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Tami Alcornbright, internet and wholesale sales and administrative assistant, Retail Department, Plimoth Plantation, Plymouth, Mass., holding a Plimoth Plantation Craft Kit. The attraction’s four museum shops sell a variety of handicraft kits.

echnology rules, there’s no doubt about it. We live in a world where children as young as two or three are often seen tapping and swiping away with ease on an iPad screen or similar. Yet an underlying yearning to master basic hand-ons tasks still exists in children - activities like simple building projects, knitting, or stitching. The problem is skills that were once passed down from one generation to the next are frequently lost. Often children have no example to follow. That’s where handicraft toys can fill in the gaps.

Palumba is an all-natural toy store in Ann Arbor, Mich., that offers a wide selection of simple old-fashioned toys, many of which are wooden. They also carry handicraft kits and according to Store Owner and Manager Judy Alexander, the tin-punching kit and the penny rug kit are the most popular. “The pricing is right and the kits are simple. There’s not a long list of instructions to read through, plus they’re well illustrated. It’s easy for parents to work on the projects with their children and many times the kids can figure it out for themselves,” she said. Of course all-natural toy stores like Palumba attract parents who are actively seeking to encourage more imaginative, hands-on play. Sometimes, however, the desire to engage in an old-time handicraft is sparked during a visit to a living history museum.

The four museum shops at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Mass., sell a variety of handicraft kits, including a best-selling assortment of quill and paper sets that net $14,000 in revenue each year. Basket-making kits follow close behind and see profits of $9,600. Doll kits, tin punch kits, weaving, embroidery, potholder loop and felting kits round out the selection, contributing to total craft kit revenue equaling $45,000. “All of these kits are made in the U.S.A. by small vendors, which is the key to their integrity and quality,” said Susanna Grady, retail buyer at Plimoth Plantation. “After visiting the English Village, Wampanoag Homesite, and the Crafts Center here, kids want to take something home that will not only remind them of their experiences, but will transport them back by sharing in the crafts and traditions they have just seen. With fewer and fewer toy stores - except for the big box ones - kids are frequently not exposed to traditional toys and crafts - they may not even know what they’re missing and so are surprised by what they find. Parents, too, often buy kits out of a sense of nostalgia for their youth and a desire to share the crafts they enjoyed as children - and perhaps still enjoy, such as knitting - with their own children.”

At left, Patti Procopi, buyer/product development manager, Jamestown/Yorktown Foundation, Williamsburg, Va., with Janet Kane, senior retail operations manager. Today’s children are intrigued by handicraft kit toys, they said.

Handicraft kits are popular items in the gift shops at Jamestown Settlement and Yorktown Victory Center - two living-history museums situated, respectively, in Williamsburg, Va., and Yorktown, Va. Bestsellers include a rag doll kit from Wagon Train Dolls, followed by a James Fort kit by Homestead Folk Toys. A calligraphy kit and a custom Powhatan basket kit from You Can Learn Kits ring up solid sales as well. The kits are all made in America and the two shops sell more than 2,000 of them overall.

Patty Procopi is the buyer and product development manager for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation and Janet D. Kane is the senior manager of retail operations. They speculate that parents and grandparents buy the kits because they remind them of toys they had when they were children. Yet they’ve noticed kids today are intrigued by them as well. “I think that simple kits/toys endure for the same reason that living-history museums like ours endure and continue to connect with 21st century children - they get to use their imagination. Low-tech, high-touch toys are fuel for creativity, and when the project is complete, the sense of accomplishment is much more rewarding than an electronic message,” Kane said.

At Old Sturbridge Village, another living history museum located in Sturbridge, Mass., purchases of their top-selling tin-punching and basket-making kits are directly exhibit-related, according to Jacquelyn Smith, assistant director. “Our village is set in 1838 so as an example, we have somebody on site who makes tin lanterns, sconces, scoops and mugs all day. People walk through an exhibit, observe our crafters doing these things and then they visit either of our two gifts shops and actually take a craft kit home to do the exact same thing they’ve seen done here.” While many consider nostalgia as the leading prompt behind handicraft kit purchases, Smith had a slightly different take. “I feel like they’re almost newly popular because so many children are technology-focused now. And this is something to do with your hands. This is a craft and at the end of it, you’ve built something and you’ve made something and you have something to be proud of,” she said.

Jacquelyn Smith, assistant director, the gift shops at old Sturbridge Village. “ ...This is a craft and at the end of it, you’ve built something and you’ve made something and you have something to be proud of,” she said of handicraft kits.

Sales of handicraft kits are similarly driven by the active exhibits visitors observe while touring Historic Deerfield, an authentic 18th century English settlement in Deerfield, Mass. “They see handicrafts throughout our museum and then if they do have an interest, there’s something in our gift shop they can work on at their level which hopefully spurs them on to learn more,” said Tina Harding, retail manager. The basket-making kits, embroidery kits and tin-punching kits are particular favorites among kids aged seven to nine years old who tour Historic Deerfield. The kits are basic enough that youngsters can attempt them on their own although parents often enjoy doing the task alongside their children. “There a fun alternative to, say, a video game,” concluded Harding.

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