother (who is a buyer and at the ITF for work) this weekend about the large Lego displays of corporate characters made me think "what in the world?? i'm so glad my kids are still building towns and cities and beasties with their Legos!". i love, love, love the handmade toys i find on Etsy for my kids. wooden pull toys, felted beasties, shaped crayons, puppets, etc. it's all good stuff. my house might be loud and messy sometimes, but i'm happy knowing my kids are expressing themselves and not just regurgitating what they would see on TV if they watched it.

  • clareyclayworks

    clareyclayworks said 5 years ago

    great article! thank you.

  • dropkicktims

    dropkicktims said 5 years ago

    Awesome article! I was at the toy fair doing a demo yesterday, and so many people were very excited to see Etsy represented, and happy to see hand-made toys. But of course, there are always the more negative people out there that like to throw in a "why are you even here?"

  • Pier541

    Pier541 said 5 years ago

    This is so true; and i just happened to be talking about this the other day to one of my good friends. I think that society today is trying to shove fake "imagination" down the throats of the younger generation. I am now in high school and babysit kids, and when they watch a TV show, i think about my childhood and how even only 14 years ago, Kids TV shows were somehow better and more though provoking than "Go Diego go" or "Baby Einsteins". As for me, i watched the amazing Blues Clues and veggie-tales, and even veggie-tales has degraded since then. It makes me kind of sad. why can't we bring back the innocent play of a child and his simple toy made of wood? It doesn't have to talk or move, or do anything! I remember playing with spoons and forks pretending they were people! I'm so glad someone else agrees with me on this, I throughly enjoyed this posting. :)

  • AZCreativeStudio

    AZCreativeStudio said 5 years ago

    Handmade and vintage toys are amazing!

  • shannondzikas

    shannondzikas said 5 years ago

    Oh, I want to go make a toy for my son now! Pretty photos!

  • AmberGypsySky

    AmberGypsySky said 5 years ago

    Absolutely love and agree with this article. If I ever have children, they will certainly be playing with toys they can express themselves with that are handmade...thanks for this!

  • Kraichey

    Kraichey said 5 years ago

    Thank you for this article. I couldn't agree with you more! I enjoyed the vintage photos and the related items.

  • giginstudio

    giginstudio said 5 years ago

    I completely agree. I started my business because my friend who has been collecting miniatures even longer than I have has all boys. We both love our dollhouses and know that the current styles are not close to appealing to little boys (nor sturdy enough to withstand boys playing house : ) So I came up with sleek modern styles that work for either boys or more sophisticated little girls who think beyond frills. I love creativity of any kind, and this challenged me to create a new way to look at an old hobby. When I see a tiny little girl looking longingly at my destroyed gilt platform bed, and hear that she wants to be able to tuck her dolls under the covers, I know I am still able to access the little person inside. Handmade makes people happy and something to treasure! Post perfection.

  • aynart

    aynart said 5 years ago

    keeping the child within happy is key to keeping sane and enjoying life!

  • TipsyTimeMachine

    TipsyTimeMachine said 5 years ago

    The few toys kept from my childhood were handcrafted dolls and wood toys made by my favourite creative toys were plain old lego and tinkertoys which you could make into anything and of course large cardboard boxes (transcormed into a fort, spaceship, or house). I notice that my neice and nephew are terrible at playing by themselves or coming up with their own games. They expect to be constantly entertained instead of being capable of entertaining themselves. Even when we do crafts, they want me to tell them what to make, and copy what is on the box...they are wonderful kids and I hope they will be able to develop their creativity in the future.

  • ThoseThreeWords

    ThoseThreeWords said 5 years ago

    Love those old-fashioned toys, they really are a treasure.

  • MegansMenagerie

    MegansMenagerie said 5 years ago

    This is such a cute article! The simplicity of those toys compared to today's. So much has changed!

  • iloveluci

    iloveluci said 5 years ago

    I am in love with those felt balls!

  • lovelygifts

    lovelygifts said 5 years ago

    Love the apple cores!

  • battysbath

    battysbath said 5 years ago

    It's the simple things in life like the toys passed down from generation to generation that makes life grand. Great thought provoking article! Definitely refreshing :)

  • anneofavonlea

    anneofavonlea said 5 years ago

    Really thought-provoking! Loved this article, and the pictures were so sweet. Thanks for all the time that you took to remind us that simple things are the best. Old paths are sometimes the better. Thanks again! :)

  • Bumbleweedz

    Bumbleweedz said 5 years ago

    So true, these are words to live by. Children are our future.

