Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

In Owatonna: Toys exhibit highlights 50 years of child’s play April 5, 2019

Turtle power displayed.


CAN YOU NAME all four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?

I bet my daughters can. These fictional teenage cartoon characters are named after Italian artists of the Renaissance. And they were vastly popular when my girls were growing up in the late 1980s and 1990s.



Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, Raphael. The turtles are among toys featured in a “Toys & Play, 1970 to Today” exhibit at the Steele Country History Center in Owatonna. This museum ranks as one of my favorite regional history centers. Why? Because of the home-grown changing exhibits, the traveling exhibits and the adjoining Village of Yesteryear. Staff and volunteers clearly work hard to create engaging exhibits with a local connection.




Go ahead, play.


Kids are welcome to play with some of the exhibit toys, including these farm-themed wood cut-outs.


From videos to interactive activities to creative displays and more, visitors experience history. I am so thankful for this shift from “look and don’t touch” to hands-on that now imprints most history centers. History, to be remembered, must be experienced through the senses. I find myself bored at museums that revolve around simply walking past glass-encased historical artifacts. I need engagement to pull me in.


All three of my kids, including the son, owned one Cabbage Patch doll.


Front and center in the exhibit, fabric drapes over a cardboard box to create a fort.



Without kids in tow, though, I mostly observed this exhibit, flashing back to sweet memories of my daughters cradling their Cabbage Patch dolls, clasping tiny Polly Pockets in their little hands, sliding Viewmaster reels into place, creating art with a Lite-Brite, building forts from blankets draped over card tables and much more.


In a mock-up child’s bedroom, visitors are invited to play Nintendo.


Our family played lots of board games. Those are part of the Owatonna exhibit, but are a don’t touch part of the exhibit.


A table full of pogs, ready for playing.


I limited their screen time. They played together. Indoors and outdoors. And they used their imaginations.




I was happy to see a tractor displayed in a case full of toys.


The exhibit extends beyond a collection of popular toys. It also addresses the value of play as a learning tool, consumerism, issues related to technologically-based toys… There’s much to contemplate as I consider how toys have changed in the decades since I was a kid galloping around the farmyard on my stick horse crafted from a sock and an old broom handle.



But one thing remains unchanged—that is a kid’s desire for whatever is the hottest, newest toy. I remember flipping through the pages of the Sears & Roebuck Christmas catalog, aka the Wish Book, to tag the toys I knew I’d never get. A pogo stick sticks in my memory. I could dream all I wanted while repeatedly turning those pages. But in reality my parents had only minimal money and not enough to buy those coveted toys.


Through the museum window I saw this playground, such a fitting visual for the info posted inside the mock child’s bedroom.


Looking back now, I am thankful for that lack of material possessions as a child. Instead, the vast outdoors of rural Minnesota provided all I needed for imaginative play with my siblings. There were no battery operated toys, which I refuse to buy even today for my grandchildren.





Parenting children today, I think, proves more challenging than that of previous generations, even of raising my own kids. Screen time robs too many kids of creative play, of family time, of spending time outdoors. I realize it’s a much different world. And I can lament all I want about the changes. But that does no good. The bottom line is that we can make choices for our children. We decide whether to cave to whining. We decide which toys to buy. We decide on screen time. We decide on the importance of outdoor play. We have the ability to encourage healthy, engaging and creative play.


My girls’ My Little Ponies came from garage sales, as did many of their toys.


PLEASE SHARE your thoughts on toys, on child’s play, on your favorite childhood toy, on parental choices, whatever you feel inclined to say about kids and toys and, yes, parents, too.


FYI: The Steele County Historical Society museum is open Tuesdays – Saturdays. The toy exhibit remains open into the fall. Call to confirm dates.

RELATED: Click here to read about the reasons behind the closing of Creative Kidstuff, a group of home-grown toy stores in the Twin Cities.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


29 Responses to “In Owatonna: Toys exhibit highlights 50 years of child’s play”

  1. washekoda Says:

    This is way cool. thanks for sharing 🙂

  2. Beth Ann Says:

    I love this exhibit and recognized all of the toys. Yes, I could name each of the TMNT characters. Of course. Cowabunga, Turtle Power. 🙂 It can be a whole different kind of play these days with our tech age but it can be good if it is monitored. My childhood was simple play with few toys and lots of creativity and imagination –much like yours.

  3. valeriebollinger Says:

    This looks like a very interesting place, especially the special toy exhibit. I have not heard of this place. I want to go visit. Thank you for this posting.

    I identified with your methods of screen time and play time for our children. We monitored our sons screen time too, and got them outside and using their imagination for play, and they also built hundreds of Lego cities.

    During my son’s first year at college our first visit was during parents weekend and he actually thanked us for monitoring his screen time. He was surprised that so many kids spent so much time in the dorms playing on the computer.

