A quick tour through the finished basement of Vicky Olsen's Montvale home reveals more than 25 Barbie dolls. There's also a Barbie Townhouse, a Barbie car, scads of tiny Barbie clothing, eight American Girl Dolls with their own beautiful little accessories, plastic kitchen accessories, 25 or so board games, a Wii console with maybe 15 games, two Nintendo DSes, 40 or so DS games, two iPod touches and a pair of Kindle Fires. It's surely more than enough to keep Olsen's 13-year-old twin daughters occupied, but not an unusually excessive toy trove for middle-class children in Bergen County. Nonetheless, the Olsen twins sometimes complain that they're bored.
Today's kids probably own more toys and games than those from any preceding generation. Certainly more than did a group of senior citizens we spoke with recently while they participated in a program at the Senior Adult Department of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades.
Erna Frolow, an octogenarian from Bergenfield, grew up in Weehawken and says she didn't have much in the way of material things. "You have to remember that it was the Depression," she says. "I'm not sure if I had a doll; I don't think so."
But she did have a checkerboard set and one Bobbsey Twins book handed down from an older sister who had acquired those treasures in better times. "I loaned out that book a lot," Frolow recalls.
Even later on, when the economy improved post-war, few kids had a surplus of toys. Dee Stevens, the 67-year-old owner of the GROW-Cery toy store in Glen Rock, says that when she grew up in the '40s and '50s, toys were still precious commodities.
"I had a doll and I had a bike," she says. "But when my doll was stolen, that was the end of it. Nobody had the money to replace something if you couldn't take care of it."
So what did kids do without video games or massive Barbie Doll collections? Why, they used their imaginations and made their own fun, of course. Connie Baum, an 84-year-young amateur pianist and retired homemaker from Palisades Park, also didn't grow up with lots of toys. But it didn't stop her from having a mostly sunny childhood.
"It was a wonderful time," she says. "Really. We didn't know how poor we were."
Baum grew up in an apartment block in the Bronx, where the kids from the building would gather in the back garden to play for hours with just some chalk, a ball and a few yards of rope.
"Of course we had no television," she says. "We used to jump lots of rope. Box Ball – where you had four squares and hit the ball into the squares. We played ball up against the wall of the house. And we played Potsie," which is another name for hopscotch.
Not surprisingly, there was not a lot of helicopter parenting in previous generations.
"All I remember is that we were outside constantly," Stevens says. "We had breakfast at home, and as long as we were back for dinner at 6 o'clock, nobody worried because there was always a neighbor that would let us use the bathroom or whatever."
Frank Lucia, an impressively agile and dapper 102-year-old who lives in Demarest today, landed on Ellis Island from Italy the year the Titanic sank and grew up in Brooklyn. His favorite game was Ringolevio, an old-fashioned type of tag. Lucia also recalls playing stickball, punchball and stoopball – games that require only a ball and a group of kids.
Shelley Wolfe, an 84-year-old from Cliffside Park who volunteers at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, was also a child of the Depression. She remembers playing "A My Name is Annie" while bouncing a ball, and something called "I Make a Shimalechal," while growing up in Brooklyn.
Other imaginative kids caught the theater bug. Frolow, for example, spent many a happy summer day playing in her big back yard, with lots of cousins who came to her beautiful house (fortuitously purchased just before the crash, she explains, and not foreclosed upon because the banks had bigger problems on their hands) from more urban areas. Frolow and her cousins put on one show each summer.
"We practiced and practiced," she says. "My brother, who was two years younger than me, told the same joke. Not only the one summer long, but summer after summer. It was the only joke he knew, and he was the comedian in the show."
And Frolow remembers receiving a sewing kit from a generous uncle one Hanukkah. "By the time I got to high school, I was making my own clothes," she says.
Today, creative toys that hearken back to old-fashioned days are often bestsellers at local toy stores. LEGO and other building sets are very popular with boys, explains Ken Maietta, the owner of Tons of Toys in Wyckoff.
"Crafts for girls are also very popular," he says. "But they're reinvented to be more modern today." For example, the best-selling craft kit in Tons of Toys is something called Sticky Mosaics, where numbered stickers can be put together to make bracelets and pictures and jewelry boxes.
Dee Stevens says many of her customers at The GROW-Cery seek out classic toys that have stood the test of time, such as jump rope, slinkies, jacks and marbles. "Kids (today) will play with all of these things, given the opportunity," she says.
As for the Olsen twins? Their mom says they spend most of their leisure time playing video games but will occasionally drag out a deck of cards and play an old-fashioned card game.
HOW TO PLAY
As remembered by Frank Lucia
There are two teams. One side closes their eyes while standing in a box drawn with chalk as the other players run and hide. When the first team finds someone hiding, the hider must stand in the box. Anyone in the box can be freed by someone who is hiding, but not caught, when he or she runs to the box and yells "Ringolevio."
As remembered by Hersh Libo
You throw the ball on the first second or third step, and the other player has to catch it. The catcher gets points depending on the bounce of the ball. After one bounce, they might get five points; after no bounce, they might get 10 points; after no bounce and the ball hits the edge of a step or the corner of the stoop, they might get 100 points.
As remembered by Hersh Libo
You dig a little pit in the ground and draw a circle around the pit. Then you bring your marbles and you take turns flicking them, trying to hit your opponent's marbles into the pit. Whoever gets fewer marbles into the pit wins and takes all the marbles.
Box Ball (or Four Square)
Each player stands in one of four squares, numbered 1 to 4. The player in Square 4 serves by bouncing a rubber ball and hitting into one of the other squares. The receiving player hits the ball to another player's square. The ball can only bounce once in each square. If the player misses another's square or lets the ball bounce twice, he is out. Players move up the squares as others are eliminated. The object is to move up to the No. 1 square.
The person who is "it" stands at one end of a driveway, which is the goal. Players stand at the other end, which is the starting point. With his back to players, whoever is "it" calls out "Green Light," and players move to reach the goal. When he says "Red Light," players stop moving and he turns around to try to "catch" a player moving. If someone is found in motion, he or she goes back to the starting point. Whoever gets to the goal first becomes "it."
Two large teams of players line up facing each other across enough space to allow running. Each line of players grasps one another's hands, trying to form a barrier. One team chants "Red Rover, Red Rover, let (name of one person in the other line) come over." That person charges at the opposing line, trying to break through. If the line breaker is successful, she selects someone to come over and join her original line. If unsuccessful, she joins the opposing line. Play continues until one team has lost all its members to the other side.
Had a favorite outdoor game growing up? We'd like to hear about it. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.