  • lucyalyce

    lucyalyce said 5 years ago

    Great article. I would love to see Etsy make more toys and clothes geared towards boys. It is quite a search to find cute things for them.

  • SimpleJoysPaperie

    SimpleJoysPaperie said 5 years ago

    Adorable vintage photos! I'd much rather gift a toy gift that was handmade and causes a child to think and interact more often.

  • lovepray

    lovepray said 5 years ago

    beautiful article

  • YellowViolet

    YellowViolet said 5 years ago

    Face it - we are raising a generation of kids who won't be able to find their way out of a paper bag without some handheld electronic device telling them which way to go. And at the same time littering the earth with tons and tons of plastic in primary colors. It's sad but it's not going to stop.

  • KMalinka

    KMalinka said 5 years ago

    Nice article!

  • odiliafu

    odiliafu said 5 years ago

    Love the handmade toys on Etsy. I especially like the ones made of handcrafted wood.

  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat said 5 years ago

    I think it's sad that there's a whole generation growing up who lack the imaginative skill to tell stories to their own children when they're grown up.

  • theroyal

    theroyal said 5 years ago

    good times

  • amyfine

    amyfine said 5 years ago

    beautiful post

  • FrancesPhotography

    FrancesPhotography said 5 years ago

    I totally agree - it is so sad and I cannot keep away from it . I love the photos as well.

  • coldhamcuddlies

    coldhamcuddlies said 5 years ago

    My beef is that not enough children have cuddly toys and too many have these computer games. The former send one to sleep: the latter just make them hyper (old-fashioned? maybe: but I know which sort I'd go for had I grandchildren or little ones needing a playmate!

  • wahlrus

    wahlrus said 5 years ago

    Beautiful photos and message. Thanks for sharing! EtsyLove from, Jamie

  • Kinakt

    Kinakt said 5 years ago

    I used to spend whole summers building, flying, and crashing models airplanes. And I felt like the only kid doing it. Now, there are definitely no kids outside building forts or playing kick the can. There really is a lack of imagination with kids today. Why figure something out on your own when you can Google it and find the answer in 1.2 seconds with a million matching results.

  • cosseycreations

    cosseycreations said 5 years ago

    As an artist, it was important for me to teach my doughter about art so, I started teaching her drawing and painting with acrylics when she was three years old. I belief the best time to pass on your talents to your children is when they are very young, their mind is free of worries and ready to learn. My advice is to take the time and teach them, share your talens whatever that might be, children are so creative all they need is guidance. My doughter is now fourteen, she is very artistic and creative, she plays the violin and continues painting with acrylics.

  • girliepains

    girliepains said 5 years ago

    So fuckin' cute!!!!!!!

  • Krystyna81

    Krystyna81 said 5 years ago

    I think kids can never have too many legos, matchbox cars, play doh, or crayons. I was thrilled that 2 weeks after Christmas, my kids were still playing with the 24 packs of new markers I got them, the battery powered garbage trucks and video games long forgotten. Wishing DanielleXO lots of luck as she presents the case for handmade...we appreciate it!

  • accentonvintage

    accentonvintage said 5 years ago

    There's lots you can do with a oatmeal container. Great article!

  • tuckooandmoocow

    tuckooandmoocow said 5 years ago

    Although I don't have any children of my own, I am the oldest of a large family and have been blessed to be able to play with little children all the way up until now while I'm in my twenties. Even though my own siblings have always played with Disney characters and other figurines McDonalds stuffs in with their "food", none of these toys have stories or names now that resemble their original ones. Having recently been introduced to "Jarvin" who "guards the river Styx and is so evil he kills PUPPIES!" but strongly resembles Batman, I'm not too worried about the imagination of today's children. What does concern me is the lack of time in a day left for children to play in.

  • QueenofCuffs

    QueenofCuffs said 5 years ago

    I loved Fuzzy Felt and the paper fortune game. Bring back imagination.

  • collectiblesatoz

    collectiblesatoz said 5 years ago

    I just love vintage toys. Lots of memories.

  • breadandroses2

    breadandroses2 said 5 years ago

    Thanks for doing this, daniellexo! But ultimately, it's parents and caregivers who set the example. Turn off the gadgets, get outside or on the floor with a tub of building blocks or paper & crayons. Time spent IN THE PRESENT with children makes the good memories that last a lifetime, not to mention stimulates genuine imagination and creativity. Technology based entertainment is a very poor substitute for developing mind power.

