The best thing a child can do with a toy is to break it. The next best thing is to make it. This book is about toys which children can make and break freely. The low cost or rather no-cost toys documented in the book are the everyday playthings of millions of Indian children, past and present.

Joy of Making Indian Toys [Illustrations by D. K. Sharma]
Joy of Making Indian Toys [Illustrations by D. K. Sharma]

Strictly speaking, most of the toys documented here do not have a technical or standard name. Many parents shun them as ‘junk’. Toy manufacturers would not even talk about them because there is no way to make money out of them. How can one make money from a whistle which can be made by rolling a leaf or a tiny piece of paper?

Many more millions of children have played with such toys than with all the factory-made playthings put together. Even the poorest of the poor can afford to make and play with them. The fact that these toys cost nothing and are made of the simplest materials, often recycled ones, does not mean that they are inferior to the high-priced factory-made ones. In all probability these toys have an edge over the commercially produced playthings. You may ask how it is so? Let us discuss this in detail.

[ a ] Learning by ‘experimentation’ and ‘Creative Activity’
One of the unique features of these toys is that they introduce children to a scientific method of working. In the process of making and playing with these toys, their faults and shortcomings can be realized easily. This is so because unless everything is done according to certain specifications, the toys will not work at all or would work poorly. Children even on their own can make changes and remove such defects or shortcomings. For instance, when a paper whistle is made and no sound comes out of it, a child might be curious and wonder: Is the construction right? Is the way of blowing correct? Is the selection of paper appropriate? Children tend to consult others when they are unable to make corrections on their own. This way they are introduced to the basic ideas of ‘experimentation’ and ‘creativity’ in a subtle yet effective manner.

[ b ] Learning from Each Other
All the toys shown in the book are made by children themselves. Children learn to make these from their peers, from older children and adults. In the process they share and learn. At times a child may need help from someone to demonstrate how to make and play with the toy.

[ c ] Seedlings of Science and Technology
It would be fair to say that no other type of toys can introduce children to the basics of science and technology with such simplicity and directness. A child effortlessly gets exposed to the principles of science, particularly those of physics.
It may be argued that the fundamentals of science can be explained by means of scientific equipments and appliances and also through examples of our own environment. So what is special about knowing science through these toys? Well, there is a marked difference. These toys, being simple to make and easy to play with, provide a clearer concept of science. Learning becomes a part and parcel of the play and a joyful experience.

Look at the Helicopter toy. This is made of a wooden ruler tied at one end with a piece of string. It does not look like a helicopter. But wait. Hold the free end of the string and swing the ruler in the air. Something unexpected happens. There is a very loud growling sound as of a helicopter approaching. A child is bound to be curious about how a simple ruler can generate such an unusual sound.

Such toys introduce the child to fundamentals of technology besides showing how to:

plan and construct step by step;
work with common basic tools such as a knife, pair of scissors, hammer, etc.;
use a variety of materials and thereby become familiar with their properties;
understand the basic concepts of measurements and the need for accuracy;
appreciate the ‘part and assembly’ concept, i.e. how an object having more than one part is made by assembling parts which have been made separately; and evaluate the work done and judge the scope for improvement.

[ d ] Introduction to ‘Design’
Take the case of the Windmill toy. The idea is to make a playing device which can rotate by wind energy. This toy is developed by selecting the right materials and by appropriate structural construction. Let us suppose that the paper used for this windmill is too thin or too thick, or that the paper blades are not balanced or do not have the correct type of folds. Will this toy work? Likewise, how does a new user know that this toy would rotate against the wind current? Doesn’t the form indicate this? Very often children paint colourful rings on the toy’s blades to perhaps indicate rotary action and to enhance its visual appeal.

There are also toys which tell us something about ‘design and nature’. One such toy is the Ant and the Fan Machine. As part of its design construction, a stick is housed in a hollowed rubber plant seed. When you see this seed shell, you would not notice any cut or breakage. How is that the material has been removed from within the seed without any cut on its shell? Well, what follows might sound like a little fairytale. A child gets hold of a little rubber plant seed, two small holes are made in it and the seed is left at the anthill for one or two days. The ants eat up the pulp within the seed. The child then collects the shell hollowed out by the ants. Does this sound amazing? Yet it is true, and is something commonly done by children particularly in Kerala State, where this toy is very popular. How do common people find out the most uncommon and imaginative design solutions?

