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Toy Lending Libraries & Exchanges – Benefits and How They Work

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As any parent knows, kids’ toys are pricey – and children outgrow them quickly. It can drive you nuts dropping a big wad of cash on this year’s hottest item during the holidays, only to see it sitting neglected in a corner of your kid’s room by the time spring rolls around.

And worse, all those abandoned toys don’t just vanish when your child loses interest – they pile up on the shelves, on the bed, under the bed, and in every corner of your child’s room, until you can hardly open the door without triggering an avalanche.

Fortunately, there’s a single solution to both problems: You can get rid of all those old toys and save money on new ones at the same time by sharing toys with other families.

One way to do this is to join a toy library, a facility where your children can try out new toys without your having to shell out cash for them. Another option is to hold a toy exchange, where each family can walk in with a pile of outgrown toys and go home with others that are new to them.

Toy Libraries

Just as a regular public library lets you borrow books instead of buying them, a toy library gives your kids a chance to play with different toys every week without overcrowding their rooms or overloading your wallet. Toy libraries are an example of the sharing economy: a network of people all over the world who are using resources more efficiently by sharing goods and services.

How Toy Libraries Work

Toy libraries can be run by individuals, charitable organizations, government agencies, or any other kind of group. They can also be part of an existing public library or social service center. Some toy libraries serve all children, while others focus on providing toys for a particular group, such as preschoolers or children with disabilities. Some are free services, while others charge a membership fee.

Toy libraries fall into three main types:

  1. Onsite Libraries. At these facilities, children can come and play with the toys on the library premises whenever it’s open. However, they can’t check out toys to take home.
  2. Toy Lending Libraries. These work like any other lending library. Children can check out any toy in the library’s collection for a specific period of time – perhaps two weeks or a month. Some lending libraries also have onsite play sessions.
  3. Mobile Toy Libraries. These are toy libraries on wheels that travel from neighborhood to neighborhood. When the toymobile arrives in a neighborhood, children show up to play with the toys in its collection, borrow them to take home, or both.

Every toy library is supervised by a toy librarian. In addition to checking toys out and back in, toy librarians keep an eye on the children and encourages safe, cooperative play. Sometimes, they join in the children’s activities – for instance, showing them how to play a game. They can also help steer children toward toys that are appropriate for their age.

Another responsibility of the toy librarian is maintaining the library’s collection of toys. Kids can be hard on toys, so whenever a toy is checked back in, it needs to be checked carefully for damage to ensure that it’s still safe to use. Any toy that’s damaged needs to be repaired before returning to circulation. Also, since young children tend to put toys in their mouths, the library staff needs to clean and disinfect all toys – particularly toys for young kids – before letting anyone else borrow them.

No matter how well the staff cares for the toys, however, they can’t stay in circulation forever. Every so often – perhaps once a year – toy librarians need to review their collections and remove worn, outdated, or unpopular toys. Some toys that are still in usable condition can be sold, and the proceeds from the sale can be added to the budget to buy new toys to replace them. The rest of the money for new toys can come from donations, grants, or membership fees.

How Toy Library Works

Benefits of Toy Libraries

Toy libraries offer a variety of benefits for children and their parents. These include:

  • Financial Benefits. Borrowing toys from a library allows parents to spend less money on new toys. In turn, this means that kids from less wealthy families get access to more different toys, and possibly more expensive ones, than their parents could afford to buy for them.
  • Environmental Benefits. When a whole group of kids can share one toy instead of each having their own, fewer new toys need to be produced, which saves resources and energy. And because younger kids can continue to play with the toys that older ones have outgrown, fewer old toys end up being discarded in landfills.
  • Social Benefits. Toy libraries provide a safe place for children to meet and socialize with other children. They can learn important social skills such as honesty, sharing, and taking turns. Toy librarians also interact with the children, giving them a chance to learn how to relate positively to adults. Additionally, families can strengthen their relationships by borrowing toys and games for parents and children to play together.
  • Education. Children of all ages learn by playing. Different types of toys can help children build the skills they need for school, including reading, mathematics, and scientific thinking. At the same time, parents can learn about what kinds of toys their children like best, so when they do buy new toys, they can choose wisely.
  • Help for Kids With Special Needs. Many toy libraries offer specially adapted toys for children with disabilities. For instance, the animals in a toy farm set can have Velcro added to the bottom so children with cerebral palsy don’t accidentally knock them over. Some adaptive toys are very expensive to buy, so having a chance to try them out before purchasing is a big advantage for parents of disabled children. Many toy libraries also work with child development specialists who can help special-needs kids adjust to dealing with other children.