  • julessabjewelry

    julessabjewelry said 5 years ago

    I love toys and continue to buy them for my husband. The marbles and yo-yo's were my absolute favorite and my husband just adores the light wood planes you could by for a quarter.

  • HoldTheWire

    HoldTheWire said 5 years ago

    There are so many terrific toy makers on this site! A lot of my kids' toys were from a Montessori catalog, but it was before I knew about Etsy. Love the wood blocks you featured.

  • pogoshop

    pogoshop said 5 years ago

    Great article, Michelle! I think we easily underestimate children's ability to create magic with a simple toy. Their imaginations are perfectly able to bring a soft doll, a hero's cape, or a wooden train to life.

  • stepbackink

    stepbackink said 5 years ago

    Good article and it makes all think about the quality of the toys our children should have. :)

  • traceystreasures

    traceystreasures said 5 years ago

    Children still need old fashion toys and old fashion outside play time- that's the best memories of my childhood. That's when a child's imagination is stretched beyond all limits and the imaginary world and reality become wonderfully intertwined. It is when a child realizes they can become whomever, whatever they want, whenever they want it- it's a time when the brain is swept away in believing it is actually living out those fascinating, creative dreams- the brain actually secretes hormones and the body actually uses those hormones to relieve stress, provide well-being, feelings of happiness, joy and importance- in doing so it creates a stronger immune system, which creates better health... (and the benefits of creative, imaginative play goes on and on- actually effecting your social skills, which bleed over to your school work, which helps tremendously in who and what you become when you're grown and how you interact with strangers, family and co-workers. And you thought it was just an old-fashion toy ;)

  • e5jewel

    e5jewel said 5 years ago

    Great article-thanks for sharing! It brought back care-free, simpler times. Sad to say the imagination is lost these days. Kid's seem to get bored too easily without the TV and electronic gadgets, computer games. Those are a plus, and necessity almost in helping kids learn today, but the key is keeping a balance. (as with everything!) It is up to us as parents and caregivers to keep the imaginative play alive, and be active with our kids in doing so. It keeps us alive as well!

  • frommylifetoyours

    frommylifetoyours said 5 years ago

    All I can say is that is so true.

  • willowbaus

    willowbaus said 5 years ago

    open ended play as a child makes for the most interesting adults in my opinion!


    ARIIEL said 5 years ago

    couldn't agree more...thanks for sharing and keeping it alive!

  • Pipkyn

    Pipkyn said 5 years ago

    I couldn't agree more. I hate the idea of mountains of plastic and disposable 'stuff' a few well chosen toys can bring so much joy, I remember it from my childhood and I can see it with my nephews now.

  • poorjimsvintage

    poorjimsvintage said 5 years ago

    hearts for vintage toys.

  • LittleWrenPottery

    LittleWrenPottery said 5 years ago

    I agree, some of my favourite toys when I was a kid were the simplest! Even my mums pots and pans :)

  • mandymoomoo

    mandymoomoo said 5 years ago

    Awesome article, adorable pictures. I agree 100% with this article, more imagination needs to be fostered with our little ones.

  • PlumeandPetals

    PlumeandPetals said 5 years ago

    So sweet I love it =)

  • VintageLoot

    VintageLoot said 5 years ago

    Awesome article -- wish things were still like that!

  • DrawntoLetters

    DrawntoLetters said 5 years ago

    I coud not agree more. There is hope: I teach in an after school program that does not allow computers...and the most popular pastime for 3rd graders (boys too) is knitting on two pencils(-cause that's all I had handy!) They love it.

  • EstherFink

    EstherFink said 5 years ago

    Great article, very insightful. Happy Valentines Day.

  • priya123

    priya123 said 5 years ago

    Great article:0 Thanks for posting. Yes times have changed, kids get bored without the electronic gadgets.. wish life was so simple & happy like in my childhood.

  • TubeHeaven

    TubeHeaven said 5 years ago

    thanks for addressing this issue, especially in light of all of the CPSIA issues. as a mom of three, i find that i have good intentions, and it is hard to fight off commercialism, plastic toys, and excess. i am constantly striving for less toys and more imagination, but it is really hard! i'm glad etsy supports those intentions.

