An Autry exhibition highlights the cultural and historical connections of that essential (and fun) building block of childhood development.

•A toddler uses a toy vacuum in a pint-size midcentury modern playhouse, complete with a Kit-Kat Clock, starburst mirror and an old-fashioned rotary phone. Not far away, older kids explore a cave as they heap squishy rocks and faux logs on top of each other; one child attempts to hug a ginormous teddy bear. “This is awesome!” shouts another kid as he dives into the pile.
• In a nearby darkened room, a summer-camp chaperone takes on opponents for a vigorous game of Pong; she’s unstoppable and a crowd forms. “I have a little more experience than these young kids,” she says with a laugh.
• On a wall display of favorite games from different eras and regions, two adults discuss the merits of Drop the Handkerchief and other games, comparing the activities as if they were cultural anthropologists. “See how the games change compared to the regional climate?” one suggests. “Look at how the girls’ play is different from the boys.” “Aha! Here is when basketball was invented!”
• Around a corner, a mom shows her young daughter a View-Master from the 1970s. “When I was a kid I had one just like this!” she explains to a wide-eyed girl who studies the toy as if it were an ancient artifact.
These interactions were spotted amid the many artifacts, discussions and discoveries at the Play! exhibition at the Autry Museum of the American West in Griffith Park, which runs through Jan. 7, 2018. The family-focused show is more than just a clever display of 200-plus toys and games throughout the centuries. Beyond the fun and nostalgia in each exhibit case and interactive display, Play! offers adult visitors a chance to deeply examine the role of toys and games across culture and time — and the human connections play can inspire.
“Play is a universal language,” says Yolanda Carlos, core faculty at Pacific Oaks College’s School of Education in Pasadena. “It’s innate in us.” Carlos explains that for all its fun, goofiness, physical challenges and mimicry, play is serious stuff. “It’s the way children learn about the environment, the world, social interactions and a way to build social communication skills. No matter the era, human development follows predictable patterns, and play is instrumental.”
Carlos shares a story from her time as executive director of a school for military families: Since many students came from different countries, they didn’t have a shared language. “Even though they couldn’t speak to each other at first, play united them,” she explains. “Before you knew it, they were connecting through play and, after a while, they began to understand each other.”
Play has evolved, Carlos says, and now too much emphasis is placed on structured play, especially activities like sports, with rules created by adults. “What you really want are toys and games that inspire a child’s imagination and allow them that open-ended play,” she says, adding that toys don’t need to be complex. Things as simple as a rock, a sibling, a pet or an invisible friend will do.
Besides its developmental importance, play also reflects cultural values and historical significance, says Autry Curator Carolyn Brucken. “This exhibition is not just a history of toy innovation in the West — although we have… the skateboard, Mattel’s Barbie and others — but rather how play has connected humans to each other and continues to do so.”
The whimsical exhibit for all ages is a welcome addition to the Autry’s schedule of exhibitions, which often examine heavier topics like the Standing Rock protests, the focus of a concurrent show of art and objects through Feb. 18, 2018. Play! sprang from the 2015 closing of the Autry’s Family Discovery Center, which necessitated a new strategy to facilitate families’ interactions with the museum’s diverse collections, says Brucken.
Visitors entering the exhibition step into a darkened room where a passage from Shel Silverstein’s poem “Invitation” sets the tone:
If you are a dreamer, come in
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer…
If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
Come in!
Come in!
The exhibition is thematically divided into four sections, and the charming cacophony of item mash-ups, interactive displays and play areas can be overwhelming. Adult visitors may miss some of the details, especially if they are chasing after youngsters eager to explore. Carlos suggests both young and old try to step inside the shoes of the child who interacted with whatever toy they’re observing. “Engage in a little pretend play,” she says. “Think about and ask, what do you suppose they were doing with this toy? How do you think they played with it? How did they talk about this toy? How would you play with it?”
When parents discover a favorite toy from their past, their delight can spill over onto their incredulous children (“Mom was once a kid?!” “Dad played with toys?”) and also connect them to contemporaries who shared the same toy joy. Forget bonding over sports teams — sharing Hot Wheels glory stories or what you baked in your Suzy Homemaker oven are the ultimate ice-breakers.
Of course, not all toys from the recent past are in the exhibition. “A lot of things simply didn’t make it,” Brucken says, noting that some adults were distraught that their favorite toys were not represented. “There was so much to consider and there were hard decisions to make.”
Before they exit, guests are encouraged to write down their thoughts on how play will evolve 10 and 100 years from now. Collecting these written ideas has been enlightening, says Brucken, rattling off a few typical entries: “We’ll be playing with aliens,” “There will be real-live super heroes” and “Everything will be electronic.” “I think my favorite one has been ‘There will still be balls and sticks,’” she says. “You can’t get any more universal than playing with a ball and stick.”
Play! runs through until Jan. 7, 2018, at the Autry Museum of the American West, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Griffith Park. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission costs $14, $10 for seniors (60+) and students and $6 for children 3 to 12; members and children under 3 are admitted free. Call (323) 667-2000 or visit