There are also many toys which can introduce a child to the innovative aspects of design science. One such example is the Sewing Machine. This toy is extremely popular in the south where coconuts grow in plenty. The toy makes a slight ‘tik-tik’ sound, much like a real sewing machine in operation. But there is another ingenious feature added which makes it very interesting. Put a green leaf in between the sticks and rotate the toy. The ‘tik-tik’ sound is heard as expected. The leaf gets displaced and falls down. Pick up this leaf. You will see some stitches, i.e. a row of small punctures on the leaf. These ‘stitches’ look exactly as if the leaf had been placed in a real sewing machine and the sewing operation carried out. Some questions generally asked on such toys are:

Are these toys safe?
These toys are relatively safe considering the Indian home environment. Children usually make these from discarded materials which they handle in any case. Tools such as knives, scissors, needles, etc. are also available at home. At what age is a child allowed to handle a knife, needle or a pair of scissors? Is the use of these tools risky all through childhood? In fact, the making of these toys provides an opportunity to handle materials and tools with due care and adequate precautions. It is one of the most important aspects of growing up. But in the making of certain toys by children, there is an element of risk. For example there are toys which make use of a razor blade. Similarly it was brought to our notice that the sucking action on the torn-off part of a balloon to make a tiny bubble burst, is unsafe. In some extreme cases, the rubber sheet tore and got stuck in the child’s throat. These have been excluded. Here teachers and guardians can guide the child and gradually encourage her/him to handle tools with care and precaution. From the hygienic point of view it is advisable that toys which one puts in the mouth are not shared by others.

Are these toys specifically Indian?
The answer is ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. ‘Yes’ in the sense that these toys are indigenously created by creative adults and locally made by the children. And ‘No’ in the sense that many similar concepts of toys were, and still are, present in other countries. For example, a Windwheel is made and played with all over the world. But, the Mango Seed Fan, or the Sewing Machine toy and many others are typically Indian. No other country has such a wide range of these toys as India today. Has this also got something to do with the fact most Indians are poor? It is partially true that children from the poorer communities make these toys more often, but that is not the only reason. These toys are part and parcel of the existing culture of making things with the hands. This is not only true of toys but also of other utility items like baskets, earthen pots, textiles, etc. The other special feature is using recycled and discarded materials which is a common feature of Indian culture. The rich, diverse Indian environment provides a wide scope for development of concepts and ideas.

Developments Ahead

These toys also reaffirm the fact that creativity, innovation and technical knowledge are more widespread than realized and are in fact extensively employed by people who do not have any formal education or training.
Times have changed. There are today a number of new social themes and technologies. How do we help develop new toy ideas? Our times have also brought in many new types of discarded materials awaiting recycling; billions of used battery cells, innumerable pieces of electric wire, film rolls, millions of discarded injection syringes and other medical products, reels and bobbins discarded by textile mills, tape spools, plastic package containers, plastic film sheets and bags. The list can go on and on. Who would develop the new no-cost ingenious toys? What will be the role of trained scientists, designers and educators? Let us hope that the simple, ingenious toys documented in this book would provide inspiration to many.

After all is said and done, the most important aspects of these toys are the fun and the element of discovery inherent in them. No other group of toys can match them. These are in fact the first and foremost creations of ‘would be’ scientists, engineers and designers.

The book is really a tribute to the genius of the many ‘ordinary’ people who thought of and gave shape to the ‘extraordinary’ toys described here. These anonymous self-trained scientific minds must have developed these toys out of their feelings of love and service.

In case you face some difficulty in making or playing with a toy, do not give up; do not get discouraged. Try, try again!

( 1 ) Mango – Seed Fan Machine [TOY 1]
( 2 ) Ant and the Fan Machine [TOY 2]
( 3 ) Wind Wheel [TOY 3]
( 4 ) Wind Mill [TOY 4]
( 5 ) Helicopter [TOY 5]
( 6 ) Sewing Machine ( Sound ) [TOY 6]


You need two mango seeds, a pointed bamboo stick and a piece of thread.

(1) One of the mango seeds is hollowed out by cutting one end and scraping out the pulp with a knife.

