The history of schoolyard fads is littered with once-cherished and soon-discarded treasures, items that exploded into the toy market, sold like crazy, drove parents and teachers to madness, and ultimately receded into the shadows.
If you are at all attuned to these events, then you know the fidget spinner is the hotcake du jour. If you’ve never heard of the fidget spinner (which means you obviously aren’t a 10 year old kid) check out our piece, The Fidgetal Age, to learn more about it.
The one thing you need to know about fidget spinners for our purposes here is that they are exceedingly popular, they are this year’s must-have toy, and as a consequence of this status, they have become the subject of widespread elementary school bans. This is for two reasons, both of which are pretty obvious. First, they are an annoying distraction to teachers. Second, kids have inevitably found creative ways to hurt one another and themselves.
As it turns out, these are generally the two reasons that toys have historically been banned from schools. And indeed, fidget spinners join a fairly robust list of annoying, distracting, and occasionally injurious fads that kids loved, teachers hated, and schools banned. Below are a few of our personal favorites.
1. Slap Bracelets
One kid in Chappaqua, New York gets three stitches on a lacerated hand and slap bracelets are ruined for the rest of us. That’s how I remember it anyway. The year was 1990 and these simple, cheap and usually fluorescent items were omnipresent. They were fun, they were fashionable and they were everywhere. And since I came from a family that usually couldn’t afford fads until they were already out of fashion, the teeny, tiny pricetag meant that even I got one.
The slap bracelet was a strip of flexible steel, kind of like a section of venetian blind, covered in fabric. The steel could be snapped into a straightened position or coiled like a bracelet. When you struck your wrist with the straightened steel, it would coil, forming a cuff around your wrist in a single, satisfying motion.
Invented by a metal shop teacher in 1983, it was originally called the Slap Wrap. It was a pretty obscure little item until Main Street Toys in Connecticut began marketing it in 1990. The slap bracelet quickly became a must-have item for the preadolescent and adolescent set, possessing a distinctly MTV New Wave appeal in their colorful day-glo variations. The fad’s rapid proliferation inspired cheap overseas knockoffs at less than half the price of the real thing. (Of course, we’re comparing $2.49 to $.99 but that was a substantial difference when you were living on allowance alone).
Every kid I knew had one of these that year and I never met a single kid that had been injured by one. I never even met somebody who knew somebody that was injured. But then, a girl in West Orchard Elementary School in upstate New York went and pulled the cloth off of her slap bracelet, accidentally sliced herself up pretty good, and scared a bunch of teachers, principals and parents into recognizing the inherent dangers of slap bracelet fashions.
All kinds of schools followed suit, my South Jersey elementary alma mater among them. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a panic, but the slap bracelets became an enemy of parent safety groups. Main Street Toys noted that the cheap knockoffs were largely to blame for the epidemic of injuries (I found evidence of only two such injuries on the interweb), but few schools opted to inspect slap bracelets for authenticity. They were simply banned.
And in defense of the ban, a U.S. consumer panel did warn of their danger upon review in October of 1990, largely based on circumstances in which the fabric did become removed. In spite of the clear and present danger, slap bracelets are still sold in the kinds of places you’d expect to find them. Perhaps the primary reason you don’t hear much about the ban anymore is because they just aren’t popular enough for it to matter.
Pogs were a sensation in the mid-90s and, on the face of it, were pretty harmless. Nothing more than little circular cardboard discs with an infinite array of designs—from generic geometric shapes and assorted flaming skulls to collectibles featuring notable mid-‘90s cartoon characters like Bart Simpson, Beavis and Shaquille O’Neal. (Oh come on. Shaq is obviously a cartoon character.)
Anyway, there wasn’t much to these things other than bright colors, innumerable variations and tremendous branding opportunities. So what could possibly justify the fact that elementary schools identified them as prohibited contraband just as they peaked in popularity?
Well, pogs became the centerpiece of an international, underaged gambling ring that swept like a plague across American schoolyards in 1995. Or maybe that phrasing is a tad insidious. Maybe it’s more honest to say that kids were losing their pogs to each other and crying to the teacher about it.
Pogs originated as a competitive game, one that may have been played on the Hawaiian island of Maui as early as the 1920s. At the time, the pogs had no actual value to competitors, but were in fact discarded caps from a popular Hawaiian drink made from Passionfruit, Orange, and Guava (P-O-G) juices and distributed by the Haleakala Dairy of Maui.
First, the game itself became popular across the archipelagic state. The idea of fashioning individual pogs for the purpose of pogging itself became popular soon thereafter. By the 1940s, it wasn’t unusual for a Hawaiian kid to have a collection of caps. In fact, when Haleakala discontinued distribution of the glass containers in which its POG drink was originally sold, it continued to manufacture caps strictly for the purposes of game play.
