Upon further examination, it seems like I should have titled this feature “Craft Aids for the Talent-Impaired Child Artist.” Parents of young children in the 80s and 90s were coming around to the self-esteem movement--meaning they had to pretend everything we did was pure gold in in an effort to not damage our allegedly fragile child egos. It’s the reason we all think we’re so good at everything. Gen Xers may have been better off with their cynicism--by the time Gen Y rolled around, our every breath was an action worthy of praise.
Whatever the reason, an overwhelming number of art-themed items from our 80s and 90s childhoods required relatively little skill or talent of any kind. Whether through creativity-eliminating drawing guides or mistake-erasable drawing tablets, these crafts held very low expectations for our artistic ability. That’s either very kind or very depressing, depending on how you look at it.
There’s no chance I could sum up all of the nostalgic arts and crafts items I’ve come up with--I just spent about forty minutes oohing and aahing over memory-jogging Google images. This is destined to be a multi-part series, so feel free to reminisce about your own favorites in the comments section. If your memories are convincing enough, who knows? They might just end up in Part II. You can only hope.
Fashion Plates/Light-Up Tracing Desk
Here is the ultimate in talent-free artistic expression: simply rub over or, as technology improves, trace some mix-and-match designs onto your very own piece of paper. You could switch out the different plates to change outfits, faces, and shoes. Inspired by the plates used by actual fashion designers, these more primitive versions were marketed to children. I had the later update light-up desk, which yielded a similar result with the added bonus of some technology: a little lightbulb.
Introduced in the mid-60s, the Spirograph has long been a favorite of geometrically-minded children. Using some mysterious principle described by lengthy equations and assorted Greek letters in the Spirograph Wikipedia entry, the circular gears produce various patterns and symmetrical shapes when poked with a pen or pencil. Growing up, our local science museum had a giant Spirograph that held some half-hearted intention to teach us some math, but unsurprisingly most child patrons were only interested in taking home their personal tear-sheet drawing.
Etch-a-Sketch/Magnadoodle/Magic Memo Pad
These devices seem lumpable into a single category on the basis of their underlying theme of immediately disposable, mess-free art. It’s clear why these toys appealed to our parents--no muss, no fuss, no ugly pictures they felt obligated to display on the fridge with forced pride. Simply swipe, shake, or peel, and start again--endless renewable art fun.
For the tech-savvy among us, the computer became a veritable playground of virtual painting. I was not actually lucky enough to own Kid Pix, but I did occasionally have the chance to observe its awesomeness with its stamping and sound effects at a friend’s house. On my own, I was relegated to playing with the gradient function on our ClarisWorks, but I spent most of my allotted computer time fuming about my lack of Kid Pix.
Paint by Numbers/Paint With Water
Paint-by-number sets were a popular and highly tedious exercise in futility. It took great resolve and concentration--attributes children do not generally possess--to get through one of these pictures. Once you get all the way up to matching all of the tiny little 14 spots to the number 14 color, several hours have elapsed. Bummer.
The Paint With Water Sets were far simpler, though they held a much greater novelty factor. Simply wet the colored part of the paper and it becomes drippy and messy and allegedly paintable. I actually had a several minutes-long discussion with my boyfriend regarding whether these mysterious sets actually existed or if I pulled the notion from the far expanses of my overactive imagination. Grueling Google searches conclude that they do in fact exist and thus I did not dream up a Muppet Babies-themed wonder featuring built in paper paint. Score one, me.