Every city should have a toy library

The “toyery” once made play a part of civic infrastructure. It’s time to bring it back.

by Alexandra Lange

On July 30, 1942, then–New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia was uptown in Harlem, playing with toys.

“Harlem Gets First Toyery,” announced a Paramount newsreel heralding the opening of the neighborhood’s first toy-lending library, a storefront on West 135th Street stocked with 1,000 playthings and sponsored by a branch of the Domestic Relations Court.

Ida Cash, a city probation officer, had conceived of the “toyery” in the late 1920s upon “contrasting the barren homes she found with the happy lot of her own children.” Philanthropic New York women decided to support the project, likewise concerned that children were being arrested for stealing toys.

By the 1930s, the Heckscher Foundation for Children ran two toyeries where children could play with toys, check them out, and make crafts. Others followed suit. A consensus had formed that, as with playgrounds and book libraries, funds should be set aside for playing with toys. Monkey bars worked their bodies, reading worked their minds, but there was something else, something both physical and mental, that happened when they worked their fingers. Imagination. Socialization. Freedom.

An American Academy of Pediatrics clinical report, published in August 2018, makes the same argument Cash did from the depths of the Great Depression: “The most powerful way children learn isn’t only in classrooms or libraries but on playgrounds and in playrooms.” Play is essential for the development of social, emotional, language, and cognitive skills—and play is threatened by academic expectations, mobility limitations, and screens. 

The solutions to these problems are many: bringing back recess (cut by many schools in favor of more class time), reducing homework, and creating safer pedestrian and bike routes to schools and playgrounds. But spaces in which to play, and a constantly renewable source of things to play with, are essential to improving early childhood outcomes. The toy librarians of the 1930s had it right: Toys should be free. And the library is the perfect platform, because citizens already understand it as a public good and distribution hub.

The oldest continuously operating toy library is the Los Angeles County Toy Loan Program, administered by the Department of Public Social Services and founded in 1935. A dime-store operator noticed that kids were stealing toys and decided, rather than reporting the youth to the police, he would fill his garage with surplus toys and lend them out. The program now serves 35,000 children a year, distributing playthings at 54 locations including parks, child-care centers, YMCAs, and one book library.

“Generally we have found the program is a success in lower-income areas, but there is a new surge of interest among parents who like the idea of recycling,” says Marcia Blachman-Benitez, director of the DPSS Toy Loan Program. Much of the program’s stock of toys comes through donations, both from individuals and from local toy and game companies, including Mattel and Universal Studios. Participants in good standing are given a new toy of their own to keep every five weeks, which can include donated craft kits that are one-use-only.

Different locations select different items from the stock: Some like electronic learning toys, while others focus on the wood trucks that the San Fernando Valley Woodworkers make for the program. “Culturally, some locations don’t like Barbie with a bikini,” Blachman-Benitez says. “We had a location in Koreatown that asked that clothing for the dolls be modest.” Oh, and no guns except Nerf.

The toy library builds upon the social foundation that people already understand from traditional book-lending libraries. As the media scholar Shannon Mattern has argued, libraries aren’t just physical buildings, but a kind of infrastructure for sharing and disseminating knowledge. That means that toy libraries benefit more than just children. They’re not meant to be used as child-care centers (most toy libraries ask that a caregiver be present), and that can help parents as much as children: Adults can learn about the developmental phases of play in context.

The Pittsburgh Toy Lending Library’s 1974 founding documents address that opportunity directly: “Babies and young children from all socio-economic backgrounds need attention and play. Specifically, they need positive interaction and intellectual stimulation from adults if they are to develop to the fullest potential.” But how are adults to know how to provide that interaction? And where are they to find other parents and caregivers going through the same experience? “Early parenthood is such a confusing, identity-altering, and in many ways disenfranchising moment,” Emily Kane, PTLL’s former president, told me. Toys help adults and children communicate.

Fred Rogers considered the PTLL a neighbor, and he visited the co-operative on Episode 1570 of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which first aired on November 28, 1986. Barbara Liftman, then the library’s director, gave him a tour, touching on the trucks, instruments, blocks, and dolls kids could take home. “There are so many ways of having a good time, aren’t there?” Rogers remarked, turning to the viewing audience with an excellent motto for toy librarians: “One of the most important things about being a child is that you can take the time to learn to play well.”

If the deprivation of the 1930s and 1940s spurred the first flourishing of the toy library, new research and a push for equal access in the 1960s spurred the second. After Head Start, the federal program for early-childhood education and wellness, was founded in 1965, some federal- and city-funded toy libraries were established as resource centers for classrooms, and later evolved into public collections. Co-operatives such as Pittsburgh’s were aimed at a broad spectrum of parent and child need. But elsewhere, toy libraries addressed more specific circumstances.

In the early 1960s, parents and teachers in Sweden founded a lekotek, meaning “play library,” to lend toys and equipment to the families of children with disabilities. Then-new Swedish national policy had deinstitutionalized children with disabilities, but many families didn’t think they had the tools, social or practical, to integrate them into family and community activities. Eventually, 200-plus lekoteks were created in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, some supported by the government.

