memories · poverty

Toys? We didn’t need no stinkin’ toys! Mother Nature Was Our Toy Box

My childhood household income and budget did not have wiggle room for money to buy toys. We made do with what nature provided for the most part. We weren’t accustomed to having shiny new things anyway. We wouldn’t know what to do with fancy toys even if we did have them.

Mother Nature is a pretty sizeable toy chest herself. You just need to know where to look. Doesn’t hurt to have experienced aunts, uncles and a parent that lived the hard times. This is how we lived in the woods of Hatchie but were never bored.

We did play with matchbox toys. They were empty match boxes pushed in the fine sand that was the road. Momma and her siblings played with sardine cans and sand.



Mother Nature had noise-makers. Little green fruit on a vine that ‘popped’ pretty loud when you squeezed them. We called them Maypops. Most people ate the seeds but I never acquired a taste. Lightnin’ bugs are always worth a couple hours of amusement.




We ate free snacks during warm months. Honeysuckle nectar was and still is a nice treat. The fragrance was wonderful and you could smell it on any given day on Hatchie. There were blackberries, huckleberries, plums, blueberries and persimmons.


Mother Nature turned persimmon seeds and plant leaves into toys in the right hands. When you remove a persimmon seed and cut it open there are a spoon and fork set inside. I don’t have a picture of one and don’t live near a tree to get one. (If I find a photo online that isn’t copyrighted I will show you one).


The seeds usually contain either a spoon, fork or knife-shaped white area. According to some older people contents of the seed indicate the upcoming season’s weather. Do you remember how Granny from ‘The Beverly Hillbillies” had her weather beetle?

Spoons mean lot of snow, forks mean a mild winter, and knives predict ice/wind that cuts like a knife. Sometimes there are even two utensils in a single seed. We all have found a spoon and knife in one. The above photo I found online isn’t a prime sample of what we found on Hatchie. The shapes’ details must vary depending on tree variety. Our utensils were more defined than the ones in the photo I posted. The forks we found had tines and looked like a fork. You get an idea of how small and fragile the inside of the seeds are. Use a light hand when cutting into them.

The leaves of a particular plant are fun to use as a small balloon that we call a frog tongue. Well, a frog’s tongue doesn’t inflate, but their throat does. This tongue-shaped leaf sounds better than saying a frog throat.

Frog Tongue Plant
We call this plant ‘Frog Tongue’



Both of these activities teach a person patience and how to have a delicate touch. The fork and spoon (and in some cases a knife) are tender fleshy material. If you cut too harshly into the seed you damage the set. The leaf toy requires patience and a soft touch to perfect.

Frog Tongue Leaf Before
Frog Tongue fresh off the plant.



Remove a leaf, flat side in your fingers and squeeze it between your thumb and index finger. Do not slide your fingers around or you will tear the leaf. Your goal is to squeeze it so the liquid releases and you are able to slide and separate the leaf into two layers. When you have the leaf to the point of sliding between your fingers (think balloon) remove the stem end with fingernails. You now have an opening to blow into. It isn’t big but when you FINALLY succeed in making one you will blossom with pride.

Frog Tongue Plant After
The leaf is in two layers now. Pinch off the stem end, blow into it.



I know these toys would not fascinate anyone this day and time but if given a chance I think they’d grow on you. My brother, Mother and myself were making frog tongues a couple of weeks ago. Some things you never outgrow.

Oh, don’t think for a minute that Mother Nature doesn’t have a toy for the thrill seeker. That toy comes in the form of a muskydime (muscadine grape to you city folk) vine! These vines get 3-4″ in diameter. Don’t use a vine that is still producing muscadines. That cuts into your snack and winemaking stock. To turn a muskydime vine into a swinging vine you will have to remove the bottom part so it is free to swing. This is the end at the root so no more nourishment to the vine. Hence, the reason to never use a fruit-bearing vine.

NZAUS trip 419
Vines can amuse a kid for hours.


There is one step, that is a must, to see if you should use a vine as a swinging vine and that is a stress test. See, Mother Nature has taught us a skill. Before cutting it, a couple of people need to hold onto the vine with all their weight supported by the vine. If it comes loose from the tree canopy you do not have a toy. At most it’s firewood.



We never had enough vines, trees, and space to go from tree to tree like Tarzan. We could swing around the main tree and away from the tree. We just kicked off the trees to keep going. It wasn’t rocket science just something we knew how to do. We took it for granted that everyone knew how to swing on a vine. Well, we were wrong on that assumption. We couldn’t believe one of the most countrified women, our mom’s sister, could have city kids.

“Kick off the tree! Kick off the tree!” An astonished group of siblings yelled. Then quiet took over. Rustling leaves and thin limbs in the canopy are heard snapping. A muskydime vine carrying the body of an inexperienced city boy was released seconds earlier.

The children’s fears were soon realized. The silence was broken by the sound of a body colliding with an oak tree. The leaf litter and debris is now disturbed from the body of that “city boy”. That writhing heap of flesh and bone was never taught to kick off of the trees when swinging on a grapevine.

The boy’s inability to circulate air throughout the lobes of his lungs. The harrowing “honking” sounds he was forming while trying to breathe.  All this sent fear into every one of the children’s hearts. “There is a slight chance that death isn’t far,” thought every child. The oldest child attempted to help, by rolling the body around, and getting the boy to sit up. Seconds? Minutes? Hours? Who knows how much time passed before he was breathing normal again. There was definitely a collective sigh of relief when he took his first full breath. Is this the feeling a parent gets at the sound of the newborn’s cry? I would not doubt it is.

We spent countless hours digging through rocks for fossils and just keeping ones we considered to be pretty. None of us can stand still in a gravel driveway today.

Fishin’ for chicken-chokers so we could use the chicken-chokers as fish bait was a very popular activity. Chicken-chokers were just grubs. The grubs are so big everyone for generations called them chicken-chokers.

Chicken-choker (grub to you city folk).


Pick a pretty blade of grass and stick it (white end part) into a hole in the dirt and let go. Within seconds the grass blade will move. When this happens, jerk the grass blade from the hole and the chicken-choker will be on the end.

There are so many ways to entertain yourself, for free, if you are just open-minded. It doesn’t hurt to have someone to hand down their knowledge and experiences.

Again. I know this has nothing to do with writing and self-publishing children’s books, directly. Then again, it may be from this type of childhood that I can still see the world through a child’s eye to a degree.

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