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Primary Sources for the Primary Grades: Learning with Toys from the Past

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This post is by Teresa St. Angelo, the 2016-2017 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

Advertisement for Pictorial Toy Catalogue No. 2 showing composite of many toys on shelves, 1887
Advertisement for Pictorial Toy Catalogue No. 2 showing composite of many toys on shelves, 1887

What’s one topic that’s usually of great interest to young learners? Toys! Tap into this interest and offer a primary source lesson that will inspire learning.

Provide each student with a copy of this toy catalogue page, published in January  1887, and let the engagement begin.

Students can describe what they see or what they noticed first. Teachers can enhance learning by asking questions that include position words, such as “What do you see above the violin?” or “What do you notice on the top shelf?” Students might describe their favorite item on the third shelf, for example, or count the items on the fourth shelf.

They can work with a buddy and ask each other to describe their favorite toy from the page or take turns giving clues to help their partner discover their favorite.

For a comparison between past and present, give students the 1887 primary source image and a present-day toy advertisement. The students will jump right into discussions on the toys they like or dislike. To help young learners to develop their knowledge of the terms “past” and “present,” ask:

  • What toys could children buy in the past?
  • What toys can children buy today?

On chart paper, teachers can record questions that students have developed and are curious about. Researching to find answers to some of the questions would make an engaging future lesson.

El Paso Herald, December 10, 1920
El Paso Herald, December 10, 1920

Add a discussion about the cost of toys.  How much did a doll cost a century ago? Search in Chronicling America to learn more. For example,this page from the December 10, 1920, El Paso Herald lists a variety of toys and their prices.

  • Ask students to compare prices to a present-day toy sales flyer or Web site.
  • They might calculate the difference between the price of a doll from the past and a doll today.
  • Students can list toys from least expensive to most expensive.
  • Ask students to pretend they each have $50 and to write or draw what they would buy.

To involve parents in the learning, send home the toy catalogue image, a short explanation of how students engaged in analyzing the image in class, and instructions on how the family can analyze a primary source together. Consider sending a sheet for parents to record what they noticed first in the image and  what their child noticed first. Include space for feedback about what they learned from their child. Asking parents to note if they liked the activity, and to briefly describe what they liked, can inform future lessons.

Toys can be fun for everyone and a learning experience enjoyed by all!

In the comment section below, please write ways you would use these primary sources in your classroom and tell us your favorite toy from the advertisement.


Comments (8)

  1. Sensational! I love these tips. I create lessons plans for teachers in underprivileged areas of Brazil. These blog posts help us a lot. I will prepare a lesson plan with these suggestions right away.Thank you.

  2. I am a librarian and think this would be a wonderful exercise for children during their library visit. I try to integrate classroom skills into library research. I do wish the children could see a list like this for toys from the 60s, 70s and 80s because that’s where we get the brands they still play with today. Sure, children still play with dolls today, but to see Barbie or Star Wars toys prices would be more surprising to them. This is a great start though!

  3. Danna-
    Fabulous lesson for so many ages. I see a direct link to STEM (middle and/or high school) initiatives involving 3D printers. In addition to asking “What toys could/can children buy?”, we can ask what toys could you make?

  4. Excellent suggestions! Love the idea of charting the children’s questions because they never fail to offer a unique perspective. Such an engaging topic for young learners. How do your toys compare and contrast to those your parents and grandparents played with at your age? And the idea of integrating math lessons is another opportunity to engage our young learners. Thank you!

  5. What goes together almost as good as kids and toys? — Parents and toys! This lesson gets everybody involved! Young kids, older kids and their parents!! Can’t think of a nicer way to bring kids and their parents together than by sharing their fondest toy memory stories. Another great idea for bringing history to life!

  6. Thank you Teresa St, Angelo for another lesson that combines fun, history, math and…TOYS all in one! There is much to explore here as both primary sources are rich in detail. Kids of all ages would enjoy this, as I did too!

    One comment: It is somewhat confusing to me on this website as to the term used: “By” Danna Bell and the post “By” Teresa St Angelo. I have seen a few reviewers get confused, as someone else was here, and I recall confusion in another post as well. I believe Ms. Bell is the moderator/editor/online administrator or some such title, is she not? And the author of this Blog is Ms. St. Angelo, is it not? Perhaps there is a more succinct way to state this on the page to help the readers out. Both ladies are doing an outstanding job with this blog. Thank you both for all the wonderful help to teachers and educators everywhere!

    • Hello. We do note the author of the post in italics if the author is not one of the three blog moderators. I will bring your concern to the lead blog coordinator and see if there is a way to better clarify when there is a guest author for a certain post.

  7. This is such a great resource! My daughter is only 3, but I could see using these tools to put together fun activities for a day inside. I especially like the map idea. Keep the ideas coming!

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