The toys most of us really remember playing with as children weren’t really toys but things we turned into toys. My earliest recollection is a matchbox of multicolored and multisize rubberbands I played with by the hour when I was about two. I don’t know why they fascinated me only that they did. Even the matchbox was a wonder — the way it slid so neatly open and closed.
My next favorite toy was a big tin box full of all kinds of buttons that my mother gave me occasionally after I was old enough not to try to eat them. I sorted buttons by size and shape and color for hours — my first crude notion of what would later help me understand the idea of classification by genus and species.
At the age when children like to have a playhouse or any small place to hide in or feel secure in, corn shocks in my father’s fields were the perfect answer. They looked like tepees. We could push aside the stalks tied upright together and hollow out a room inside. When my children were that age, I shocked the sweet corn stalks after harvest in the garden into a tepee. The kids discovered it without my saying anything and spent hours in this playhouse that cost me nothing.
My favorite all-time toy when I was nine years old was the living room floor and a handful of marbles. In our old farmhouse, the floors were far from level. A marble would roll down one side of the living room, gaining speed, and then gradually slow down as the floor sloped up the other way. The marble would come to a halt near the far end. The space between the baseboard and the carpet (which in those days was laid only to within about a foot of the baseboard formed a perfect raceway. I’d let gravity fuel the marbles down the “track” and bet on which marble would win. If one rubbed on the carpet side or even the baseboard side or hit an obstacle I might place on the track or get boxed in by slower marbles as in a real race, then the others had a good chance of rolling the farthest before coming to rest at the far end.
This game is so much fun that you might want to build a raceway that easily duplicates the down and up slope of our old farmhouse floor. If your family room is 20 feet long, you can use two 1 by 12-inch boards each 10 feet long, or use Masonite of that width and length instead. (The Masonite can be bent slightly to put tilts into the raceway.) The slope you give your track is somewhat optional. The first portion of the course, for example, might be sloped and the rest level, if the course is long enough so that the marbles’ momentum is naturally stopped before they reach the end of the course. Obstacles can be put on the track to slow or divert the downward progress of the marbles and make the race more interesting. Both edges of the race board need to be framed with quarter-round molding to keep the marbles on the track. When you have the boards sloped and tilted properly, in order to keep them that way, blocks should be nailed to the underside of the boards. The boards can be butted against each other and require no special connection. Occasionally an enthusiastic player will bump the track apart, but it can be realigned manually.
Children today have wonderful building toys like the Lego plastic building blocks that fasten together to make any shape the imagination can inspire. An adequate substitute is the burs from a common weed, burdock, which looks like rhubarb because of the size of its huge leaves. On a spike on top of the plant, seed burs form toward late summer, and they catch on clothing, sheep’s wool and in the hair. The burs also stick to each other easily if squeezed together gently. Yesterday’s children used the burs to form all sorts of fanciful shapes. A tiny basket, complete with a usable handle, was a favorite. In the baskets we often carried our favorite acorn “tops” for spinning, at least in our area, because the stem of the acorn is usually straight and long enough to manipulate between thumb and forefinger.
Button on a Loop
Another homemade toy that will charm a child now as in times past is made from a button and a loop of string. We called it a buzz saw, because the button, by the action of the string, whirls like the blade of a cut-off saw. You need a large button with two or four holes in it. Run the piece of string, which should measure about 3 feet long, through one hole in the button and then back through its opposite hole. Next, tie the two ends of string together to make a continuous loop. Hook one end over one thumb and the other over the other thumb. Jiggle the button down to the middle of the string. Now twirl the button around in the air by revolving your thumbs so that the double strand of string wraps around itself several times. As the string wraps around itself, pull outwards gently with both thumbs, tightening the string. Immediately let the string slacken a bit and then pull out tight again. It takes a bit of practice, but very soon the twistings and untwistings of the string will start the button turning like a little flywheel, and its speed will increase as you rhythmically pull out and let up on the string. Soon you’ll have the button humming prettily. (If the button is of a material you can notch around the edges, you can run the humming button against a hard surface and create a tremendous racket that will drive parents crazy.)
Sometimes you can buy a used tractor tire inner tube from a junk yard or farm machinery dealer for a few dollars. Patch any holes, fill with enough air so that it doesn’t give too much, and you have yourself a very exciting sled that won’t hurt you or anyone else if you have a collision or upset going down a snowy hill. Some tubes slide better than others for mysterious reasons, so you may want to experiment with more than one.
Hoop and Push Stick
As kids we rolled hoops with a T stick by the hour. An old steel wheel or steel ring of about a foot to 18 inches in diameter works best, but they are hard to find, even in junkyards. You can use a bicycle wheel so long as you cut out the spokes with a wire cutter. The push stick is a 3-foot lath with a short 6-inch piece of lath nailed crossways at one end. Start the wheel rolling by running it down the lath then run along, “pushing” the wheel by exerting just the right amount of pressure behind it with the crosspiece of the push stick, at just the right height on the wheel. You can chase the wheel around the block till you run out of wind. When you get good, you can make it jump low obstacles. Careful, though. As you run along, the action of the stick on the wheel sort of hypnotizes you, and you may forget to watch where you’re going. Hold the stick out to your side a bit so that if you run it in the ground you don’t jab yourself with the other end.
The simplest (and loudest) whistle requires only your hands and a strong blade of grass. Choose a blade about ¼ inch wide, although one a little narrower will work well, too. Hold it vertically and as taut as you can between your thumbs, which you hold as you see in the drawing. You’ll notice that even when your thumbs are tight against each other there is a slot below the knuckles. The grass blade should stretch down through that slot tautly, the edge facing you. Cup your hands behind your thumbs to create a sort of noise chamber. Place your thumbs against your mouth and blow hard through the slot. The whistle varies with the kind of grass you use and how tightly you hold it. Often, you can simulate the distress cry of a rabbit or the hunting cry of a hawk or the cry of a baby crow and lure curious birds close to you.
A twig whistle is made in early spring when the bark is still loose enough to slip on the wood. Willow wood is ideal, but other woods also work. Cut a twig about 6 inches long, free of knots or side twigs. The twig should be about ¾-inch in diameter. The fattest end is your handle.
Cut out a narrow ring of bark about 2 inches from the fat end (more if your twig is longer than 6 inches). Then, with your pocket-knife handle, knock on the skinnier portion of the twig all around, until the bark begins to loosen. Then twist the bark and slide it off the twig, being careful to keep it all in one piece. Put the bark back on and cut a slant onto the skinny end, starting about 1 inch back from the end. Cut through bark and wood as shown in the drawing. This is your mouthpiece. Next, cut a notch on top of the whistle about ½ inch in from the mouthpiece. The notch is cut to the middle of the twig, straight down on the back side, slanted about the same degree as the mouthpiece is slanted on the front side. Now slide the bark off again and slice out the top half of the twig, beginning at the notch and back for about 1½ inches. Cut just a thin sliver off the top from the mouthpiece end to the notch. Replace bark and bow. If it doesn’t whistle, slice off another thin sliver above the mouthpiece.