According to one dictionary of the Danish language, “toys are objects which are used in play. More specifically, toys are things children use to play with.”
It is, however, not only children who play. Adults play too, particularly parents. This means that “things to play with” will not only be limited to the objects children choose for this purpose but also to things and toys which parents find interesting to include in play with their children - or to play with on their own when the children aren’t present! The dictionary is therefore very narrow in its definition of the word “toy”.
Things people played with in the past, prehistoric toys, antique toys or old toys are usually called traditional because they were small copies of the original objects - and it is clear what they represent (see the dictionary!). As an example of a modern description of what toys are, I quote the European Union’s Toy Directive, dated 3rd May 1988, article 1:
Part 1: By toys we mean any product which is clearly constructed or intended to be used as a toy by children under 14 years.
Part 2: The products named in the appendix are not considered toys under the terms of this directive.
(The products named in the appendix are sports or similar equipment).
The most common impression of what a toy is and what it can be used for is therefore not only dependent on the toy’s similarity, function and usefulness or of play or the dialogue in play with and around the toy but also on whether the directive points to its being a toy at all!
Today toys are most often defined as commercially produced objects for children to play with. Much of these toys are of course traditional but can also be described as diffuse, kitsch or “crazes” because they distort or confuse the concept relative to how we ordinarily expect toys to look.
Antique toys (old toys) meet the traditional ideals that they must look like the original thing or object and that they must be useful and function as intended.
Small copies of original things and objects from pre-history live up to the traditional ideals even better but there is reason to doubt that these things were ever really played with. Most were probably used as fetishes or as props for use in ceremonies and cult rituals.
Fetishism comes from the word “fetish” - a charm which primitive peoples thought had magical powers and which they worshipped and honoured. Worship of a thing or an object has also characterised the modern welfare and industrial society in the 20th century and this has naturally given rise to a widespread fetishist attitude to things.
Transgressing the taboos of these phenomena has of course given grounds for questioning modern social and behavioural modes.
The literature relating the different historical backgrounds for play on the basis of toy objects’ specific appearance and development is extensive, imaginative and characterised by the authors’ deep nostalgia for old and exciting items. What the literature often lacks, however, is a general theoretical basis for analysis and evaluation.