Monday, June 21, 2010

80s and 90s Educational Toys


We’ve spent a lot of time here at Children of the 90s talking about the many, many ways the adults in our lives tricked us into learning things by slipping educational elements into seemingly recreational endeavors. What we’ve glossed over, however, are the many toys our parents and teachers provided for us with the express purpose of education. These toys didn’t dance around their true nature with all sorts of flashy distractions; instead, they made playtime suspiciously similar to school time. Kind of a bummer.

Though our initial instinct for free time was probably not to play with these teaching toys, for some reason or other many of us ended up spending countless hours with them. Whether through parental persuasion or limited classroom free play choices, we often willingly picked up a Speak & Spell or a See n’ Say and engaged in its attempts at educational endeavors. These toys may not have held their own against the mindless allure of a Skip-It or Super Soaker, but for the most part they still hold that endearing nostalgic appeal.

Speak & Spell It’s amazing how quickly technology novelty can depreciate. Once upon a time, a talking electronic seemed incredibly high-tech for a children’s toy. Granted, the novelty was probably subdued a bit by the toy’s strictly educational premise, but there was something distinctly charming about that robotic voice emanating from the Speak & Spell.
Speak & Spell (and its multi-subject counterparts Speak & Read and Speak & Math) were the ultimate device for tricking kids into learning academic material during their leisure time. Cleverly disguised as games like hangman and memory, Speak & Spell bore into our heads valuable lessons about prefixes and suffixes, homophones, and word patterns. It was all just about as exciting as the machine’s monotonous voice.



2-XL

The original 2-XL debuted in the late 70s--around the same time as the Speak & Spell prototype. Most children of the 90s probably better remember the 1992 reintroduction released by Tiger Electronics that replaced the original’s 8-tracks with cassette tapes. The interactive buttons we used to answer 2-XL trivia questions seem primitive in comparison to today’s highly complex children’s electronics, but we were all still easily amused enough at the time to be won over by the idea that we had our very own robot.


Teddy Ruxpin

Teddy Ruxpin was either very novel or very creepy, depending on your tolerance for animatronics. On one hand, his moving mouth and eyes made the stories he read via audiocassette come alive. On the other, the audiocassettes made him come alive, which for many children bordered on a traumatic experience. For all of us who harbored fears of our toys coming to life (a la Chucky, not Toy Story) Teddy Ruxpin was the stuff of nightmares.
Talk n’Play



For weeks I have been trying to remember what this devi
ce was called; a quick survey of my friends’ childhood memories led me to believe I had possibly made it up and it did not actually exist. Lo and behold, though, through the handy power of Google, its realness has been affirmed. Please tell me some of you owned this device, because I’d hate to be the only one reminiscing about its awesomeness.
The Talk n’ Play came with a variety of books, mostly featuring characters from Sesame Street and Alvin and the Chipmunks. It’s humorous now to realize I was once so wowed by a contraption that allowed me to electronically choose my own adventure with the press of a button--essentially the most basic function of every computer game. Nonetheless, this device once entertained me endlessly; I’m convinced if my Talk n’ Play were reunited, my delight in its reactivity to my responses would be just as exciting. I do think, though, that I would still feel guilty about defying Grover’s moratorium against pressing the red button in the book, “Don’t Push the Red Button.”


Alphie


Playskool’s Alphie was about as simple as a robot toy could get. It had relatively few electronic functions; most of the learning action relied on interchangeable cardboard cards you inserted into his display window. The Alphie toy was an educationa
l staple in 80s preschools, entertaining toddlers with its low-level interactivity and hard-to-break durability. Playskool still makes the Alphie robot, but its space-age exterior and digital display bears little resemblance to the Alphie of our day.


See n’ Say

I know this came out in the 60s, but they were such a common presence in 80s and 90s homes and classrooms that I couldn’t leave the See n’ Say off the list. Without their handy pull string apparatuses, we may never have found out exactly w
hat the cow or sheep say. For the record, it’s moo and baah. Thanks, See n’ Say!

K’nex
At first glance, these building blocks may not seem especially educational. However, if any of us made even the vaguest attempt to replicate the awesome full-functioning K’nex machinery from the commercials, we quickly found ourselves in the midst of a learning experience.

The ads made it look so easy: just follow the ins
tructions and you will soon be the proud owner/operator of a spinning ferris wheel or speedy go-kart. In reality, though, these designs were incredibly difficult to duplicate, particularly without the aid of constant adult intervention.


Brain Quest
Though it’s probably incorrect to classify these trivia booklets as toys, their arguably superior educational value in comparison to the other playthings on this list earns them a verified spot. While many of these other toys made some halfhearted attempt to hide their educational elements under a veneer of fun and games, Brain Quest made no efforts to depict its purpose as anything less than a useful learning tool, even including grade level classifications against which we could measure our intelligence. These classifications were useful and ego-boosting when we managed to answer a question from the 6th grade set as a mere 4th grader, but not quite as self esteem-building when you failed to deliver a basic 1st grade fact.


Note: If you’re looking for educational computer games, have no fear: I haven’t blatantly omitted them. There’s an entire post devoted to singing their praises. Check it out.