The game was itself pretty simple. Each competitor would have a collection of regularl-sized pogs and one larger pog, called a “slammer.” When it was your turn, you would throw your slammer into a pile of pogs belonging both to you and other competitors. Every pog that you flipped with your slammer would then become yours.
Though the game would be largely forgotten for the better part of four decades, an elementary school teacher in Oahu named Blossom Galbiso remembered the game fondly and introduced it to her students in 1991. It even proved an effective and engaging way to instruct her students in math and healthy competition.
Pogs were seen as less constructive in the continental U.S. The game hit the mainland in 1993 and rapidly attracted -mania status. Pogmania led trading card companies, comic book brands, video game designers, banks, gas stations and everybody with access to a printing company to invest in their own pogs. But of course, the highly collectible nature of pogs led inevitably to disagreements, hurt feelings and shoving. And as a general rule, schools in the U.S. perceived pogs as promoting a form of gambling. It was thus, says a 1995 article from the New York Times, that “the raucous recess game is no longer permitted” in many schools throughout North America.
Kurt Anderson, principal of the Thompson Middle School in St. Charles, Illinois told reporters that kids were fighting over pogs or simply stealing them from one another. He explained that “We just ask the kids not to bring them.”
And that’s the story of how these innocuous cardboard discs became cafeteria contraband.
3. Garbage Pail Kids
Garbage Pail Kids began as a joke and rapidly became an elementary school sensation. The year was 1985 and a doll called the Cabbage Patch Kid had just taken the buying public by storm. The vinyl-headed stuffed baby dolls came with adoption papers and adorable names. During the Christmas shopping season of 1984, widespread toy store shortages led to long lines and broad cultural attention.
The next year, Pulitzer-prize winning illustrator Art Spiegelman came up with a really gross way of parodying the adorable fad. Teaming up with Topps—the classic baseball card company—Spiegelman invented the Garbage Pail Kids. A series of trading card stickers, each depicted a cartoon child either doing something disgusting, battling with some grotesque health abnormality, or in the midst of suffering some type of tragic fate.
Two things you have to know about Garbage Pail Kids if you weren’t around when they hit the market in 1985: First they’re absolutely disgusting and possibly even offensive depending on your unique health disposition; second they’re hilarious.
So it goes without saying that kids absolutely loved them. I can only speak for myself as a young boy, but here was a fad that combined trading cards and booger jokes, which were pretty much my two favorite things. Oh, and like all Topps cards, they came with a revolting stick of pink gum, because obviously you want to put something in your mouth that came from a pack of these things.
The Garbage Pail Kids were monstrously successful and quickly became the bane of every teacher’s existence. They said it was because the trading cards had become a distraction in the classroom. But let’s be honest here. It was because they were unpleasant even to confiscate. (I still have a few of these horrid treasures tucked into a cigar box somewhere.)
An article in the Sun Sentinel from February of 1986 kind of sums it up pretty well. A principal from Public School 6 in Manhattan called the cards “nasty and unkind — they make fun of the way people look and act.”
This was kind of the consensus among many adults, that the cards were in poor taste, that they encouraged antisocial tendencies and that seemed to advocate the mocking of those who are different. And of course, the same article notes that the Topps company couldn’t keep them in stock, that hobby stores had lines around the block for the original series. They had a significant enough cultural impact to incline scholarly studies. According to the Sun Sentinel, “Leonard Berkowitz, a social psychologist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, said the appeal of such figures as Smelly Kelly, Wrinkled Rita, Virus Iris, Greaser Greg and Foul Phil could be linked to ‘an underlying tension’ produced by the children`s insecurity about how they look, whether they fit in and all the disagreeable things that life may hold in store for them.”
Whether this is accurate or not, a concerned mother at the time offered probably the best explanation for the fact that these were banned in school. Susan Wurthman of Massqpequa Park observed that the cards weren’t healthy. She observed that her 7-year-old daughter Tracy, upon seeing Garbage Pail Kid Dead Fred, an underaged gang member with a cigar in his mouth and a bullet entering his forehead, said “I like this one. My dolly would look nice with its head blown off, too.”
I can see how that would be a disconcerting thing for a parent to hear. At any rate, the cards quickly became in-school contraband, which of course only further magnified their popularity. They were so popular that in 1987, there was even a live-action feature length film.
Check out nearly every list of history’s worst ever movies to learn more about this hideous thing that somebody thought was a good idea. This film is in rare company, among the very few to receive a mark of absolute 0% on Rotten Tomatoes. That’s not easy to do. Even Howard the Duck gets 15%.