(2) Also make a hole in the centre of this hollowed shell.

(3) Now take the other whole seed and force the pointed stick through its hard shell. The pulp inside it provides a firm grip to the stick. Tie the thread to the stick as shown.

(4) Now place this stick, along with the thread, in the hollowed shell. Pull the thread out from the hole made in the hollowed shell with the help of a wire. To play with this toy, first wind the thread by rotating the intact seed (A).

Now pull the thread at B with a jerk. You will notice that the intact mango seed (A) spins. With a little practice you can spin it continuously.


In this case, the stick which rotates (A) is placed in the shell of a rubber plant seed. Two pieces of palm-leaf are affixed to this stick. The illustration shows the method of making this toy. The rubber plant seed is also hollowed out. The seed is left at an anthill for a day or two. The ants eat up the pulp within the seed. Only two small holes are made for the stick and for the thread, as shown in Fig. 2.

This is an amazing way of constructing the toy and is done by children of Kerala State where rubber plants are grown!

Joy of Making Indian Toys [Illustrations by D. K. Sharma]
Joy of Making Indian Toys [Illustrations by D. K. Sharma]


The three-blade fan or Wind Wheel is also simple to make.

(1) Three strips of thick paper measuring 20 cm x 2 cm (notebook or magazine paper would do) are cut and folded in the centre of each strip.
(2) Folds are interlocked as shown.
(3) Proper interlocking of the three strips results in the making of a bowl-like form.
(4) Put a blunt edged pencil at the centre of this fan and run with it to make it rotate.

The Paper Fan you just made rotates in the wind whereas the table or ceiling fan you use in your home is rotated by electric power, to create a flow of air.


This is a very popular toy in all regions of India.

( 1 ) You need a thin but stiff piece of paper about 15 cm x 15 cm, a pin, two beads, and a reed or bamboo stick.

( 2 ) Mark the lines and make cuts as shown.

( 3 ) Fold the blades as shown, but do not crease the folds of the fan.

( 4 ) The four folded blades are to be fixed in the position as shown.

( 5 ) Put a bead at the front of the pin. Pass the pin through, holding the four blades together.

( 6 ) Put the second bead at the rear end of the pin and fix the pin on the stick. The toy is ready.


The toy helicopter makes a loud growling sound.

( 1 ) Would you believe that an ordinary ruler attached to a string is capable of making such a loud sound?

( 2 ) Make a hole in one end of the ruler.

( 3 ) Pass a string through it and tie a firm knot at the end.

( 4 ) Hold the loose end of the string and swing the ruler.

Find out

Instead of a ruler, use a bamboo pipe. Will there be any sound?
If you replace the ruler with an irregular flat piece, will the toy work?


This is a very popular toy made in Kerala State, where coconuts grow in plenty. This simple, remarkable toy shows how creativity, innovation and technical knowledge are demonstrated by people who have not been formally trained.

( 1 ) Take a 3 to 4 month-old baby coconut (sometimes, one which has fallen off a tree will do). A potato can also be used.

( 2 ) Remove its petals.

( 3 ) The coconut tree leaves are large and have strong veins. Take one of these strong, stick-like veins, say 25 cm in length, and sharpen its ends.

( 4 ) Insert one end into the soft baby coconut. Insert the other end also, making a loop-like formation as shown.

( 5 ) Now insert a straight stick of approximate length of 15 cm into the coconut.

( 6 ) Lastly, take two coconut sticks, each about 20 cm, and place them as indicated. Now rotate the coconut.

This action will produce a ticking sound resembling that of a sewing machine in operation. The toy will work for a day or so when the sticks are fairly fresh. After a day, the sticks will start drying and the structure will become loose and will produce less sound.

Can you figure out how the sound is produced? If you have a friend from Kerala, ask him to tell you more about this toy.

This toy is also called a ‘printing machine’ because its sound resembles that of a printing machine in action.

Note:- Try making this toy out of a small potato and by using sticks from a broom.

First published by National Book Trust, India

2775 words | 29 minutes
Based on Flesch–Kincaid readability scores

Filed under: craft activities
Tags: #indians, #machines, #helicopter, #shells, #science, #rubber, #mango, #ruler

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