37 comments:

Anonymous said...

ONE (MAYBE TWO) WORDS: GEO-SAFARI

Heather said...

OMG the Talk and Play! So many memories

Anonymous said...

I didn't know about Teddy Ruxpin until I had grown up, but we had a Mickey that did the same thing when you inserted the tape in his back.

Melanie said...

I had an Alphie as a kid, (didn't think anyone else had one!) but, to me, it was second-best to Teddy Ruxpin, which I never had. You aren't kidding about it's durability though. Recently, my mom was cleaning out some of boxes that had been stored in the attic for years and found Alphie. He'd survived close to 20 years of Georgia summer heat and being thrown from one side of the attic to the other over the years.

Jay said...

Alphie was 80's I had one of those when I was like 4, as well as a speak and spell. It's really interesting because these types of toys have become the subject of a whole sub-culture of noise/music called circuit bending, where people take speak and spells, etc. . . and alter the circuits and add knobs and buttons to make it sound crazy. It's fascinating to me,

Missouri Michael said...

I loved my Talk and Play! I can still remember how much I would laugh when I pushed the red button!

Jay said...

Ha ha ha, awesome:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ovh-yCAJUYs&feature=related

Sadako said...

Loved 2XL! And he didn't have that uncanny valley problem like Teddy Ruxpin, being a robot and all.

Lil' Woman said...

I think I had most of these except for K'nex....and I loved them

Angela_Baker said...

Teddy Rux!! I had something similar to him, only it was Mickey Mouse. I spent many a fine hour of my childhood happily stuffing cassette tapes into Mickey's back and watching his mouth move randomly up and down. Memories :)

kelcy said...

OMG I still play with 2XL! He is the smartest toy robot in the world and taught me some hilarious jokes! lol I dont think Ive ever changed his batteries and he is still working after all these years!

Jamie said...

I still have my speak and spell. My 5yo and 7yo love it!

Lauralee said...

Who on earth has never heard of brain quest? So awesome. And the see and say. And that crazy robot alphie thing I totally recognize, I just can't think of from where.

LaraLev said...

Brainquest WAS MY JAM.

And WhoAnonymous, Geo-Safari too. Holy shitballs.

I also think we need to thank SNL for the recent Teddy Ruxpin reference from Bill Hader's Stephon WE character. Win.

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Maya said...

Haha I spent ages on my Brain Quest computer game. Had the booklets too but those weren't quite as fun to use :]

Wes said...

WOW! This is so great. I have actually been searching for what that tape playing toy I used to have was and I thought "I'll never be able to find anyone who had this darn thing, let alone remembering what it was called." Then my jaw dropped when I came across your blog. Anyway, this was my Talk N Play from 1984: http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v668/PringerX/Clipboard01-1.jpg. So awesome you still remember these things.

alycat26 said...

I sooo remember having the talk and play. I totally remembered the Grover and the don't push the red button the second you said it, I could literally hear it in my head from memory once I read that. My brother had the 2XL in the early 90s.

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candice said...

random, but upon looking at another "flashback" page i thought "hmm... i wonder if anyone remembers the sesame street talk and play set?"...

lo and behold. LOL i remember it fondly but i also remember one part of the story that scared the sh*t outta me! LOL

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Vani B. said...

I had a Big Bird version of the Teddy Ruxpin. I remember the story was called "A Birthday Surprise."

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Sara said...

Talk and play and alphie made my little kid heart do happy. :)

stephanie said...

Somebody please help!!!! I had a toy similar to alphie and geosafari, but it was red and white and all the interchangeable cards where stored in the back. There was a guessig game you could play and the computer would say "guess what I am thinking of" in a robot voice. Does anyone have a clue???!!

LittleReece said...

I'm looking for the name of a toy my brother and I obsessed about. It was an electronic learning toy with multiple choice quizzes. It had oodles of interchangeable cards that you could use: maps, animals, habitats, etc.

ClassicMovieBug said...

Little Reece, I am looking for something just like that! It had a blue back and white front, a handle, and several different colored and shaped buttons. Nobody knows what I am talking about though! It's not the GeoSafari or vtech laptop. ): It was nothing like a laptop. Grr.

LittleReece said...

I figured out that mine was classic GeoSafari, not the GeoSafari laptop. I was so excited! Hoping to get one for my kids soon! Good luck in your search!

Taram0810 said...

I can NOT believe somebody else remembered Grover and the red button. As soon as I saw that toy that's what I immediately remembered! I remember big bird telling us to turn off the machine too. Other than my cricket doll THIS was my favorite!

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Jimmy Jarred said...

All these toys reminded me of my childhood days. I loved to play with talk and play. It was my favorite toy at that time.
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raj patil said...
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raj patil said...


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Julie Carriker said...

Hi, my daughter and I are looking for a learning toy she and her sisters had in the late 80s. It had a square frame and several thin pieces of plastic (like paper), that were put into it, along with corresponding cartridges. When different parts of the picture were touched the electronic voice told what the things was (a color, a shape, an animal, etc.). The toy was white, with I think a yellow panel that slid off to insert the cartridge. We have NO IDEA what it was called! Any help is MUCH appreciated, thanks!

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