They also hit a pretty hard legal wall when Coleco, the makers of the beloved Cabbage Patch Kids, sued them for copyright infringement. They agreed to alter the appearance and logo of the trading card to remove any notable similarities, but by the time they reached this agreement in 1988, sales were already flagging. The fad was over.
With all of this said, Garbage Pail Kids have somehow endured, if not in popularity, at least in existence. They released a new series as recently as 2016 mocking various pop culture reference points.
4. The Furby
The turn of the Millennium was a weird time for pop culture. Music was dominated by boy bands and post-grunge plop-rockers. Cinema was in such a slump that even the new Star Wars movies were terrible. And between 1998 and 2000, 40 million Americans purchased something called a Furby. Like I said, weird time.
For those of you who aren’t old enough to have had your dreams haunted by these things, the Furby is a battery-operated creature that is part hamster, part owl, and part threat to America’s most carefully-guarded military secrets.
Here’s the thing about the Furby. These weren’t technically banned from schools but they were prohibited from somewhere pretty consequential. One of the earliest examples of a toy disrespecting the ethical limitations of machine-learning, the Furby was a sort of cute but also menacing and creepy retail sensation armed with something mimicking artificial intelligence. The way it worked was that your Furby came out of the box with the capacity for speech. It’s vocabulary, in its newborn stage, was limited to a language called Furbish. Over time, though, your Furby would “learn” the words that were spoken all around it.
This means that in the case of my household, the Furby would eventually speak entirely in English. It bears noting that I’m a Philadelphia sports fan, so if the Furby happened to be around on gameday, he might learn enough words to be inappropriate for children. The Furby was designed with the capacity to develop a vocabulary in up to 24 human languages.
This incredible functionality made it the must have toy upon its release in the 1998 Christmas season. It also scared the bejesus out of those responsible for protecting classified government information.
In 1999, with Furbies proliferating wildly, the National Security Agency issued an internal memo calling on agents and employees to notify the Staff Security Office for guidance in the event that a Furby was ever spotted on the premises of its Maryland headquarters.
According to an article in the BBC from the time:
Because of its ability to repeat what it hears, Security Agency officials were worried ‘that people would take them home and they’d start talking classified,’ according to one anonymous Capitol Hill source.
Photographic, video and audio recording equipment are all prohibited items for employees at the NSA. ‘This includes toys, such as Furbys, with built-in recorders that repeat the audio with synthesized sound to mimic the original signal,’ the Furby Alert read.
Though these fuzzy secret agents were never banned from schools, they also got really expensive during the peak of their popularity, which made them pretty ill-suited for daily classroom appearances. Parents were shelling out more than $100 a pop for these at their height so they weren’t exactly hiding in every kid’s desk. And perhaps inspired by fears that Y2K would render the Furby an unfeeling, unceasing Terminator bent on the destruction of mankind, consumers largely lost interest by the year 2000. They were discontinued two years later but have since been revived several times with little fanfare or intelligence community handwringing.
Tamagotchis are awesome if your life is plagued by a dearth of real responsibilities or obligations. Like, if you literally said to yourself, between work, bills, my health, and my hobbies, I simply don’t have enough to worry about. I’d like the fabricated pressure of caring for an imaginary pet. Apparently, tons of people felt that way, because the Tamagotchi was the biggest recreational sensation of 1997.
The “virtual pet” could saddle you with all the responsibility and hassle of having a pet without any of the unconditional love or emotional gratification. Tamagotchis were these little electronic eggs—produced by Japanese toy company Bandai—and marketed to kids as the embryonic spawn of alien visitors, left on Earth to be raised by caring humans.
As a caring human, it was your job to respond to your growing pet’s needs, which it expressed by beeping incessantly whenever it needed food, did its business, wanted to be entertained, required discipline or was feeling unwell. Your ability to respond to these needs by pushing the appropriate combination of buttons in a timely fashion would have a direct bearing on your pets physical growth, emotional health and cognitive development. So essentially, if your Tamagotchi gets sick and dies, you not only lose the game, but you may be inclined to doubt that you are at all fit to care for another living creature.
There’s quite a lot riding on this little toy, which is probably why inventor Aki Maita actually won the 1997 lg Nobel Prize for economics for her innovation. Less enthusiastic about the invention were public school teachers in the U.S. According to an article in the Orlando Sentinel from September of 1997, “students are being asked to leave their oft-beeping virtual pets at home” on account of the fact that they had become an enormous distraction during class time.