  • sassefrass

    sassefrass said 5 years ago

    Agreed! Thanks for sharing this article!

  • HouseOfMoss

    HouseOfMoss said 5 years ago

    Such a beautiful article, Michelle! Having been both a nanny and a creative child myself, I appreciate a quality of realness and space for creativity in children's toys. And when I have my own children, they will own playthings found on Etsy for sure!

  • FeltShmelt

    FeltShmelt said 5 years ago

    So well written and absolutely true - when I have kids, I can't wait to surround them with toys that spark imagination and go back to nature and a simpler time. Thank you for this!

  • blupony808

    blupony808 said 5 years ago

    Oh my...couldn't agree more with this bit...I was privy to see inside Fisher-Price's studio...and there it was a wall 'o' toys that lit up, made noises, walked, talked, and plastic...just made me miss the ol' FP when they made dolls with just eyes and a smile...awesome story.

  • Plinkjewelry

    Plinkjewelry said 5 years ago

    great read

  • feltonthefly

    feltonthefly said 5 years ago

    Toys that encourage a child to use his/her imagination - meaning, the *toy* doesn't dictate to the *child* how it should be played with. And toys made from natural materials are important as well. Is this a TVP for my wool felt? No, not thinly veiled at all. I'm right out there in the open with my opinion that natural, sustainable, environmentally friendly wool felt is the way to go...From the sheep to the toy. Sweet. Great article. Great comments above.

  • rawbeanlootbag

    rawbeanlootbag said 5 years ago

    I'm honored that my birds were included in this article! They were inspired by a book about a painted bird that I had as a child. The drawings are so simple but the story stuck with me. I still have the book!

  • jewellerytreasures

    jewellerytreasures said 5 years ago

    beautiful photos of the children playing with traditional toys and love the products

  • JewelsbyJasmin

    JewelsbyJasmin said 5 years ago

    Great article! Kids should enjoy and stretch their imaginations and not be restricted by the toys they play with. Lovely choices of toys too - love the wooden apple cores!

  • MorningGloryCrochet

    MorningGloryCrochet said 5 years ago

    Something to think about

  • LouVintage

    LouVintage said 5 years ago

    Adorable. I love the little caterpillar :)

  • manualidadespetro

    manualidadespetro said 5 years ago

    Beautiful photos and message

  • coldhamcuddlies

    coldhamcuddlies said 5 years ago

    Whew! After three evenings on the computer, have managed to contact everyone who has commented here, I think. Thanks to those who have responded - will be getting back to you soon, starting later this evening. For those who have not, look forward to hearing from you soon - or sometime. Meanwhile, as I said before, good wishes to you all.

  • thebeachhousegallery

    thebeachhousegallery said 5 years ago

    Love the vintage children photos. Your on the pulse! So why don't enough people commit to buying children toys here in the states, and not from foreign countries. There are craft and art fairs almost everywhere these days. Good writing, and keep asking those questions! Inez Dunn

  • gabrielletx

    gabrielletx said 5 years ago

    What a wonderful post. It's so true, children of this generation need to be encouraged to use their imagination more! Lovely thoughts. :) -Gabbie

  • Vanessa Admin

    Vanessa said 5 years ago

    I feel conflicted about this because the narratives that children relate to through books, tv and movies are just like the mythologies of yesteryear. These can be interactive and promote creative play too. It's a way for children to relate to each other though shared stories, and build their own narratives together off of these shared stories. I do agree that children should have finely made toys with more organic materials, though. Something about garish plastic and bleeping sounds makes me cringe.

  • ElishevaShop

    ElishevaShop said 5 years ago

    Wow I whole heartedly agree, I will link this to my blog if you don't mind. I do like your never beat around the bush attitude. So refreshing. How do you do with relating this to a five year old? I have, in my way, tried to talk a little about choosing toys that are made well and from handmade or fairly traded sources to my five year old. She totally gets it, and loves the earth with a kind of love you know goes through to the heart. Then we go somewhere and there is yet another blonde barbie to woo her back to the unreal and totally confuse her; ) Elizabeth

  • TheLaughingButterfly

    TheLaughingButterfly said 5 years ago

    I agree. I have two kids and lots of toys they hardly play with them though! They were off from school for a week and mostly used their imaginations to play...building forts, lego, drawing and rolling down a grassy hill at a park.

  • Menominie1

    Menominie1 said 5 years ago


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