Three-year-old Rachel Wilson didn't get the doll house she wanted for Christmas. But instead of complaining Rachel will visit the local toy library and check out a doll house to play with at home for a week.
"This year I didn't feel the need to buy the kids a lot of toys because they're getting them from the toy library," says Erin Wilson, Rachel's mother. "They don't need a lot of stuff of their own."
The toy library in Santa Clarita, Calif., that the Wilsons frequent is one of almost 300 toy loan programs nationwide. While the specific rules vary, most toy libraries function much like a book library - except the shelves are filled with Tonka trucks, Barbie dolls, and Lego blocks instead of Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak.
Disabled children targeted
Toy lending programs are scattered across the states, with higher concentrations in California, Illinois, and Ohio. The first toy library was established in Los Angeles during the Depression when young boys were stealing spools of thread to make wheels for homemade cars. But the concept didn't catch on nationwide until the 1960s, says Judith Iacuzzi, director of the USA Toy Library Association in Evanston, Ill.
Some of the 281 programs listed in the association's directory are run by private schools, day-care centers, or other organizations that limit access. Others are part of the children's department at public libraries or are run by local government agencies and open to the general public.
Many toy libraries target disabled children who often need specially designed toys to help foster their development.
"Toy libraries are not franchises," Ms. Iacuzzi says. "They are really created and supported by the communities they serve and take off in their own directions."
The Los Angeles County Toy Loan program - the oldest and largest in the country - depends entirely on volunteers and donated toys. Welfare recipients help repair and clean donated toys before they are distributed to 26 centers located in schools, recreation facilities, housing developments, and libraries.
Not just for the disadvantaged
Most of these centers serve disadvantaged children who often have few toys at home. Yet wealthier communities have adopted the concept too. In Santa Clarita, a fairly high-income area, the toy library includes a Parent Resource Center with parenting books and videos, educational games for parents to play with their children, and other instructional materials.
Even in families with plenty of resources, borrowing toys for short periods of time has great appeal. "I was really tired of going out and buying a toy only to watch my kids play with it for a day and then toss it aside," says Jan Uberstine, who helped start the Santa Clarita Toy Library almost three years ago.
After several years of checking out toys at the Santa Clarita Toy Library, Wende Haskell says her five-year-old daughter Alexis has become much more responsible with her toys. "It's been the best thing that I ever walked into," Ms. Haskell says. "She takes better care of all her toys now and is always organizing them."
Keeping up with the bits and pieces of borrowed toys is a challenge for all toy-lending programs. Organizers take various approaches to the problem. Some charge for lost pieces or repairs; others tell children they won't be able to borrow toys for a week or more if they don't return a toy in good condition.
Children select an 'Honor Toy'
The Los Angeles County Toy Loan fosters responsibility through an incentive program. After 20 successful returns, the child selects an "Honor Toy," a brand-new toy that she can keep. Often, this toy becomes a favorite. "It isn't something that Aunt Susie or their mother gave them," says Jane Donelson, who recently retired after 31 years as director of the program. "It's something that they earned."
The toy library provides ample opportunity for character lessons, Ms. Donelson says. Honesty is cultivated when a toy comes back broken or missing a part. "They have to tell us what happened," she says. "When they first come in, it's always their cousin or their brother did it, or their dad ran over it. But when we remind them that it is their responsibility, you'd be surprised at how that soaks in."
Some preschools develop toy libraries as part of their curriculum. A public preschool in Melrose, Mass., began a toy library more than 15 years ago. Each week or two, the four-year-olds trek down to a basement room lined with toys and choose something to play with at home. Each toy comes in an oversized red Naugahyde bag for toting.
"It's a tangible thing that connects school to home and home to school," says Susan Kennedy, founder of the Melrose program. "It provides one more reason to be excited about coming to school."
Children sign cards
But the school does view the toy library as a significant educational opportunity. "Children learn their letters and numbers best when they are used with a purpose," Kennedy says. So after choosing a toy, the preschoolers are asked to sign their name to the card, even if it's just a scrawl.
At other toy libraries, adults end up borrowing toys as often as children. In Springfield, Mo., the county library has several home-day-care providers who check out toys on a regular basis. A Florida toy library stays busy with grandparents who are stocking the house before visits from grandchildren. And a mobile toy library run by the YWCA in Chicago makes the rounds to home-day-care settings.
Some parts of Europe have thriving toy libraries that benefit from strong governmental support. "In Sweden, toy libraries are family hubs where everybody comes and hangs out," Iacuzzi says.
* For more information, call the USA Toy Library Association at (847) 864-3330.