A century of pester power

Sebastian Lander discovers a collection of must-have toys through the ages

Heaven, for the child in us all, has to be the Must-Have Toys exhibition at the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, east London.

This homegrown retrospective is a celebration of the most sought-after toys from the past century and is surprising on two counts. First, Katie Kopycat, toy of the year in 1971, which imitated a child's handwriting, was not pulled from shop shelves on fraud charges. Second, is that in our age of technology-driven toys - in which the future is apparently a kung fu-practising, burping robot called Robosapien - children are still interested as ever in train sets and china dolls.

The museum has one of the best collections of children's toys and games in the country, some of which date from the 1700s. Many toys from the past were made with a dual purpose in mind - to educate and entertain, much like the ethos of the museum itself. The "must-have" toys are displayed chronologically from the 1900s. They range from favourites such as Dismal Desmond of the 1920s, Space Hoppers of the 1970s and the Spice Girls dolls of the 1990s.

The exhibition has strong educational links with the national curriculum and offers a teachers' resource pack for key stages 1 and 2. Using toys familiar to children, it introduces the idea of the past and encourages them to put history into context in their own lives. This is the core theme of one of the KS1 hour-long teaching sessions run by the museum. The subject is chosen by the teacher and presented to the class by Jason Hall, a member of the museum's education team.

The visiting group of excitable five to seven year-olds from Dorchester Primary School in Sutton, Surrey, had just arrived from the Must-Have exhibition and were doing a KS1 Toys from the Past workshop. This is a session that encourages active learning. Jason Hall begins by holding up a 150-year-old china doll and posing the question, "Who was the Queen of England when she was made?" He sets off an interesting chain of answers that range from "the Queen of Mystic" to "the Queen of Tights". The exhibition obviously had unseen, magical effects on the pupils.

Later, there follows a study of other toys. Pupils looked at what they were made of and the mechanisms by which they work. They also talked about the differences between wood, metal and plastic, electricity and clockwork - all themes that are covered in the accompanying teachers' resource pack.

After making some jigsaw puzzles from pictures of the toys dotted around the room it was time for a Victorian favourite: the zoetrope. This is a toy that has a drum on a wooden stand with slots cut out and a series of pictures inside. If spun, it gives the impression of a moving scene. Pupils were given mini zoetropes and encouraged to make their own moving images.

Certainly, children seemed to get as much delight from this activity as they would have done from a Game Boy.

There are few electronic beeps and graphics on show here. Indeed, Jason Hall believes that this exhibition proves that you don't need batteries to set the imagination alight. "I have never had a session where a child has said that the toys are boring," he says.

Other school sessions on offer include, Home Sweet Home, Seaside Fun, Bringing up Baby and Victorian Childhood. These sessions as well as admission to the museum and special exhibitions are free.

On the map

Museum of Childhood at Bethnal Green. Cambridge Heath Road, London E2 9PA. Tel: 020 8983 5205. www.museumofchildhood.org.uk

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