How to Play with Whirligigs

September 12, 2014 · Education ·

IMG_0012People sometimes ask me, especially once they find out I just graduated from college, how I ended up working at a museum. I usually point them to my bachelor’s degree in history, but to be honest, my current career path started much earlier, during my childhood spent going to museums across the United States with my family. Through Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Virginia and Florida – vacations weren’t complete without one trip to a museum. Sometimes, in the cases of Colonial Williamsburg and Gettysburg, pilgrimages were made specifically for the purpose of visiting one of the “big” ones.  My favorite part was always the hands-on activities. Words can’t quite capture the total glee I experienced from walking through a historic home, looking for the room where I could practice some old-fashioned chores, try on costumes, or otherwise immerse myself in the past. Some children wanted to go to Cedar Point or Six Flags; I wanted to go to Mystic Seaport.

So last Saturday’s family program made me very happy as I got to watch children and adults enjoy the same kinds of hands-on experiences that fostered my love for history and museums. The theme for Saturday’s program was “Back to School”. Families could make a hornbook (the original schoolbook for colonial children), try writing with a quill pen, and play with some 18th century toys.

Parents and children loved writing with our quill pens and ink. Children made cards for their parents, and then quickly moved on to trying to write the “old-fashioned” (cursive) letters. Moms and Dads also got a kick out of trying to write with the quill pens – a few mentioned how much fun it was, but how much longer writing letters and papers must have taken!

The hit of the program, of course, was the 18th century toys. We had cups and balls, Jacob’s ladders, whirligigs, rolling hoops, and the game of graces. The auditorium was full of children trying to roll the wooden hoops as far as they could and trying to master the skill of throwing and catching the brightly-colored hoops from the game of graces. Parents were joining in as well, trying to get the knack of the cup and ball and see what they could do with the Jacob’s ladder.










One boy in particular had quite the afternoon. He was pretty ambivalent about the hornbook craft and the quill writing activity. But then he found the whirligig toy. A whirligig, or buzzsaw, is a noise-making toy that was popular in colonial America. A wooden disk with holes or notches cut out of it is threaded through two pieces of string. A handle at each end of the strings allows you to twirl the strings with the whirligig in the middle. Once you’ve wound the string up, you slowly move your hands in and out, which makes the whirligig “whizz” or “buzz” along the string. I should say that this last step, getting the whirligig to buzz, is the hardest part, requiring just the right touch.

Let me tell you, you haven’t seen happiness until you’ve seen the smile on a boy who has tried for 45 minutes to make the whirligig work, has seen other members of his family get it, and then finally, on probably the hundredth try, finally makes it buzz. The family cheered, I cheered, and the boy stood there with the biggest grin on his face, letting the toy buzz and buzz and buzz.

I asked a few children if they would exchange all the toys they had at home for these simple toys of wood and string. You’d be surprised how many of them said yes. One boy said that these toys were more “unique”. I agree – the novelty of these toys, their opportunity for unrestricted creativity, and their throw back to a “time long ago” explain why they remain so endearing and enjoyable for generations of children. It also goes to show that history can always be fun – no matter how old you are.

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