Let's play!

Visitors to the Indigenous collection stores at the Museum are often fascinated to find a small yet significant collection of toys.

Pandanus balls - E017294

Pandanus balls - E017294
Photographer: Finton Mahony © Australian Museum

The Indigenous collection at the Australian Museum holds around 20,000 items, including more than 370 toys acquired between 1885 and 1990. The different types of toys, and materials used, are interesting because they demonstrate a shift from traditional items made from carved wood, shells and other organic materials to modern examples made from recycled bits and pieces including metal, plastic and even washcloths.


In 1905, the Museum acquired around 30 toys originally collected by Walter Edmund Roth, from Cape York and Channel Country in Queensland several years earlier. Roth was a physician and anthropologist with an interest in Aboriginal people. Appointed Protector of Aboriginals for the Northern District of Queensland in 1989, he travelled widely and recorded various aspects of Aboriginal culture.

There are several beautiful gourd spinning tops, some of which are decorated with red and white pigment. The gourds tops have a small hole pierced in the side so that they make a whistling sound when spun. Roth also collected baby rattles made of shells; dolls made from slightly bent sticks with twine skirts; and folded, Z-shaped pandanus leaves that imitate the flight of a boomerang when thrown.

As in all cultures, toys are designed to both amuse, educate and prepare the child for adulthood. Roth observed boys and girls playing at hunting and preparing food, the boys playing with toy boomerangs, spears, woomeras and shields while the girls played with dolls, baskets and digging sticks. He also observed them enacting family situations in Cape York:

Playing at ‘Houses’,‘Grown-up’, ‘Marriage’, etc, is in one form or another as common among black children as it is among white ones. On the Upper Normanby, the youngsters pretending to be married will build an impromptu hut, and sit contentedly within its shade; suddenly a boy rushes forward to steal a [girl], over whose possession he and the husband now make-believe to have a fight. On the Lower Tully, the boys and girls will make miniature huts ... and finally go away in couples into the scrub. It is a game often being played, but whenever the parents catch them at it they generally give them both a good smacking.’  Walter Roth 1902


Forty years or so after Roth’s visit to northern Queensland, a team of Australian and American scientists spent several months in the then little-known Arnhem region, Northern Territory (NT), studying Indigenous people, wildlife and the natural environment. The 1948 American Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land collected around 900 ethnographic objects, including more than 230 toys.

During the expedition, Museum anthropologist Frederick McCarthy collected 30 or so shell dolls at Hemple Bay, Groote Eylandt. While most are unornamented conical shells, several were wrapped in fabric. According to McCarthy, these were used by both boys and girls to represent the different members of their families and were moved about in various groupings. The larger shells represented the parents, while the smaller ones were the children. The shell dolls are similar to different-sized eucalyptus leaves in the collection from Yuendumu (NT), which children would arrange differently to represent various social groupings.

Also collected by McCarthy were 192 string figures from Yirrkala, which were largely used for amusement, but also ceremonial purposes. Different designs or patterns were created on the hands of the maker, usually a woman, with a looped piece of string. Each figure represented something different, including people and their activities, weapons, ornaments, animals and the natural environment, and were given different names.

Modern toys

There are some interesting modern toys in the collection which demonstrate the resourcefulness of children in remote regions of the country. These use various recycled materials and include several toy ‘motor cars’ and pull-along toys from Western Australia and the Northern Territory, made from metal tins filled with sand and held together with wire or fishing line and sometimes with a wooden handle.

There are others made from broken toys on string, lids from metal flour tins used for target practice in Kintore (NT) and a ball from Ngalijibama (NT) made from old ‘chux’ cloths tied into a cube shape with nylon rope and cassette tape. While there are differences in the toys and games used in different areas of the country by Indigenous children, they all served the same purpose: to amuse and to educate.

Kids of all heritages will always find enjoyment in toys, whether they are carefully and beautifully made, or quickly created from discarded materials. In this sense, our Indigenous toy collection is a wonderful snapshot of the changing nature of childhood from the late nineteenth to the twentieth century.

Rebecca Fisher, Collections Officer 

First published in Explore 35(2), Spring 2013. 

Ms Rebecca Fisher , Collections Officer - Culture: Australia
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