    • You and Gary must visit the Steele County History Center, which features these well-done local exhibits and sometimes traveling exhibits. Local historic artifacts are showcased in the Village of Yesteryear, housing items you would expect to see in your typical museum. The Village has several grand events, including one at Christmas and then an Extravaganza in July. I’ve been to that summer celebration once. You would really enjoy this living history.

      Kudos to your son for thanking you for monitoring his screen time. I remember a potential student asking, while on a tour of North Dakota State University, what size TV would fit in his dorm room. That seemed his biggest concern. Likewise that question surfaced at an orientation at Winona State.

  4. What a PLAYFUL Exhibit! Play is IMPORTANT for EVERY AGE! It is just the two of us and no kids. I remember the time we were at a Science Museum and the one mom asked my spouse to step aside to let the kids play. Her son stated but moooommmm he is teaching us how to play this exhibit. She just stepped back and let the kids and one big kid play – ha! I remember going to the neighbors because they had toys galore. We had a few, but made do with pots and pans, sheets for forts, outdoors and nature, etc. as play toys. It was the BEST childhood in taking time to read and just go exploring and adventuring 🙂 Happy Weekend – Enjoy!

    • Your childhood sounds similar to mine. One of imaginative play. And reading, such an important part of my life from early on.

      I love that Mr. Craves still plays. And that boy who enlightened his mom, well, you gotta love that.

      Keep playing.

    • I am still an avid reader and usually read on average about 20 books a month.

      Mr. Craves likes to see how things work. I know I have learned a few things from him as well as adding in the play. Do not have to be so serious as adults as he would state.

  5. I spent hours playing with my cousin’s Lite Brite when I visited my aunt and uncle. I remember when I was sick and had to miss school, mom would always give me a new pack of paper dolls and a book of my choice. I was entertained for hours. When not sick, it was outdoors playing with the neighbor kids.

    With my little ponies, there is an underground culture with those among college-age males (not sure what it’s all about, and I don’t think I want to know) called the Bronies.

    My daughter grew up collecting Pokemon cards and reading Harry Potter. The majority of her childhood was before all the electronics were life lines, and I’m thankful. I think she is, too, although those things are now necessary for her daily life. I’m curious to see how future grandkids will change things and what toys they will find amusing.

    Your post brought back sweet memories! Take care! Dawn

    • Thanks for sharing your toy stories. I am finding readers’ comments on this topic quite interesting.

      Oh, paper dolls…I forgot about those. I, too, spent hours playing with them. What a sweet reminder.

      Yes, it will be interesting to see how play evolves for kids. I still think LEGOS are one of the best toys. I didn’t have them. But my son played endlessly with them, building from his imagination.

  6. Such good memories looking at these! I SO wanted a Lite Bright!! 🙂

  7. Marilyn Donnell Says:

    Thanks – a very interesting entry. I tried to find my own walking doll (hard plastic, Christmas gift, grade 3) but the name I thought was hers is not found on the internet. Now I won’t rest until I find it/her. And, yes, we’re still playing (age-related) games – golf and Scrabble.

  8. Ahhh the Sears catalogue (wish book) for poor MN farm kids. Hours and hours were spent flipping through the pages. The cardboard box is timeless.

  9. This post brought so many thoughts to my head as I was reminded mostly of days gone by. I like you spent so much time outside playing and running and imagining. It warms my heart to see my two kids who are now parents instilling this into their own kids. My son cringes at the thought of a battery operated toy in his home, and my son in law, Chris just last weekend spent hours outside in his driveway refereeing a “basketball tournament” that our granddaughter Audrey organized for the neighborhood kids. Her daddy played the part well with a black and white stripped shirt and whistle. He also had a scoring app on his phone and a scorers table. It looked pretty legit!. When you talked about the cabbage patch kids I was reminded of the 3 baby(bald) CPK that my three had and yes like you my boys had a doll too. We had Anna Betty for Brianna, Audley for Brice and Quinton for Gavin. We recently uncovered the original “Power Rangers” still in their boxes, in my father in laws garage. These were a big hit in the early 90’s for my Brice. Thanks for sharing this Audrey, I love the “hands on” toy display…it would be worth a trip over to Owatonna with the grands 🙂

    • Oh, I’m happy to bring back all those memories. And I’m happy to hear about the battery-free perspective and the tournament Chris refereed. And those CPK your kids owned. Caleb had a baldie also. So fun to remember.

      The Steele County History Center also has a WW I exhibit currently on display. I’ll post about that soon.

  10. Missy's Crafty Mess Says:

    Wow this post brought back a lot of memories!

  11. Bella Says:

    Several years ago the history center in St. Paul had a similar display. We had such fun remincing over toys and other period pieces our kids liked and some from our own childhood My favorite was a wall yellow telephone with the longest cord ever. We had one just like it and I could stretch almost the whole length of the kitchen. Thanks for sharing.

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