11 Delightfully Retro Summer Toys and Activities

Who needs a swimming pool?
Who needs a swimming pool? / Hulton Deutsch/GettyImages

Everyone remembers their adolescent summers a little differently. Some kids drenched themselves in Coppertone and lounged by a public pool until they turned the color of a rotisserie chicken; others got shipped off to summer camp; some grabbed a Popsicle and found whatever fun the neighborhood was offering.

But some activities were more universal: Check out 11 vintage summer happenings from the mid-20th century on that made sure no kid could ever make a valid claim of being bored.

1. Flashlight Tag

Kids who left their house during the summer were usually expected to be back when the street lights came on—even “cool” parents didn’t like the thought of their children prowling around after dark. But older kids who managed to extend their days could indulge in a game of flashlight tag.

Players would be divided into two teams, with one being “it” and equipped with flashlights while the others spread out. The hiding team would wear dark clothing and attempt to skulk around at night toward a designated home base. Getting there without being detected would earn their team one point.

While fairly innocuous, not everyone was a fan of flashlight tag. In 1997, one cantankerous old man in Pennsylvania who was annoyed kids were playing the game in his neighborhood slapped a 12-year-old participant and was soon charged with harassment by the local police. That’s against the rules.

2. Soap Box Derbies

A soap box derby car is pictured
A young soap box derby competitor and a fan in 1940. / University of Southern California/GettyImages

Before kids could jump into battery-powered mini-cars and trucks, they started from scratch. Soap box derbies were the invention of Myron Scott, a Dayton, Ohio, native and news photographer. In 1933, Scott noticed two kids barreling down a hill in wooden wagons with baby carriage wheels. (One reminded him of a soap box, hence the name.) Intrigued, Scott began promoting his All-American Soap Box Derby, a competition in which kid racers would build their own gravity-powered vehicle.

The cars became a summertime institution across the country, with kids and their parents constructing racers; by the 1970s, the Ohio event was even getting television coverage. There was also a hint of scandal when 1973 derby winner Jimmy Gronen was disqualified for placing an electromagnet in his car that propelled him faster out of the starting gate.

3. Play Streets

In 1914, the New York City police commissioner believed the best way to keep kids out of trouble was to open up play streets—roads in different boroughs that would be closed to traffic so kids could head outside and go wild. The idea was especially useful in lower-income areas where parks were scarce. Kids could ride—or learn how to ride—bikes, play games, and do pretty much anything without fear of encountering a car. Though the number of play streets has gone down in recent years, the city revitalized the project in 2020 during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

4. Playing With Fire Hydrants

Children are pictured playing near a fire hydrant
Fire hydrants were the Super Soakers of their day. / George Rinhart/GettyImages

The sight of kids sprinting around an open fire hydrant to beat the heat was such a seasonal staple in New York and other urban areas that The New York Times once called it “the lifeline of summer, spewing cooling excitement to all around it.”

Though illegal, it was nearly impossible to police, so some fire departments installed sprinklers to limit waste. And while it was essentially a water fountain on steroids, using a public utility for playtime was never really a good idea. According to the Philadelphia Water Department, opening a hydrant can decrease water pressure for other hydrants, hindering fire relief efforts; it’s also enormously wasteful, with as much water coming out in an hour as one household might use during an entire year.

5. Slip 'N Slide

Children of the ‘60s had a different kind of aquatic fun: the Slip ‘N Slide. The brainchild of an upholsterer named Robert Carrier, the outdoor playset had a vinyl runway, and when wet down with a hose, it provided a slick sliding surface. (Some enterprising kids even added dish soap for additional momentum.) But when adults used it, their heavier frames gained too much speed and would sometimes plow into nearby hard surfaces. Broken necks and resulting lawsuits ensued; it went on and off the market, often returning with the appropriate warning labels. Today, you'll find the Slip 'N Slide readily available online, though the company recommends it only for kids ages 5 to 12.

6. Big Wheel

Children of the ‘70s and ‘80s know it well: the ka-chunk, ka-chunk sound of a Big Wheel tricycle crushing gravel under its tires. These low-riders—one’s butt was practically touching the ground—were introduced in 1969 by Louis Marx and Company and were practically indestructible, perfect for kids who threw them aside or left them out in the rain. Upwards of 40 million were sold through the early 1980s. After Marx folded, toy company Alpha International relaunched the Big Wheel in 2003.

7. The Hoppity Hop

The Hoppity Hop—an inflatable rubber ball around 25 inches in diameter that resembled a large kettlebell—allowed kids to sit on top and awkwardly bounce across the pavement once the toy was filled with air. Adults liked it, too, with one newspaper comparing it to a ride on a bucking bronco. The ball was introduced by the Sun Corporation in 1968; the company sold over 300,000 units (at $6 each, or $43 today) in just three months and over 4 million within five years. A Hoppity Horse with a horse’s head in place of the handle followed.

8. Lemonade Stands

A lemonade stand is pictured
Lemonade stands served up refreshment. And polio. / Robert Nickelsberg/GettyImages

Just because it was summer doesn’t mean kids couldn’t try a side hustle. Lemonade stands have been around in some form for hundreds of years, though those manned by children were most pervasive in the 20th century. While they were often lessons in a free market, they were also cautionary tales when it came to hygiene: One particularly dirty stand in 1940s Chicago was responsible for a polio outbreak.

9. Skip-It

Not every kid wanted to physically exert themselves in the summer, but one surefire way to get them moving was the Skip-It. A ball tethered to a cable was strapped to a kid’s ankle, and by jumping, they’d move the ball and create an obstacle at the same time. A pedometer on a later version of the device kept track of how many times you could clear the cable. While similar toys like Footsie had been around, marketing for the Skip-It helped make the game mainstream. Introduced in the 1980s by Tiger Electronics, it was the partial brainchild of designer Avi Arad, who would go on to produce Fox's X-Men movies, Sam Raimi's Spider-Man movies, and a host of other big-screen Marvel projects.

10. Moon Shoes

A generation of tiny Neil Armstrongs was fostered with the introduction of Moon Shoes, which helped simulate a zero-gravity environment by making kids unsteady on their feet. Effectively a trampoline shoe, Moon Shoes were originally made of metal—for reckless ‘70s kids—but were later redesigned in plastic and marketed by Nickelodeon in the 1990s. In 1992, a lawyer specializing in personal injury cases named the shoes one of the most dangerous toys on the market. Manufacturer Hart Enterprises countered that Moon Shoes caused fewer injuries than bikes or pogo sticks.

11. The Snoopy Sno-Cone Machine

After a long day of avoiding orthopedic disaster on the Slip ‘N Slide or Moon Shoes and then angering the fire department by prying open a hydrant, kids could retire inside and cool off with a Snoopy Sno-Cone Machine. The plastic device was endorsed by Snoopy of Peanuts fame and featured a hand crank to shave ice. Once it was crushed, liquid syrup could be poured over it. Introduced by Hasbro in 1979, it replaced an earlier version called the Frosty Sno-Man. Delinquent children sometimes stuffed their action figures into the shaver, mulching them. Pointless? Sure, but in summertime, that's kind of the point.