As they gained popularity, the toys were banned from schools because kids were too busy caring for pets to pay attention in class. Not only were they failing to learn, but they were giving love to a creature that couldn’t give it back. Quite a said and mechanized state of post-modern alienation. It was probably depressing for teachers to watch, putting aside the beeping irritant. That meant that public schools everywhere—in Japan and the Philippines as well as in the U.S.—forbade students from bringing them to class. Of course, that presented a serious problem if your pet happened to need attention during the daytime hours. The consequence was a state of neglect that ultimately resulted in a whole generation of resentful and socially-maladjusted Tamagotchis.
As per usual, the ban only heightened consumer interest and, over the ensuing decade and a half, Bandai sold more than 76 million of these things. Their enormous popularity explains why, just this year, the company decided to revitalize the toy for today’s young and aspiring virtual pet owner.
Scoubidou, or Scoobies, refers to the spools of brightly colored PVC plastic string used to weave cheap jewelry and personal keepsakes. Through an array of distinctive stitching and knotting techniques, these flexible, plastic strands are used to make friendship bracelets, keychains and—depending on one’s skill level—any number of more complex and sophisticated sculptures.
It sounds more like fodder for a stand at your local craft fair than a bit of schoolyard contraband. And in fact, Scoobies have been around for so long that it’s hard to believe they only ran afoul of school disciplinarians in the 21st century.
The origin of the art form, and of its name, actually revolves around a French pop singer named Sacha Distel. In 1958, the singer was enjoying breakout success with an irritatingly inane piece of treacle called “Scoubidou.”
One night in 1959, while on tour, Sacha was visited by fans in his hotel room. They made a gift for him by fashioning electrical wire into various knotted formations and dubbed the formations Scoubidou in honor of his first charting hit.
Over the ensuing years, electrical wiring was replaced by the colored spools specifically intended for the craft. It also spread well-beyond France, making waves on the shores of the U.K. and U.S.
Scoobies have submerged and resurfaced in popularity numerous times over the course of their lifetime. When I was a kid in the ‘80s, they were all the rage in the camp arts and crafts pavilion. In America, we called it by the decidedly un-P.C. name, “gimp.”
While it enjoyed popularity at the time, it was never the subject of a ban. Blame the ban on Millennial Brits. In 2004-2005, Scoobies saw a massive upswing in popularity among British children, sparking one of the many peaks in the fad’s long history. Children were once again swept up in the dangerously addictive world of craft knotting.
At first, Cliff Lane Primary School headteacher Owain Richards thought the craze was a positive one, fostering constructive creativity during lunch and recess times. But evidence soon proved him wrong. In 2005, Richards told the BBC that “”We banned scoubies following an isolated incident when they were flicked round the face of other children…This was taken very seriously as some children got them caught in the eye.”
This was the beginning of a widespread schoolyard ban, one that largely made Scoobies the scapegoat for the inherent tendency of children to poke each other in the eye with stuff.
The clacker may well be the very first inductee into the Dangerous Toy Hall of Fame, and in fact, this noisy little item probably helped to inspire a whole new era in safety regulation when it came to children’s playthings. Before that, you could sell a bag of rusty nails and earwigs as a rattle.
On the surface, clackers don’t have to be dangerous, but thanks to the miracle of cheap, mass manufacturing, they were. Clackers were basically two hard plastic balls coated in acrylic and attached on the opposite ends of a string or rope. The rope would then be knotted around a central rink or handle. Taking the ring or handle in one’s hand, a child could maneuver the item so that the two plastic balls would clack together repeatedly and in fast succession, creating a satisfyingly crisp clacking sound.
In the early ‘70s, clackers were the must-have classroom annoyance. At the time that they found their way onto the market, the Food and Drug Administration was largely responsible for overseeing toy safety, a job which it apparently didn’t take all that seriously. In 1971, reports began to spread of clacker explosions. The hard little balls, while not necessarily combustible, were nonetheless quite susceptible to spontaneous self-destruction. At any given moment, the two clacking balls were capable of exploding upon contact with one another, sending plastic shrapnel everywhere.
Within the scope of that year, schools everywhere forbade their students from bringing the item to school. Usually, this kind of ban only intrigues would-be consumers. But for the first time really, the FDA became actively involved in a matter of toy safety. In late 1971, the Administration imposed an array of new testing standards on toy makers, a condition which ultimately forced manufacturers to pull clackers from the shelves. Now, they weren’t just banned at school. They were banned everywhere.
Today, clackers are made with safe and non-explosive plastics. They exist, but frankly, the sound just isn’t as satisfying.