Where to Find Toy Libraries

Judith Iacuzzi, director of the USA Toy Library Association (USATLA), estimates in an interview with American Libraries that there are approximately 400 toy libraries in the United States. About one-quarter of these offer adaptive toys for children with disabilities. Many toy libraries that focus on kids with special needs are part of the National Lekotek Center, a nonprofit organization that supports disabled children through play therapy.

The USATLA maintains a list of toy libraries, organized by state, on its website. Each listing includes an address, phone number, website, and a general description of the services the library offers. It says what audience the library caters to – the general public, childcare providers, or children with special needs – and notes whether it offers other materials, such as books or DVDs, in addition to toys.

Toy libraries aren’t necessarily easier to find in or near a large city. The USATLA’s list includes toy libraries in Hesston, Kansas (population 3,709), Decorah, Iowa (population 8,089), and Snead’s Ferry, North Carolina (population 9,750).

However, there are some toy libraries in big cities, including the following:

  • Los Angeles. The LA County Department of Public Social Services maintains a Toy Loan Center, lending out toys through nearly 50 Toy Loan Centers distributed throughout the county. The service is free to all, and signing up is as simple as filling out a registration card with your name and address. The toys in the library’s collection are donated by individuals, toy manufacturers, and companies. To encourage children to return the toys on time and in good condition, the program awards them points that they can eventually cash in for a toy to take home and keep.
  • San Diego. The San Diego Assistive Technology Center, run by United Cerebral Palsy of San Diego County, operates a mobile toy library. Its van travels through the county, stopping at libraries, churches, recreation centers, and Boys & Girls Club locations. This toy library focuses on the needs of children with disabilities: It has toys for children with a developmental age of five years or less, as well as software for children with a developmental age of 2 to 10 years. The toy librarian shows parents how the toys work and how to play with their children to build their cognitive, physical, emotional, and social skills. The library mentions annual dues on its registration form, but does not say how much they are.
  • Austin. Toybrary Austin is a toy library for children between six months and five years of age. The library has a collection of more than 1,000 educational toys that children can play with in the “indoor play space” or check out to take home. The site also hosts birthday parties. Toybrary Austin charges a membership fee of $35 per month, but according to the website, many parents find this a good deal compared to what they used to spend on toys.
  • Columbus. The Nisonger Center at the University of Ohio maintains the Toy and Technology Library for children with special needs. The Toy and Technology Library has a collection of more than 1,500 toys and other devices for special needs children, which can be checked out for 30 days at a time. There is also an onsite computer lab where families can test out hardware and software to see which devices are appropriate for their children. The library is free to use, but parents must make an appointment ahead of time.
  • Denver. The Northwest Denver Toy Library operates out of a public library in Denver and is staffed entirely by volunteers. It offers educational and creative toys for children up to eight years of age. Children can check out up to three items for up to three weeks at a time, free of charge. As a bonus, the library hosts story hours for kids on a weekly basis from May through September.

How to Start a Toy Library

If there is no toy library in your area, there are resources available online on how to start one. A good place to start is with the fact sheet published by the International Toy Library Association. This list outlines important points to consider when starting a toy library, such as the following:

  • Target Audience. Decide what group you want your toy library to benefit. You can aim to provide toys for all children, or focus on children of a particular age or children with special needs.
  • Location. If you want your library to have a fixed location, choose a venue that’s accessible for members. If you’re planning a mobile toy library, figure out where you will store your toys in between runs.
  • Financing. Figure out what you need to spend money on – toys, rent or renovations for your venue, supplies, phone service, and so on – and calculate how much money you need to start your library. Then come up with a plan to raise the funds. Possible sources of money include grants, donations, and membership fees. Open a bank account for your toy library and choose one person to be in charge of your funds, keeping track of all income and expenses.
  • Toy Collection. Start by estimating how many toys you will need, based on how many members you plan to have and how many toys, if any, each member can borrow at once. Then look for sellers who can give you a good price on toys. As you build your collection, check each toy for safety and give it an identification number, stamping it on every loose part of the toy, as well as on the container.
  • Membership. Decide what your requirements for membership should be and create a membership form that clearly outlines the rules of the toy library. Promote your toy library through posters, pamphlets, and local publications. Also, spread the word to individuals and groups who can refer children, such as doctors, clinics, and schools.
  • Administration. Assign volunteers to the various jobs involved in running a toy library. These include keeping track of toys as they are checked out and back in, cleaning the toys after use, counting them daily and checking to make sure no parts are missing, repairing damaged toys and boxes, and advising parents on suitable toys for their children.

