A Brief History Of Children’s Learning Toys


People have been discussing and writing about education since the ancient times. It’s funny to know that through all those years, they did not think of using specifically designed objects to teach their children until the 17th century. Keep reading to discover interesting facts about the history of children’s learning toys.

History of Children’s Learning Toys

17th Century

Locke’s Blocks

John Locke (1632-1704), a great philosopher, published ‘Some Thoughts Concerning Education’ in which he put forward a revolutionary concept of children learning through ‘Play-things’. Locke supported the idea of cubes with alphabet letters on them to aid children in their early literacy development. These cubes have become known as Locke’s Blocks.

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The book, which was first available in 1693, had a profound influence on the European society at that time. In fact, it laid the foundation for other 18th century works on pedagogical theories. Centuries later, as of now, educators still talk about it. Locke’s Blocks are among the earliest known examples of children’s learning toys.

18th Century

Jigsaw Puzzle

You may have learned that John Spilsbury, who was a cartographer and engraver, invented the jigsaw puzzle in 1767. But there may be a person who had thought of this toy concept long before Spilsbury, and that is Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. Born in 1711, Beaumont was one of a few successful novelists. She wrote the world-famous version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’, which has become a timeless classic, although its original unabridged plot was credited to Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve.

It is believed that Beaumont had used a kind of dissected map (another name for jigsaw puzzle) to teach Geography. But there is no hard conclusive evidence. Therefore, Spilsbury is widely known as the father of the jigsaw puzzle.

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This toy was not originally meant to be a toy, though. Mapmakers in the 1760s would draw maps on wood and then cut the wood into pieces. This practice gave rise to the idea of a puzzle. More than two centuries later, the jigsaw puzzle is still widely embraced by learners of all ages. It’s actually one of the best children’s learning toys on anyone’s list. Now the puzzle is not just used for teaching Geography but for a huge range of fields, including language, flora, and fauna, mathematics, music, etc.

The First Idea of a Toy Store

Richard Lovell Edgeworth was a renowned inventor, politician, and writer in the 18th century in England. His daughter, Maria Edgeworth, was a prolific and influential writer of children’s books. Together they came up with the idea of a shop where people would sell educational toys. This vision was first expressed in a book titled ‘Practical Education’ published in 1798.

Even though they lived more than 200 years ago, their picture of a toy shop was not very different from what we have today. They suggested that the shop should provide a wide range of materials for various fields, such as chemistry, carpentry, gardening, natural history, and handicrafts.

But it was just words on paper. Back then, toys could only be afforded by the rich. Interestingly, in 1760, William Hamley opened the first toy store in the world and named it Noah’s Ark. We know it today as Hamley. This was and is still the ultimate place where you get good toys for kids. The success of this giant toy store encouraged more toy providers. And thanks to new machines made possible by the Industrial Revolution, toys could be mass produced and became more accessible to the working class.

19th Century

Froebel’s Gifts

The historical picture of children’s learning toys wouldn’t be complete without Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel – an acclaimed educator.

From around 1836, Froebel introduced to the world a set of “gifts”, including softballs in solid colors, spheres, cubes and other geometrically shaped wooden blocks. There were more than one set of gifts. Some other sets included wooden measurement tools, foldable paper, etc. These sets were meant to stimulate children’s, especially kindergarten ones, creativity and learning of basic mathematics. Froebel wanted children to involve all five of their senses when playing with these sets. This way, they would learn amazing concepts of quantity, weights, shapes, causes, and effects. Back then, Froebel’s Gifts were the best educational toys for preschoolers.

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 Froebel also coined the term “kindergarten” as he opened the first one of its kind in the world in 1837. His kindergarten soon won the trust of busy parents who did not have time to care for their young children. So, the concept has never changed.

20th Century

Construction Toys  

The early 20th century is the age of building toy sets designed to prepare children for a bright future in an industrialized world. Parents wanted their children to be good at mechanics and engineering. Let’s look at the giant players in this emerging toy industry.

Frank Hornby invented the Meccano set in 1899. It was patented in 1901 by the name “Mechanics Made Easy”.

In 1913, Erector Set was introduced by A. C. Gilbert. This set had girders and bolts used to make miniature structures such as buildings and self-actuated machines.

Meccano and Erector were followed by Tinkertoy (1914) and Lincoln Logs (1918). Lego was first introduced only in Denmark and Germany in the 1930s. Its reputation only spread like wildfire with its introduction to the world in the 1950s.

Computational Toys

In the early 20th century, the concept of a machine whose computing powers overshadow those of the smartest scientists was very exciting to professionals in the field. To the mass, however, it was merely a vision for the distant future that had no bearing on their current lives then. But as the concept gradually materialized and well-paid jobs appeared on the horizon, parents started to take computers seriously. They would welcome the arrival of toys that could familiarize their children with coding or the working mechanism of a computer.

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The toy companies gave them just that. Computational toys in the 20th century taught kids to build their own circuits and write instructions for machines.


This is just a brief overview of how children’s learning toys were developed through times. Anyway, we hope it’s enough to give you a broader perspective every time you see a toy. Remember, all toys have a history. They need to be appreciated and preserved.

A Brief History Of Children’s Learning Toys
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