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You Can Toy With This Museum

Disney likes to say that Disneyland is the “happiest place on Earth.” If indeed the happiest place is in Anaheim, the runner-up may be in Rochester, NY… The National Museum of Play, which includes the Toy Hall of Fame.

Many of us probably had no idea there was a Toy Hall of Fame, but hey…if everything from bowling to darts to aviation having their own, why not something that “play” such an important part of most of our childhoods?

The Toy Hall of Fame is a part of the Museum of Play, which began in the 1960s as “The Strong” – the Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum of Fascination. The 156 000 square foot building has added exhibits and wings since and in 1998, someone had the idea for the Toy Hall. They aim to recognize toys which are icons, being widely recognized and remembered; exhibit longevity and promote learning or discovery. They give bonus points for those which are seen as “innovative.”

The first year, they inducted 11 toys which are about as classic as they come: baby dolls, Barbie dolls, Crayola crayons, erector sets, Etch-a-sketch, Frisbees, Lego, marbles, Monopoly, Playdoh and teddy bears. Since then they’ve added in some 57 more including Atari game systems, Big Wheels, checkers, Dungeons and Dragons, GI Joe dolls, Gameboys, rubber ducks, and View Master. A handful of more “out of the box thinking” toys have made it in too, like blankets and sticks!

The newest additions last year were the Magic 8-ball (it could’ve told you it’d be in if you asked it!), Uno and pinball machines. This year they’ll add two or three more from a list of nominees including Jenga, Care Bears, coloring books, Risk, Matchbox cars (which you might recall, if of a certain age, actually were sold in “matchboxes” at one time), the Fisher Price corn popper, and most controversially, Smart phones. I’d never heard of the corn popper, but recognized it as soon as I saw it, the little push-along on wheels developed in 1957, which the Hall says was not only fun but promoted motor skills and curiosity.

I’ll be pulling for the coloring books and Matchboxes (the racier Hot Wheels already made it in), parts of my childhood memories to be sure. I think back to my childhood and the toys I remember mostly, that I spent the most time with and got the most out of were toy cars like Hot Wheels and Matchboxes and Lego. Sometimes they’d go together, with me building buildings and driving the little cars between them. I loved the futuristic designs and bright metallic paints on the Hot Wheels , which could be raced on their trademark orange tracks as well, but also loved the realism and attention to detail of the Matchboxes. Although it bothered me immensely that they weren’t all to scale. A giant dumptruck or Greyhound bus Matchbox were the same length as a Volkswagen or Ford Capri. I rationalized that the Greyhound should have been about three times as long, because… well that’s the type of four year old I was!

I particularly liked Lego. Lego back in the ’70s was a bit different than most of it today. I mean, sure the bricks snapped together and came in bright colors as they still do but back then, they just came in big assorted boxes. I loved using my imagination to put together houses of my dreams, with the windows and doors where I wanted, the architecture my choice. Many a cold winter afternoon was spent building up houses, towers or cities of the future on the living room floor.

There weren’t any Batman or other cartoon character Lego people and there were basically no blueprints. No rules or limits. When I pass by the kdis sections of stores these days, the Lego kits are all very detailed and specific. build this car or this spaceship or that home with the bricks in this box. Not one brick too many or too few, just follow the instructions. It bothers me that today’s kids, if they actually step away from the electronic screens long enough to pick up a Lego set, will have so little incentive to use their imagination.

Now, learning to follow instructions is important, no doubt. But so too is thinking independently and creatively. Using one’s imagination. Flights of fancy. I learned to follow rules and instructions just fine through school, family life, even toys which required careful attention to detail, like plastic models of trucks. Would be silly to have had the transmission on the cab roof or headlights on the back of the frame, after all. But I’m convinced toys like Lego helped me imagine things and create, tear down what didn’t work and feel proud of what did. those skills have made me a part of the person I am, the writer part, the photographer part. Probably the “interesting” part actually!

What about you, dear readers? What toys were important to you when you were a kid? How did they help you become who you are today.

I can only wonder if today’s youth will look back as fondly on Fortnite or Vine videos four decades from now.