In association with The National Archive Children playing on a suburban street. Note the absence of parked cars - only a solitary motorcycle and sidecar! Children playing on a suburban street. Note the absence of parked cars - only a solitary motorcycle and sidecar!

Children at play in 1930s Britain

From spotting enemy planes to visiting the pictures, children in World War II had to find new ways to entertain themselves

The demand for production of war materiel during World War II necessitated the requisitioning of factories that were producing items deemed non-essential to the war effort. Though children across the country would no doubt have argued, these non-essential items included toys. For the duration, new mass-produced toys and games were scarce, and so the children of Britain employed their virtually limitless powers of imagination to keep themselves entertained.

 Those who had been evacuated to the countryside had endless opportunities for adventure, there was treasure to hunt, imaginary armies to defeat and mountains to conquer.

For many children, novelty wasn’t in short supply. Those who had been evacuated to the countryside had near-endless opportunities for adventure, there was treasure to hunt, imaginary armies to defeat and mountains to conquer. Those who remained at home during The Blitz had a new terrain to explore, playing on bomb sights, and defending Britain from whichever invading hoard they could dream up. 

Two children look up at a sign...'Shelter. If you are caught out in a raid, welcome to two persons', outside a family home.

Two children look up at a sign...'Shelter. If you are caught out in a raid, welcome to two persons', outside a family home. Mary Evans Picture Library

For when playing out wasn’t an option, certain toys were available for purchase, all with a common theme. In order to encourage and nurture patriotism in children, parents could buy them toy guns, tanks, fighter planes, soldiers and everything else a toy military would need to successfully overcome attack by an invading toy army.

For those who were unable to provide their children with such toys and games, ersatz versions could be created at home. The ‘make do and mend’ attitude instilled during the War applied also to entertainment, and lots of children carried homemade dolls and other toys made by handy parents.

In order to get the most out of toys, toy-exchanges were established. Here, children could swap their old toys for something new (to them). 

In order to get the most out of toys, toy-exchanges were established.
1930s Father Pulling Children On Sled In Snow

1930s Father Pulling Children On Sled In Snow Image: Mary Evans/Classic Stock/H. Armstrong Roberts

In the unthinkable scenario where play was not possible at all, the wireless provided a welcome distraction, with children’s programmes like Children’s Hour keeping kids entertained. Comic books and tales of adventure were popular companions in the shelters when being outside was potentially fatal.

Then, of course, there was the cinema. The War was something of a golden age for films, and children all over the country flocked to the picture houses whenever they could to watch their heroes like Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, John Wayne, Judy Garland and Abbott and Costello light up the silver screen. 

Main image: Children playing on a suburban street. Image: Mary Evans Picture Library