Bringing children's toys back to the basics

Traditional Czech children's toys & hands-on workshops

The Czech Republic has a rich history of high craftsmanship and original animation for children's toys and entertainment. Traditional toys for children run the gamut from the nation's famous loutky a marionety (puppets and marionettes) to the lovable animated character Krtek or Krteček (Little Mole), who has entertained Czech children (and their parents) for half-a-century.

If you're tired of watching your child play on his tablet or smart phone, here are a few Czech toys that have withstood the test of time. We've also included tips on where your child can join a craft workshop or visit a toy factory to make his or her own keepsake wooden toy, puppet or metal construction.

Wooden toys & puzzles

If you'd like to purchase a Czech-made wooden toy in Prague, try Hračky Houpací Kůň (The Rocking Horse Toy Shop) in the Hradčany neighborhood (near Prague Castle). This small shop offers a variety of wooden toys, including folk toys, metal trucks and wind-up toys made by Czech craftsmen or produced by small local companies. Children can play with the toys in the shop, which is not always the case in Czech toy shops.

When my mother comes to town, one of her required stops for Czech-made children's toys is the Czech-chain Manufaktura. The upstairs floor of the largest Manufaktura shop, located a few steps away from Old Town Square, offers a selection of wooden toys, both painted and natural. I've bought a hanging wooden mobile, countless wooden puzzles, wooden cars and wooden puppets here for my children and as gifts for friends in the US. The toys are made by craftsmen in the Czech Republic, and one of our friends who's a master puppet-maker produces wooden toys for them. Manufaktura has numerous locations around the Czech Republic, including one shop at the airport.

For basic building blocks, the local toy-store chain Sparky's carries a good selection of standard wooden blocks. My sons like the Woody brand colored basic block set which is great for building houses or towers beside a wooden train set. The brand also carries wooden doll houses. Sparky's sells the Detoa brand, a reputable Czech toy company that has been producing wooden toys since 1908. Detoa produces a range of magnetic theater sets with wooden figures, including a set of the Czech classic Krtek & Friends as well as Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Little Red Riding Hood. These moveable, magnetic sets have wooden figures and sturdy pressed backdrops. My children have spent many a happy, rainy afternoon creating their own miniature theater productions.

For a closer look at Detoa toys, take a day-trip to the Detoa Wooden Toy Museum in the Jizera Mountains where you and your child can tour the factory, buy wooden components to make your own toys or join a workshop to make a toy on site.

For a gorgeous wooden keepsake that's more for parents than children, pick up an intricate puzzle by the award-winning Czech puzzle designer Kata Kissoczy at her Art Shop located at Újezd 33 in Prague. Kizzoczy's puzzles use a palette of natural colors and abstract themes to bring high-art in a playful form. 

Marionettes & Puppets

The Czech Republic's rich history of marionette theater and puppetry dates from the ancient times with records of finger puppets as early as the Middle Ages. During the later half of the 18th century, the nation began to develop its own style of Czech puppetry. The culture of marionettes and puppet theater continues strong today. The puppetry movement for children intensified particularly after the Czechoslovak Republic was established. It was the golden era of the family puppet theater, although some traditions from that time are being revived today.

Marionettes and puppets line shop windows in Old Town Square. Puppets are sold at seasonal markets and fairs across the country. Popular puppet styles include witches and ballerinas as well as classic Czech characters like the father-son pair Spejbl and Hurvínek from the 1930s. Nowadays, there is a trend to have a master craftsman make a personalized puppet, carved in the likeness of a particular individual. During the Harry Potter heyday a few years back, we gave my father a Harry Potter puppet that he keeps on display for visiting grandchildren, nieces and nephews to try. Visit the Prague 6 Spejbl and Hurvínek theater for an up-close look at the long-standing tradition of Czech puppet theater. Performances are for children but in Czech only. Divadlo Minor plays shows for children in English, and their on-site shop sells a variety of art toys.

