Did you know that the kite was invented in ancient China? Or that the earliest recorded yo-yos came from ancient Greece? Xylophones probably originate in south-east Asia, while the teddy bear was a kind of joint effort by the Americans and Germans.
Kids have no doubt played with simple toys since our species first emerged. Stones, bones and wooden figures would have constituted the Palaeolithic toy box for countless millennia before more sophisticated options came along. Nobody knows where the first doll, spinning top or game of marbles were developed, because they’ve probably always been with us.
But other familiar toys do have origin stories, and sometimes they’re quite surprising. The map below includes most of the ancient toys and games that are still widely played, along with some of the more recent inventions. We’ve not tried to be comprehensive, but to include a good geographic spread of toys that should be familiar to everyone.
Barbie: Dolls have been around since prehistory, but the first truly international doll line is Barbie. The blonde doll first hit the shelves in 1959 and is named after creator Ruth Handler’s daughter Barbara. Barbie was heavily influenced by a German doll of the time named Bild Lilli.
Boomerang: Although often thought of as a weapon for taking down animals, the boomerang had many other uses for Australian aboriginal people, including as toys. Certainly, they’re now used all over the world as a plaything. Their age is unknown, but evidence from cave art suggest they may have been in use for over 50,000 years.
Chess: Chess didn’t suddenly appear one day, but evolved over several centuries into the strategy game we know today. A recognisable ancestry game was first recorded in India in the 6th century but it would take until the 16th century for the rules to resemble those used today.
Dice Games: Dice have been around since before recorded history, and probably evolved from the practice of fortune telling with knuckle bones. The oldest dice games were probably developed in Mesopotamia or ancient Egypt thousands of years ago.
Dominoes: The tile-based game was first recorded in China in the 13th century. It would take until the 18th century for the game to become popular elsewhere.
Draughts: Checkers is an ancient game. Its origins are murky, though it probably developed from a similar game known to have been played in ancient Mesopotamia some 5,000 years ago.
G.I. Joe/Action Man: Action figures are a relatively recent phenomenon. G.I. Joe is usually credited as the first large-scale example. The Hasbro soldiers first formed ranks on the toy shelves in 1963, and were licensed out as ‘Action Man’ to the UK in 1966. All subsequent action figures, from Star Wars to Marvel, owe a debt to the G.I.s.
Go: Often cited as the world’s oldest continuously played game (without major changes, as seen in chess and draughts), Go is another Chinese invention, and is some 2,500 years old. The name does not mean ‘go’ in an English sense, but derives from a Chinese expression meaning ‘board game of surrounding’.
Jigsaws: Usually credited to John Spilsbury, a London cartographer who sawed his maps into pieces for use as an educational tool, from 1760. The term ‘jigsaw’ was not used until a century later.
Kites: Lightweight boards attached to twine probably sprung up many times independently in prehistory, and precursors are recorded in drawings from 11,000 years ago. However, the first effective kites were flown in China around 500 CE. The Chinese had access to silk cloth, silk thread, bamboo and paper, which allowed a kite to fly in lighter winds.
Lego: Lego means “play well” in Danish, and it's certainly lived up to its name. The plastic block system has now been around for more than 70 years, and is more popular than ever with movie tie-ins and dedicated stores.
Ludo/Pachisi: Ludo means “I play” in Latin, and was first used in England in 1896. But the game has much older origins. Like Chess, it is usually attributed to 6th century India, where it was known as Pachisi.
Meccano: The metal construction set was invented by Frank Hornby of Liverpool in the late Victorian era. Hornby and his company would later give us Dinky toys and the famous model trains.
Monopoly: The property game as we know it was first marketed in 1935, though it is heavily inspired by The Landlord’s Game, patented in 1904 by Lizzie Magie.
Perudo/Dudo: South America has as many toys and games as any other part of the world, but few have broken out to international fame. One exception is Perudo, a polished up version of the traditional dice game of dudo or liar’s dice.
Play-Doh: The modelling substance is by far the most famous brand of mouldable toy. It was first sold in the 1930s as a wallpaper cleaner, an invaluable tool at a time when houses still commonly had coal fires. When that market dried up, the non-toxic putty was instead marketed as an educational tool and plaything, from 1955.
Playing Cards: Card games were almost certainly first played in China, although the exact date remains murky. A description of what may be a card game survives from the 9th century. The current format for the pack of cards emerged from various European countries in the 15th century.
Pokemon And Tamagotchi: Japan is today one of 21st century play, with its strong position in the video game industry. Two of its greatest creations were both launched in the same year, 1996, when the world first went catching Pokemon, or tended to electronic Tamagotchi pets.
Risk: The game of international hegemony was invented by Palme d’Or-winning French film director Albert Lamorisse (ever see ‘The Red Balloon’? That was his work too). Originally only available in France, it was later bought by Parker Brothers and became a worldwide success.
Rubik’s Cube: The multicoloured puzzle was first marketed in 1980, though its inventor Ernő Rubik had alighted on the idea half a decade earlier. It is now considered emblematic of the '80s.
Russian Dolls: Russia’s most famous toy is not as old as you might expect. The first set of nested or Matryoshka dolls were crafted in 1890 by Vasily Zvyozdochkin to a design by artist Sergey Malyutin.
Scrabble: The startlingly named Alfred Mosher Butts came up with Scrabble in 1938, building on his earlier word game called Lexiko. It took over a decade to start selling, after which Scrabble took the world by storm.
Teddy Bear: Although toy bears have been around for centuries, the articulated cuddly ursine dates only to the first years of the 20th century. It’s famously named after US President Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt, who was the subject of a popular cartoon strip after he refused to shoot a captured bear. Toy bears were immediately marketed in the US but, coincidentally, had already gone on sale in Germany by the Steiff company. The two nations are therefore co-credited with producing the first teddy bears.
Tic-tac-toe: The simple game of noughts and crosses is thought to have originated in ancient Egypt. The earliest ‘boards’ date from 1300 BCE, and were found on Egyptian roof tiles, presumably inscribed by bored construction workers.
Trivial Pursuit: Hundreds of millions of copies of this question-based game have been sold since the 1980s, and it has spawned countless themed and international editions. But would you be able to answer the question: “Where was Trivial Pursuit invented?”. The answer is Montreal, Canada in 1979 by Chris Haney and Scott Abbott.
Xylophone: No toddler’s toy box is complete without a brightly coloured xylophone to bash upon. The earliest forms probably originate in South-East Asia, at least 1,500 years ago.
Yo-yo: The humble yo-yo bounces in and out of fashion, but has been a constant companion of childhood for thousands of years. It may have been invented independently in several places, but the earliest record is a depiction on a piece of Greek pottery from 2,500 years ago.
Victorian toys and games
Although originally from the Midlands, and trained as a biochemist, Matt has somehow found himself writing about London for a living. He's a former editor and long-time contributor to Londonist.com and has written several books about the capital. He's also the father of two preschoolers.