The idea spread. The first U.S. lekotek was founded in Evanston, Illinois, in 1980 by special-education teachers Sally deVincentis and Sharon Draznin. Helene Prokesch, an Atlanta-based teacher, visited their lekotek with her nephew, who has Down syndrome, and liked the concept so much she brought it back to Georgia. Lekotek of Georgia, her nonprofit, runs six sites and is now the largest provider in the country. Prokesch estimates that there are fewer than a dozen other lekoteks still in operation; the National Lekotek Center in Illinois closed due to a lack of funding at the beginning of 2018.

“Our vision is that all kids are included through play and the power of play. The mission is inclusion. To me it is a matter of rights,” says Prokesch. At her sites, children are given bags of skill-appropriate toys to borrow, but families are also provided with a monthly play-learning session on how to use them, as well as how to adapt technology they already have to be more universally accessible through switches and exterior buttons. Siblings aren’t left out either: They are included in play sessions and invited to a “sibshop” support group that meets three times a year.

“We say there are between 300 and 350 toy libraries in this country,” says Judith Iacuzzi, executive director of the USA Toy Library Association, not including the sites run by the Los Angeles DPSS and the Cuyahoga County Public Library. “Very few are freestanding; most are in libraries, some [are in] hospitals and preschools, some are mobile. United Cerebral Palsy and Easter Seals offer toys to go home and have configured toy libraries on some of their premises.”

Iacuzzi, who organizes annual conferences for play professionals, sees the possibility of another revival in the making spurred by environmental concerns, but cautions that scale has always held back the growth of the movement. “For a long time, cleanliness prohibited development of toy libraries. Americans are very concerned with germs. And also liability issues: What if you lend a 4-year-old a toy and they take it home and a 2-year-old swallows part of it?” But even as those worries lead some people to shun the toy library, they underscore the physical nurturing that shared play brings to communities: The toys have to be collected and cleaned, and space has to be cleared for caregivers and children to sit on the floor, dump things out, and collaborate. The toyery keeps play real, while offering a shared space in which to manage its chaos.

Almost half a century before L.A. County’s Toy Loan Program came on the scene, Tessa Kelso, who worked as Los Angeles’s city librarian from 1889 to 1895, modernized the city’s library. She boosted cardholders two-hundred-fold. She set up “delivery stations” in new immigrant neighborhoods. She moved the collection into City Hall, where she hoped the library might be able to offer more than books. As the writer Susan Orlean explained, “She pictured a storeroom of tennis racquets, footballs, ‘indoor games, magic lanterns, and the whole paraphernalia of healthy, wholesome amusement that is … out of the reach of the average boy and girl.’” In so doing, Kelso anticipated the 20th-century toyery and its founding principles.

First, equity. Ida Cash’s children had toys, while poor children did not. Where was the fairness in that? Why, if the public supported free books and free playgrounds, should it not support free toys?

Second, education. Although the American education system has cycled in and out of supporting play as a way of learning, early-childhood educators have always been clear on this point: “Play is the work of childhood,” as the psychologist Jean Piaget put it. To aid their development, children need tools to exercise mind, body, and imagination. Blocks, dolls, trucks, musical instruments, and art supplies offer opportunities for children to make their own worlds.

In recent years, tool-lending libraries, as well as makerspaces, have been popular add-ons to traditional public libraries’ book services. Ann Arbor District Library’s “Unusual Stuff to Borrow” collection spans many categories, but sensibly so: Lawn mowers, fishing tackle, and knitting needles are all expensive to buy, quick to use, and not something you need all the time. The same can be said of many toys, particularly well-made and large-scale playthings such as dollhouses and block sets.

Third, sharing. When I began to consider play as a part of the civic commons, my first thought was that some philanthropist— perhaps one of those Silicon Valley types who considers screens the devil and blocks pure—should establish a toy equivalent of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which has mailed more than 100 million free books to children under 5. A stacking toy one month. Wooden blocks another. A set of play food. A ball.

But when I surveyed my own overflowing toy bins, I realized this largesse could swiftly become an environmental hazard. Toys are bulkier than books, and more swiftly outgrown. Unless playthings could circulate from one family to another, philanthropy would end up in landfills. Borrowing, not owning, is the way to go. In addition, the physical space of the toy library is also important—as a place to share knowledge, not just objects.

Newly established toy-lending libraries make environmentalism an explicit part of their mission statement. But there are still plenty of children deprived of opportunities to play. For families who are tentatively housed, carrying children’s toys, and giving them space for games, is often one burden too many. Courthouses, some of which already offer child care, could also offer checkouts.

Once upon a time, children’s play was important enough for the mayor of the nation’s largest city to show up at a storefront. The library has already proven itself a sturdy model, up to the task of accommodating the physical artifacts of new knowledge. Accommodating children’s growth and change has long been a fascination for industrial designers. Putting those two together seems natural: Rather than more storage, rather than this year’s toy, let’s invent a sustainable model for the toyery.

Central image: DENIS FARRELL / AP