The 15 Most Creative Toys From Our Childhoods

by Melissa Kirsch
Originally Published: 

A couple weeks ago we took a look at toys from our ’80s youth that we shouldn’t have had to put up with. There were, however, some pretty awesome toys we were lucky enough to get to spend our evenings playing with in front of The Muppet Show. These are the toys that were the most creative, the ones that actually nurtured our creative sides, that gave us the chance to make things, to design and draw and cook and sew and color. I miss all of these toys, and if I could get my hands on any of them, I’d quite possibly put my phone down for an afternoon and just play.

1. Fashion Plates

The satisfaction of clicking those little plates in, the first step of rubbing the charcoal, and then the best part: the coloring in. I loved the A-line skirt plate and used it for pretty much every outfit. I’d actually like a wardrobe consisting of all outfits from Fashion Plates right now, come to think of it. Someone should invent a company that does that—they’d make a mint off all the Gen-Xers.

2. Spirograph

Remember drawing giant atomic flowers and swirly, whirly symmetrical doodles that never looked anything but perfect no matter how many colors you used? Spirograph made me feel like I was a good artist when in truth the only thing I could draw freehand was Garfield, using the instructions from inside the comic books.

3. Etch A Sketch

I was really bad at Etch A Sketch and found the way the left knob was kind of hard to turn very frustrating. But I had friends who could somehow draw bunnies and trees, and I spent many days noodling around trying to draw a modernist house. The best part, of course, was shaking it and getting a clear screen. Sometimes when I can’t stop thinking about something annoying, I shake my head and think “Etch A Sketch”—a clear screen, begin again.

4. Lite-Brite

Was there anything sadder than when all your sheets of black paper had holes punched in them and you tried to make a new Lite-Brite creation over an old page? I’m sure my mother was more upset about the pegs that would get trapped in the shag rug to be stepped on or stuck in the vacuum cleaner. I preferred using the templates over freestyling it, but there was something very satisfying about trying to fill every single hole with a rainbow of pegs.

5. Shrinky Dinks

I had the Smurf Shrinky Dinks, even though I really wanted the jewelry one. There was something so satisfying about coloring in the giant sheets, cutting the Smurfs and then getting a hard little tiny Smurf with its own plastic stand. Sometimes the Shrinky Dinks would curl up in the oven (was it because it was too hot?) and you’d end up with a hard little roll of plastic, which was very disappointing if you were making them with friends and each person only got one shot.

6. Betty Crocker Easy-Bake Oven, Holly Hobbie Oven and Snoopy Sno-Cone Maker

YOU MADE FOOD. The ovens were dangerous, but probably no more so than our early-era microwave. I don’t think I actually had any of these myself—I think they were my sister’s. It was incredibly fun to get chocolate cake or a sno-cone, period, but when you got to make them yourself in your room, they tasted extra-delicious.

7. Sew Easy

The large number of “housework” toys like ovens and sewing machines certainly prepared us well to be wives, didn’t they? The Sew Easy was an actual sewing machine with yarn instead of thread. You actually got to sew, and you didn’t have to go through the insanity of threading the machine as you would several years later in Home Ec class, where you would also sew your own finger with a real needle.

8. Play-Doh

It’s the classic—it’s still around for a reason. I really could have had a successful career as a sculptor if someone had just given me the kit that let you make Play-Doh hair when I was 6.

9. Tinkertoy, Lincoln Logs and Legos

Did anyone become an architect after falling in love with designing structures with these toys? I was partial to Tinkertoy (which I thought was called “tinker toys”) myself, and found Lincoln Logs a little dull. There’s a reason every kids is still into Lego—it was the most colorful and the most fun and had the most possibilities for creativity.

10. Magic Slate

A good one for artists, kind of a low-rent version of Etch A Sketch. I mostly wrote on mine, captivated with my name in bubble letters and that weird plastic pencil that didn’t write on anything else but the slate, which did indeed seem magic.

11. Colorforms and Presto Magix

There was a type of semi-creative toy that was everywhere in the ’80s that involved putting images other people had designed on a ready-made background. With Colorforms, it was removable rubber stickers you put on a cardboard scene. Presto Magix, which would pop up in little racks somewhere in the supermarket shelves like a unicorn, was basically the same thing but on paper using decals. The creativity factor was low, but at least you used your imagination and created original scenes.

12. Wooly Willy

Wooly Willy was a “magnetic personality” on whom you could draw facial hair and head hair using magnetic filings. This was a weird and kind of addictive toy. I did find the face of Wooly Willy a little creepy, like the guy in Operation, but it was still pretty great and awe-inspiring.

13. Fuzzy Felts

Why did we have the Fuzzy-Felt Hospital? I wonder if this was designed, like Operation, to give kids a taste of what it was like to be a medical professional? Fuzzy Felts was another great sort of “contained creativity” situation, where you had the pieces chosen for you and you could put them wherever you wanted. For instance, you could put a nurse’s head on the bed because you wished you had Fuzzy Felt Fantasy, where you got to make a cat, instead of a malaria patient.

14. Pot Holder Loom

Who came up with this? A little loom! So we could make pot holders! Ostensibly to use in our Holly Hobbie kitchens! Unlike most of these toys, you actually made something useful with the loom. And they looked so complicated and beautiful when you were done, like they took real talent to make.

15. Barbie Fashion Face

I referred to this toy as The Big Head. Until my sister chopped her hair off (didn’t everybody’s sister chop her hair off?), this was where I first learned how to put on makeup. Granted “putting on makeup” involved lots and lots of blue eye shadow and then just trying and failing to execute a French braid on the head, but it was a start.

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