After school, Victorian children gathered together to play games, often using simple toys that are still popular with today's children.


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Chatelaine's Antiques & Appraisals Magazine > Collectibles > Playground Toys

The Toy Shop

Edwardian Parlour Games


Playground Toys


 After school, Victorian children gathered together to play games, often using simple toys that are still popular with today's children.

 A fine set of Victorian boxwood toys with some brightly coloured glass marbles. The diabolo here has a large two-headed top with a brass centre; Regency ones were especially heavy because they were made of lignum vitae. Some had a hole in the side and hummed like a top. The yoyo at top right is a toy which originated in China. The top on the left is a whipping top and the one on the right is a supported top.

 Simple outdoor toys have been around for many hundreds of years. Boys in Ancient Greece played with hoops and tops, and Breughel's 16th-century paintings show children playing with these two toys and with hobby horses, dolls, skittles, marbles and knuckle-bones. Many toys were of wood and were carved by fathers and grandfathers; others were bought from pedlars or at fairs. It was not until the second half of the 18th century that mass manufacture of tin and paper toys transformed the selection available.

 The simplest top was the twirler, a small wooden top spun by twisting the stem between the thumb and finger. An interesting variation of this was the teetotum. Made of wood or ivory, its sides were painted with letters or numbers and it was used like a dice in games of chance involving several children.

 Competitive games were also played with peg tops - in the simplest version the child whose top went on spinning the longest won the game. To spin a peg top, the child wound string round the top and, holding on to the end of the string, threw the top to the ground. The string unwound, spinning the top as it flew through the air to spin on the ground.


 Peg-in-the-ring was another popular peg top game and was played between two teams. The first side spun the peg top into a circle drawn on the ground. If it stopped spinning before it had moved out of the ring it became the target for the next side's top.

 Whipping tops have been made since ancient times. To spin one, a leather or cord whip was wound round the turned wooden top. The child then had to lightly hold the top upright on the ground and smartly pull away the whip. To keep the top spinning it was essential to whip it from time to time.

 Supported tops, popular with Victorian children, were a variety of spinning top. String was wound around the stem to start the top, but to prevent it keeling over before it started spinning, it had a handle that fitted above the string. Once the top was spinning, the handle was removed. These tops were usually made of wood and might be painted or inlaid.

 Humming or choral tops, generally made of chromium-plated steel pierced with holes, hummed as they spun, and this sort of top is still made in quantity for children today.


 Another simple toy that was a great favourite was the hoop. Children ran alongside it, driving it with a stick. Both sexes played with hoops and hoop races added more excitement, as did hoop fights where the aim was to knock down someone else's hoop without your own falling down. Playing with a hoop was an energetic game that, like spinning tops, kept children warm in winter.

 The hoops were traditionally made of wood or iron and were such simple toys that both rich and poor children had them. Hoops varied greatly in size and in country districts the iron bands from beer barrels were used.


 Simple toys from the 19th century are by no means easy to find. Many were worn out or broken and others were simply thrown away because they were so commonplace that nobody thought them worth saving. Nevertheless, some have survived, though the chances now of finding Victorian ones in your granny's attic are pretty slim.


 The best place to see what is available is at one of the specialist dealers in antique toys. A visit to a toy museum is also worthwhile to get an idea of the variety and quality of old toys. They do also come up at auction from time to time. More sophisticated toys, especially mass-produced ones such as trains and model soldiers, are widely collected and are much more readily available than simple toys such as hoops and tops.

 Other playground toys you might look out for include marbles. Known to the Ancient Egyptians, they reached the peak of their popularity in the 1860s. They have been made from clay, alabaster and steel but the most attractive Victorian ones were of glass with swirls of coloured glass inside.

 Girls often played with fivestones. Also called knuckle-bones, they were originally small bones from the feet of sheep, but by the 19th century pebbles or pottery cubes were more common. The idea was to throw them in the air and catch as many as possible on the back of the hand.


 Skittles or ninepins were played by Victorian children of both sexes. This game began in the 14th century when it was known as 'kayles'. By the 16th century, nine had become the standard number of pins, arranged in three rows of three. Victorian skittles were usually plain or decorated wooden pegs, but some were turned and painted soldiers and even felt rabbits. One advantage of skittles was that, in severe weather, they could be played indoors, as could popular games such as balland-stick and ball-and-cup.

 Victorian ingenuity was also applied to skipping ropes. Before the 19th century skipping ropes did not have handles - they were simply knotted at the ends. Wooden handles were added to make the rope easier to hold. In Yorkshire the handles were often made from the wooden bobbins that were used in the wool mills. The rhythms of children's playground skipping rhymes have changed hardly at all over the years.

Teddy bear, teddy bear, turn around.
Teddy bear, teddy bear, touch the ground. 
Teddy bear, teddy bear, show your shoe. 
Teddy bear, teddy bear, that will do. 
Teddy bear, teddy bear, go upstairs. 
Teddy bear, teddy bear, say your prayers. 
Teddy bear, teddy bear, turn off the lights. 
Teddy bear, teddy bear, say good night.