If you'd like to find original puppets and marionettes of high-quality, look beyond the shops and markets in Old Town Square. Truhlář Marionety, located just underneath the Charles Bridge is a great place to see a fairytale land of hand-carved puppets by master craftsman Pavel Truhlář. Truhlář offers workshops for groups and individuals in his Vinohrady studio. He also makes high-end, customized “mini-me” puppets from linden wood as collectors' items. See his website for details.

Master puppeteer and toy-designer Mirek Trejtnar produces wooden toys for Manufaktura. Together with his wife Leah Gaffen, Trejtnar also offers two-week intensive master classes for adults and international students which culminate in theater performances. Visit his website for a sample of his work for children. Trejtnar sells ready-made wooden parts online at Puppets in Prague for aspiring puppeteers to carve on their own.

At the Hanspaulka elementary school in the Prague 6 neighborhood, children can also join semester-long woodworking courses led by Barbora Hubena to learn the basics of woodworking and create their own wooden toys and puppets. Hubena sells her own wooden creations on her website and at the Divadlo Minor shop.

Igráček

The famous eight-inch plastic figurine Igráček was created during Communism by two designers for the IGRA company as a toy that showed children how real people worked. The original figure was a bricklayer. Igráček models included a nurse, cook, construction worker, chimney sweep, sailor, road-mender, policeman, fire-fighter, cosmonaut and even a housewife with children. When my husband was growing up, Igráček figurines filled toy baskets like Playmobil or Legos do today. Since 2010, production of a modern version of Igráček began under the EFKO company. The figure now has a wrist that can turn and more detailed features. We bought the modern Igráček chef for my son one Christmas. The chef came with cooking utensils and a carrying case that opened to a kitchen. Igráček can be purchased from the company's website. It can also be found in major toy stores or in the toy section of most hypermarkets.

Krtek or Krteček (Little Mole)

He's been around the world and even made a trip to outer space, but the nearly sixty year-old Little Mole shows no signs of slowing down. Beloved by children and adults, Krtek is an iconic Czech cartoon character created by the Czech animator Zdeněk Miller in 1956. Krtek is similar to Mickey Mouse, except that Krtek doesn't talk beyond a series of grunts, squeals and exclamations. Krtek shares the Czech nation's interest in protecting nature and appreciating the outdoors along with his woodland friends (rabbit, frog and hedgehog). From 1957 to 2000, series of the animated cartoon ran on Czech television.

Krtek's reputation extends to Western Europe and as far East as China, India and Japan. Plans to introduce Krtek to the U.S. toy market are underway, although American children with ties to the Czech Republic likely know the friendly mole already. My nephews living in the U.S. may not know where the Czech Republic is on a map, but they wear Krtek tee-shirts, play with Krtek magnetic theaters and wooden toys and even read the English versions of some of his books. The classic story of “How the Mole Got his Trousers” is a family favorite.

Since the Little Mole is characteristic of Czech toy culture, it is easy to find Krtek memorabilia. You can buy Krtek-themed items at most shopping centers and toys stores. Try the toy-store Sparky's located in the Palladium shopping center to find a variety of plush Krtek figures, Krtek-themed puzzles, tee-shirts, DVDs and even Krtek umbrellas. I've also found Krtek tee-shirts, toys and puzzles on the upper floor of the main Manufaktura store.

Merkur (Metal building sets)

Perhaps the most famous Czech brand for metal building and construction sets, Merkur was the Lego of the Czech Republic in the 1920s. The company still produces construction sets, railway and train sets, robotics and electronic sets. Merkur even sells a steam engine that makes real and working steam. For any child interested in electricity and building, these toys provide a fun, educational look at the way things work. The company also sells metal diggers for the garden, simple bicycles and even a metal workshop desk. Items can be purchased directly from their website.

Visit the Merkur Museum in Police for a hands-on experience and to see historical construction kits and models on display. See curiosities, such as the best-known metal puzzle in the Czech Republic called “Hedgehog in the Cage,” built from Merkur metal elements.

Whether you're looking for a marionette puppet, a plush stuffed animal or a metal building set, when you shop for children's toys in the Czech Republic you'll find numerous options for unique, but traditional Czech-made toys. If you've got shopping suggestions that we've missed, please share them.

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