We know not everything was perfect in the ‘80s and ‘90s, because c’mon, the Cold War? The economy? Laugh tracks? David Hasselhoff’s enormously successful singing career? Between that and the parenting style of the day (did you know that the concept of “helicopter parent” didn’t even exist until 1990?) it’s kind of a miracle that we actually became (mostly) sensible adults.
But if you grew up in that era, you know our childhood toys are truly nostalgia-worthy! We didn’t know it at the time, but those toys were actually helping us to develop skills we would need as adults. Toy trends come and go, but let’s be honest: These toys were LIT!
On the surface, Pound Puppies was just another plushy to cuddle until it got gross or the (actual) dog chewed it up. But the concept was actually much bigger than that. They needed you! They made you feel that you were nurturing something vulnerable. The Pound Puppies made rescue dogs chic and arguably paved the way for today’s doggie daycares and pet-friendly cafes — and they also helped millions of kids practice kindness and empathy — the qualities we wish all adults had.
In the practically prehistoric ‘80s, parenting was far more laissez-faire than it is today. (Our folks definitely could have used some tips on teaching kids to play safely.) There was an entire genre of toys meant for burning off energy while learning to navigate tricky situations like, oh, trying to walk on mini trampolines. (See also: Pogo Balls and Skip-Its.) If you could actually stand up with any of these toys, you could learn a lot about balance, navigation, and how to tell your friends you’d really rather go play dress-up.
Dear Diary/Pocket Locker/Yak Bak
The ‘80s and ‘90s saw an explosion of weirdly gender-specific gadgets that made things you did on paper into things you did the new “high-tech” way. Looking back, it’s comical to think how little information you could actually store in these little contraptions. But they were great practice for skills we would need in the future, such as how to create a password that’s neither too easy to guess nor too easy to forget.
What was the point of Pogs? Was there one? Rumor had it that you could actually play Pogs, but the real reason every kid loved them was because they modernized the “collect ‘em all” concept for the rad kidz of the ‘90s. The Pogs moment definitely helped us to understand the concept of scarcity in economics, and the social skills we gained from negotiating and exchanging with other kids continue to serve us well in our adult lives.
By today’s standards, the original Nintendo Game Boy seems comically primitive and bulky. This thing didn’t even have a backlit screen, which meant millions of kids squinted through nighttime car rides so they could keep playing Tetris and Super Mario. We know now that games — both traditional board types and the ones with the screen attached — teach kids many important skills — perseverance, learning from mistakes, and critical thinking, to name a few. But back then, we just thought this thing was the coolest game in town.
Barbie and the Rockers
Every era has its 12-inch fashion doll, but for a brief period in the late ‘80s we had Barbie and the Rockers. This gang was more than just cool. Barbie and the Rockers cared about world peace and even had their own straight-to-video movie. They helped develop our communication skills and figure out our preferences and values, even if all that was important then was picking the coolest outfits.
Virtual pets became a thing for a lot of the same reasons Pound Puppies did. A “living” creature depended entirely on you for nurturing. It took real strategy to get those things out of our pockets and feed them while the teacher’s back was turned! It would be nice to think that keeping virtual pets alive laid the groundwork for the hard work and nurturing required to be a parent but…no. Not even a little bit.
The best thing about the toys of our youth was that like toys in any era, they helped kids learn to navigate the world. We could try out ideas and imagine situations that we may not have been old enough to experience in real life. We could get stronger and more physically coordinated, develop decision-making skills, and discover the power of imagination. Never underestimate The Genius of Play.
The toys may have changed but play is still a critical — and fun! — part of raising kids.
The Genius of Play is a national movement to raise awareness of play’s vital role in child development, spearheaded by The Toy Association. Visit www.TheGeniusOfPlay.org for easily accessible play ideas, expert advice, and other play resources. For tips to keep your little ones safe while they play, visit www.playsafe.org.