The Sciences

These 5 Toys and Games Have Been Popular for Millenia

From Greece to Japan, the following ancient toys hold deep history, entertaining children for thousands of years.

By Sean MowbrayJan 12, 2023 2:00 PM
Old wooden top
(Credit: Cunaplus_M.Faba/Getty Image)

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The Greek philosopher Aristotle once wrote that “the activity of play is a relaxation of the soul, and serves as recreation because of its pleasantness.” For the ancient Greeks, games were at once a source of fun, but also an instrument of learning.

Take the lowly rattle for instance, a toy deployed to occupy children from the smallest ages even today. It had its uses in Aristotle’s time: “…one must think Archytas’s rattle a good invention, which people give to children in order that while occupied with this they may not break any of the furniture, for young things cannot keep still,” the philosopher wrote, voicing sentiments that plenty of parents in the 21st century would echo.


Read more: 5 Fascinating Toys Fit For Any Ancient Child


Of course, the ancient Greeks were not the only civilization to value toys and games for children. Throughout history, the pursuit of pleasure and pastimes is a recurring theme and many of those designed for children have changed little over the years.

Just consider the following ancient toys and games that we still use today.

1. Dolls with Moveable Limbs

Today’s dolls come in all shapes and sizes. In the Greek world, the same was true.

Crafts people dedicated their trade to shaping dolls out of terracotta, bone, wood and other valuable materials such as ivory and ebony. These toymakers were known as koroplathoi and koroplastes and crafted dolls with moveable arms and legs that could be manipulated by string.

These objects were a source of play for young girls but were also wrapped in religious tradition. Their first use dates back as early as the 7th century B.C.

In Athens, and other parts of the Greek world, young girls would dedicate their dolls to goddesses such as Demeter and Artemis, the protector of youth, prior to their coming of age and marriage.

2. Spinning Tops

Beyond the rattle, we know of examples of ball games, whistles and yo-yos existing in ancient Greece. But one toy, the spinning top, is particularly notable for its appearance in multiple civilizations.

Today these objects are made in a dazzling array of styles and colors, following a tradition that dates back thousands of years. Their appeal, it seems, was universal and carried on through the ages.

Early versions of the toy were crafted of wood, terracotta, clay or other materials such as bamboo. The toy existed in ancient Mesopotamia as early as 3500 B.C., while in China tops date back over 4,000 years. The Egyptians began using them as early as 2000 B.C.

One such top made of ivory, ebony, and faience was found in the tomb of the infamous young pharaoh Tutankhamun, aka King Tut.

3. Flying Kites

Kites and the tradition of flying them through the air is thought to have originated in ancient China. But originally their use was connected to the military.

The first written account of kite flying comes from China in 200 B.C., though they may have been in use as early as 1,000 B.C. Over time kites spread across Asia, carried by merchants and traders, and moved west to Europe. Along the way, new traditions were formed, such as kite fighting which remains popular across Asia, but is believed to have originated in India.

Though kites have been flown for centuries, how extensively they were used for the amusement of children is unclear. In Europe this use likely didn’t begin until the 1600s but may have begun far earlier elsewhere.

4. Playing Marbles

Playing with marbles is another pastime steeped in history.

While it is not known exactly when or where these games originated, small balls made from different materials — often clay, ceramic or stone — appear in different cultures and date back as far as 4,000 B.C.

Such finds have been made in the graves of Egyptian children, and it is thought they were used to play an ancient game known as “mehen (a predecessor or sorts to snakes and ladders). In ancient Rome and Greece, a game called “nux,” or “nuts,” was played in a similar fashion to how we play marbles today. The Roman emperor Augustus was also a fan of the game, according to Suetonius.

5. Ancient Toy Animals

For many children today, learning about animals in toy form is part and parcel of growing up.

In ancient times, this was also the case as evidenced by archaeological finds. Miniature examples of domestic animals such as cows and pigs were common, and according to some accounts more “exotic” animals, like lions and dolphins, have been found.

Though it is unclear to what extent these carved items were used specifically for play, multiple finds, such as wooden horses on rollers which could be dragged by string, point to recreational use.

One example was found in a child’s grave in Athens, dating back to 900 B.C. Another pull-along toy, depicting a lion, was found in Persia dating to 1100 B.C. Some archaeologists question whether these items were purely created for pleasure or perhaps used in ancient rituals or designed as offerings to the gods.

Either way, it is likely that the figures were educational in some form for children — offering an opportunity to learn about the world around them, much like animal toys serve children today.

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