Play Stuff Blog

The Strong’s historians, curators, librarians, and other staff offer insights into and anecdotes about the critical role of play in human development and the ways in which toys, dolls, games, and video games reflect cultural history.

Let’s Put on a Show!

Photograph of Wendy Tribelhorn with Santa Claus puppet, 1962, gift of William Tribelhorn. The Strong, Rochester, New York. When I was growing up and my sister and I got together with our favorite cousins, there was hardly anything we liked better than putting on a show for the grown-ups. As I recall, the five of us kids would descend to our basement rec room where we’d cook up a script, cast the parts, devise costumes from the dress-up box, and practice our dramatic extravaganza. Meanwhile, I suspect our parents were upstairs rolling their eyes and bracing themselves for the semi-torture of sitting through our amateur theatrical. But for the kids at least, the pleasure of the endeavor was primarily in the creative and collaborative process, not in the performance itself which tended to be on the short side and probably got lukewarm reviews from the audience (good sports though the adults were to sit through what we’d concocted).

Script, 1852. The Strong, Rochester, New York.

Those childhood memories got revived recently as I was exploring The Strong museum’s collection and I encountered a photo of a girl inside a homemade theater alongside a Santa Claus hand puppet. I especially like the hand-crayoned backdrop behind them, obviously the product of some industrious kid. All of which made me think that these days with a hiatus from school classrooms might provide an ideal opportunity for kids and grown-ups to engage in a little homespun theatrical magic.

Children have been putting on shows of one sort or another for centuries and probably even longer. One of the earlier home theatrical items I spotted in the museum’s holdings is a script titled Webb’s Juvenile Drama: Robin Hood and the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest from 1852. It calls itself “a Drama in Two Acts,” which sounds somewhat more serious and ambitious than my cousins and I ever were. You probably don’t have a spare script sitting around your house, but don’t let that hold you back. My cousins and I tended to do endless productions spoofing The Wizard of Oz, a story all of us pretty much knew by heart. And I’m guessing there are fairy tales, nursery rhymes, or other stories in your own repertoire that could serve as the basis for your show.

Sesame Street Theater, 1982, a gift from the Jim Henson Family. The Strong, Rochester, New York. What’s going to serve as your theatrical venue? Sheets over a clothesline or rope can make fine curtains for a performance and lawn chairs or the living room sofa could work well for the audience. Or you could go smaller scale and carve an opening in the side of a cardboard box to act as your proscenium. Toy manufacturers have a long history of producing theaters for kids to use. An 1850 printed toy called the Pictorial Review Theater provided a stage, backdrops, and all the characters you’d need to act out the story of Little Red Riding Hood (another story that most of us easily remember). More than a century later, the Sesame Street Theater makes clear on its box that “puppets are not included” and the theater’s construction makes it look like a case of “some assembly required”—those words that strike fear in the heart of every parent at birthdays and other gift-giving holidays.

Photograph of Peggy Granger and her puppets, 1955. The Strong, Rochester, New York. Have you thought about who to cast as your show’s stars? Maybe you’re ready to be an all-purpose writer-director-performer triple threat. Or perhaps this is just the opportunity that your hand puppets have been auditioning for. Puppets were inducted into The Strong’s National Toy Hall of Fame in 2015, in recognition of their timeless value as inspirations for creative play. Don’t have easy access to a puppet or three? Then it’s time to enlist your stuffed animals for the cause. Or maybe you want to make construction paper characters you can mount on those stirrer sticks that might be hanging around from the last time you bought a gallon of latex paint.

Now that I’ve piqued your interest in becoming a theatrical producer or performer, I hope you’ll carry through to put on a show of your own. And, when you do, don’t neglect to share your experiences with The Strong’s Play Stories project, dedicated to gathering, preserving, and sharing stories, images, and videos about play in 2020. So gather the cast, turn on the spotlights, curtains up—let the show begin!

Creativity in the Time of Quarantine

While recent world events may be causing many of us to feel uncertain—or even stuck—as most businesses, restaurants, and entertainment venues remain closed indefinitely, the circumstances seem to be fueling something much bigger: a global tidal wave of creativity.

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Domestic Hobbies: Flattening the Curve from Home

It feels so long ago when I last wrote about domestic hobbies as play. It was indeed a different world—if we told our past selves what our lives look like now, we wouldn’t believe ourselves.

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Toy Fair 2020: Things That Make You Go Eww

In 2018, the toy industry saw a significant increase in toys related to potty humor. Some critics speculated that this was based on the popularity of the smiling poop emoji on the iPhone, while others associated the trend with the new generation of parents raised on South Park’s Mr. Hankey, The Simpsons, and Family Guy. Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D., author of Playful Parenting, noted that the sensory experience of using the bathroom combined with the “hush-hush privacy and secrecy” creates the opportune moment for children to get a reaction from adults.

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Michigan in New York

Mary Valentine The Strong Museum Trustee  

When I was a kid, Sundays were my favorite day of the week, because my dad was home (he worked Monday through Saturday) and we got to play the card game Michigan.

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Playing with Almost Nothing

In these days of lockdowns and social distancing, resourcefulness has become a watchword in so many facets of our lives. All of us are working to become a little more adept at making the most of what’s immediately at hand in our homes. Fortunately, when it comes to play, sometimes the primary raw material turns out to be ingenuity—something that doesn’t require a trip to the store or an online purchase.

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A Soft Spot for Blanket Forts

You look up from your work email after hearing muffled giggles and the sounds of shuffling furniture, with a vague feeling that every single blanket in your house is being dragged to a central location. Don’t be alarmed, though—it’s just someone building a blanket fort!

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Building a Settlement: German-style Games in North America

January brought the start of a new year and also the start of a new project. I began to inventory and process the Mayfair Games archival materials that were donated to The Strong museum in 2017. In an effort to learn more about the company, I started reading about the board games, card games, and role-playing games it produced. I quickly learned that Settlers of Catan, one of Mayfair Games’ most recognizable titles, not only ranks as an awesome game, but also has a history that changed the gaming industry.
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Screen Time…Then and Now

With many of us spending more time at home right now, it’s likely that our screen time—time spent in front of our televisions, laptops, tablets, smart phones, etc.— has increased a bit.

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Activity Sets: Playing with Glass, Foil, Plastic, and Goop

Spending most of my time at home with my young children has revealed that I’m not especially innovative when it comes to crafts. Thankfully, there are people willing to experiment with materials to develop activity kits and craft ideas for kids. Their work has resulted in some notable successes, as well as a few questionable developments over the years.

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Playing with Sidewalk Chalk Brings Us Together While We’re Apart

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