Libraries exhibit features children’s educational toys, games, movable books

January 29, 2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — “Playing to Learn, Learning as Play: 17th- to 19th-century ‘Play-things’ for Children” is a new exhibition on display through June 3 in the Special Collections Library, 104 Paterno Library, on Penn State’s University Park campus.

The exhibition displays a variety of toys, games and books once owned by busy, active children. The materials range from geographic and moral board games to dissected maps or puzzles; from paper dolls to metamorphic turn-up books; and from antic harlequinades to complex movable books.

Some of these items enabled children to make artifacts themselves, as 17th-century philosopher John Locke urged in his famous dictum in "Some Thoughts Concerning Education" (1693). Learning and playing had not previously been linked together, and Locke argued that children’s learning should be a playful, interactive experience.

The materials in the exhibition trace the interconnected European, British and American trajectory in the development of educational “play-things,” and they all invited participatory engagement with children who were readers, viewers and players. The invitation to participate actively was achieved in different ways: by working with drawing kits, construction toys, storytelling blocks and toy theaters, for example.

Many of the items in the display are from the holdings of the Allison-Shelley Collection of German Literature in Translation, which includes significant collections of children's literature. The exhibition was assembled and installed by Sandra Stelts, curator of rare books and manuscripts, and guest curator Jacqueline Reid-Walsh, associate professor of education (language and literacy education) and women’s studies.

A complementary website, titled Learning as Play, is also available online.

For additional information about the exhibition, contact Sandra Stelts, curator of rare books and manuscripts, 104 Paterno Library, 814-863-5388.

  • vertical images of wooden play blocks showing segmented prints of colored illustrations of girl with various articles of clothing

    Dozens of 17th- to 19th-century children’s ‘play-things’ — including toys, games and books once owned by busy, active children — are on display through June 3 in the University Libraries’ Special Collections Library, first floor Paterno Library, University Park. A complementary website, Learning as Play, is at

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    IMAGE: Jill Shockey, Penn State University Libraries
Last Updated February 16, 2016