The original clacker occupies an important place in history. According to Quartz Media, the events surrounding the explosive toy precipitated the emergence of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. It’s possible that a few kids lost an eye on the way to this development but as they say, if you want to make an omelette, you’ve got to break a few eggs.
8. Silly Bands
Let’s say you’re a toy company executive and I walk into your office and pitch you the idea of disposable rubber bands. You can be excused for not immediately handing me a giant novelty-sized check and signing off on a massive marketing campaign. But if the year is 2010, it would be your loss. Collectible rubber bands were the it toy that year, taking the unassuming form of Silly Bandz.
The idea behind Silly Bandz is so simple that it kinds makes you angry to know somebody made millions off of it. Basically, these silicone rubber bands come in a variety of colors and are molded into an array of fun shapes, like cute animals, famous landmarks or Justin Beiber’s head. When worn on the wrist, a Silly Band merely resembles a rubber bracelet. When taken off, it returns to its original shape.
Silly Bandz began with great intentions. A Japanese design team, working through the firm Passkey Design, created Silly Bands in 2002 as a way to discourage throwing away rubber bands. By making perfectly functional rubber bands also fun and collectible, the team helped to reduce landfill-bound waste.
It took another seven years for toy designers in the U.S. to adopt the idea for non-conservationist purposes, thickening the rubber and ultimately stimulating the creation of countless new designs. By 2010, the highly tradeable, highly collectible and dirt-cheap Silly Bandz were everywhere.
For kids, “everywhere” generally means all the different areas of your school where you can show them off and compare them to your friend’s collection. If you’ve read through to this point, you can probably see where this is going. Teachers quickly began to identify the item as a major distraction.
According to a 2010 article from Time Magazine, this distraction “prompted Karen White, principal of Snow Rogers Elementary School in Gardendale, Ala., in October to become one of the first administrators to forbid students their Bandz. ‘We try not to limit their freedom of expression and what they wear, but when this became a problem, I knew we had to nip it in the bud pretty quickly,’ says White, who has since extended an olive branch in the form of monthly Silly Bandz days.”
Distraction aside, Silly Bandz also proved dangerous to those who were simply too fashion-forward. According to Snopes, some who wore too many Silly Bands, too tightly, and for too long, suffered some pretty serious circulation issues.
All of that said, this fad was deeply short-lived, with peak sales drying up after about six months of heavy demand. But with millions sold worldwide, young adults who experienced the craze firsthand should now have no shortage of colorful and functional rubber bands in a desk drawer somewhere.
9. Atomic Energy Lab
Well, now that we’ve considered the inherent dangers of rubber bands, the risk of eye-loss posed by boxcar-knotted gimp, and the instigative nature of Pog-related gambling, let’s consider just how much children’s toys have changed.
Back in 1951, A.C. Gilbert was already an extremely successful toymaker for inventing the groundbreaking ERECTOR set, in many ways the precursor to all subsequent construction-themed toys. Less influential was his U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which is exactly what it sounds like.
For the fairly reasonable sum of just $49.50, one could purchase a set containing an electroscope, a Geiger-Muller counter, a Wilson cloud chamber, and oh yeah, four glass jars containing uranium-bearing ore samples. Obviously, in today’s climate of parental overprotection, indulgence and coddling, very few toys contain actual radioactive materials. But as far as Gilbert was concerned, the only way for America to win the Cold War was to make juveniles comfortable with the idea of creating mist trails by initiating the ionization of radioactive particles.
The kit came with an array of instructions that seemed blissfully unaware of the risks. Indeed, according to the booklet included with your kit, one suggested use for your new uranium and Geiger counter was “playing hide and seek with the gamma ray source.”
In writing about his invention in 1954, Gilbert reflected that the laboratory could be in no way characterized as dangerous. He followed through on this argument by including precious few safety precautions with the kit. Such precautions were limited to the following advisement: “users should not take ore samples out of their jars, for they tend to flake and crumble and you would run the risk of having radioactive ore spread out in your laboratory. This would raise the level of your background count.”
We’re not from the ‘50s, so we just assume “background count” is a cute way of saying “childhood cancer.”
At any rate, with more than a dozen other similar nuclear kits on the market, Gilbert’s version was never very successful. Though it goes without saying that such an item would be pretty tough to push through consumer safety testing today, it was never actually banned from schools. It was just taken off of shelves in 1951 for failing to attract the buying public. Gilbert lamented that his attempt at nuclear proliferation was thwarted because children largely lacked the scientific background to use his kit properly.
Seriously though, I close only by noting that there was a time you could buy your kid a nuclear reactor for Christmas. 70 years later, you can’t even bring a fidget spinner to school without getting in trouble.