THEME: Over the past century the items we use have changed significantly, as have the nature and composition of our waste.

GOAL: Students will understand how the products we use today differ from those used by our parents and grandparents.

METHOD: Interviewing and discussion

SUBJECTS: Language arts, social studies

SKILLS: Analyzing, comparing, interviewing

MATERIALS: Pictures or examples of antique toys and modern-day toys

TIME: 2 hours, plus additional time for interviews


Most products, including toys, have changed significantly over the years. At one time most toys were made from natural materials such as wood. Handmade country toys like whirligigs, bean shooters, yo-yos, and tops were very popular. Over time, commercially manufactured toys such as wooden Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys became available. In the 1960s, plastic toys began to dominate the market, and the demand for hula hoops, frisbees, Lego, toy guns, and plastic models increased steadily. Today, battery-operated and electronic toys, along with video and computer games, are quite popular. Changes in the way toys are made, in what they can do, and in the materials used to produce them reflect changes in our society.

Getting Started

Make a list of the students' favorite toys. What are most of the toys made of?


  1. Ask the students if they have had a favorite toy that didn't last very long. What happened to it? What was it made of? Ask students to bring in toys that are broken or to be thrown away. What are they made of? How long did they last? Are there any patterns or similarities between the broken toys? Discuss how some of these toys could be redesigned to last longer. How might these toys be fixed or made into new toys?
  1. Have the students interview an older person about toys that were available when they were children. Another option is to invite a senior citizen to class for a group interview or to take a field trip to a nursing home or senior citizen center. Have the class develop a list of questions that the students might ask the person they decide to interview. Questions could include:
  • What was your favorite toy when you were little?
  • How many toys did you have? What were they made of?
  • Who made them? Where did you get them?
  • How long did they last? Could they be fixed if they broke?
  • Would it have been cheaper to fix an old toy or buy a new one? Why
  • Could you fix a broken toy at home, or did someone else have to fix it?
  • If a broken toy could not be repaired, what did you do with it?
  • How are the toys sold today different from those that you had?
  1. Have the students answer their own questions. Discuss the differences between their answers and those of the people they interviewed. Ask the students to make some generalizations about their lives and those of their ancestors. What do these differences imply? How might these differences affect our natural resources?


  1. Take a field trip to a museum or a historical society to look at their old toy collection.
  1. Find out how some old toys were made and make them in class. Students could also invent new toys made out of natural materials.
  1. Have each student choose to research and write a report about toys that were popular in a different time period or culture (e.g., Native American toys, Egyptian toys).

Sources: Adapted from AVR, Teacher's Resource Guide; Wisconsin, Recycling Study Guide