Mr. Potato Head
Born in 1949 as a handful of pronged facial parts designed to be poked into fresh produce, Mr. Potato Head seemed destined for a brief career as a cereal-box prize until fate intervened. A pair of enterprising brothers, the Hassenfelds (Hasbro, get it?), bought the idea and repackaged the parts (along with a Styrofoam potato to demonstrate what kids were to do with them) as Mr. Potato Head. Then real inspiration struck: With sales of television sets going through the roof in 1952, the brothers made Mr. Potato Head the star of the first national toy commercial (even though he had to wait until 1960 to get a proper plastic head).
Why kids dig it: Faces fascinate kids, since that's where they first learn to read the world. (Although not many children, we hope, have parents with shoes under their chins.) There's also the hand-eye coordinating pleasure of fitting pieces into holes, the subversive pleasure of making faces that are wrong, and, as kids get older, creative play in which those spuds become characters in little dramas -- baked, mashed, or fried.
Introduced in 1962 as the Talk-Back Phone, it was given its more polite-sounding name the following year. In 2000, modern push buttons briefly replaced the original rotary dial -- and customers complained, proving that you're never too young to be a Luddite.
Why kids dig it: One word: longevity. Babies can grab at the cord. Toddlers can actually pull it around, and when they do, it moves its eyes, which provides face appeal. It chirps when kids develop the dexterity and strength to turn the dial. But wait, there's more! It also allows kids to imitate their phone-talking parents and play at their own conversations. Please teach them not to talk on the Chatter Telephone while driving the plastic car.
In 1957, inventor Ralph Crawford was playing around with an idea for a toy that involved balls popping up. Annoyed with the way they kept bouncing off his worktable, he covered his apparatus with a clear plastic hood. Presto. To date, more than 20 million sold.
Why kids dig it: Kids who are just learning to walk like push toys, because they provide help with balance. Then there's that exciting cause and effect, which makes small people feel powerful: Push it, and you produce not only psychedelic explosions of multicolored balls inside that space capsule but also the sound of cosmic, mind-expanding Jiffy Pop.
A lot of thought went into that stack of maple you keep tripping over. Friedrich Froebel, the German who in 1837 invented kindergarten, created the blocks that are the basis for most sets today, hoping, he said, that they would allow children to feel and experience, to act and represent, to think and recognize. He never said a thing about "whack your older brother."
Why kids dig 'em: Talk about open-ended play: Building blocks can be banging pleasure for babies, pile 'em up, knock 'em down experiments for toddlers, vast cities for 6-year-olds. Block play lets them explore math and science -- gravity, cause and effect, cantilevers, geometry, fractions -- and aesthetic modes such as balance, symmetry, and pattern.
Etch A Sketch
It may say something about the Gallic character that the Etch A Sketch hails from France, since etching a good sketch requires oodles of patience, just like hunting for truffles or aging cognac. Invented in the late 1950s by Arthur Granjean, L'Ecran Magique ("The Magic Screen") didn't get its big break until 1960, when it was bought and marketed by the American Ohio Art Company. It has now sold more than 150 million copies. Filled with plastic beads and aluminum powder, its knob-controlled stylus etches away the powder that collects on the underside of its plastic-coated glass screen.
Why kids dig it: For the same reason adults like Sudoku: It's a challenge.