For more specific guidelines, you can consult the 21-page manual on starting and running a toy library published by the Western Australia Association of Toy Libraries. However, because this manual is written for an Australian audience, some of the details in it about laws and available grants don’t apply to American toy libraries.

For a detailed guide written from an American perspective, you can order a copy of the “USA Toy Library Association Operator’s Manual,” available from the USATLA for $25 (or $12.50 if you’re a member of the organization).

Toy Library Benefits

Toy Exchanges

Starting and running a full-time toy library is a big responsibility, and many busy parents don’t have time to take it on. However, hosting a one-time toy exchange is a much more manageable challenge. A toy swap runs along much the same lines as a clothing swap or a swap shop: Families bring in their old, unwanted toys and take home new toys that their kids can use.

A toy exchange can be formal or informal. You can just get a few friends together in your living room to sort through your kids’ discarded toys, or you can book a larger space, open the event to the public, and come up with a set of formal rules for exchanging toys. Obviously, the less formal your event, the less work you need to do. However, even the most casual toy swap takes a bit of planning to run smoothly.

1. Find Participants

A toy swap only works if you have enough people with toys to swap. Before you start planning, talk to other parents you know and find out who’s interested in the idea. Ideally, you should have parents whose kids span a range of ages. That way, the toys that one person’s child has outgrown will be age-appropriate for someone else’s.

While you’re talking to other parents about the toy exchange, find out whether any of them would be willing to help you with it. If your toy exchange is fairly small, you can probably do all the work yourself – but regardless of the size, having friends to help out makes it easier. For instance, they could help set up the room beforehand, sort items by category, and pack up any toys that are left over.

2. Set the Rules

Even an informal toy exchange needs a few ground rules. For example, you need to set clear guidelines about the following:

  • What to Bring. The point of a toy swap is to exchange used toys that are still in usable condition. However, different people can have different ideas about what “usable” means. Determine in advance what’s acceptable for your toy swap. For example, can parents bring toys that are damaged, or games and puzzles that have pieces missing? Should toys be cleaned or laundered beforehand? Are certain types of toys, such as guns and other war toys, off limits for your swap? Also, decide whether you want your swap to include any other items besides toys, such as books or baby clothes.
  • How to Trade. The simplest way to hold a toy exchange is to let everyone bring whatever they have and take whatever they want. However, there’s a risk that some parents will feel put out if they think others are taking more than their fair share. One way to avoid this kind of conflict is to limit parents to one new toy for each toy they bring. You can also assign a dollar value to each toy, so that a parent who brings a high-value toy, such as a bicycle, is entitled to more in exchange. However, this creates a lot more work, so it’s only worth it if there are likely to be conflicts otherwise.
  • Whether Kids Can Take Part. Amanda Rock, the preschool expert at About Parenting, warns that having children at your toy exchange can be a recipe for chaos, since “if you put kids in a roomful of toys, they are going to want to play with everything right then and there.” However, banning children completely from the event can make it more difficult for parents to attend. Dawn Friedman of Shareable, an organization that promotes the sharing economy, recommends a compromise: Let the kids attend, but provide a separate room for them to play in while their parents “shop.” Another alternative would be to let older kids – say, nine and older – join in the shopping, but leave younger ones at home.

3. Choose a Time and Place

The easiest place to hold a toy exchange is in your own home, since it’s always available. However, this probably isn’t practical if you’re inviting dozens of people. A bigger space gives you more room to organize everything, and it saves you from having a horde of people – some of them strangers – trampling through your house.

If you can’t host the event at home, possible locations include a church, firehouse, or community center. If you need to book a space for your toy exchange, talk to the owner ahead of time about various concerns, such as the following:

  • Whether there is a fee to use the room
  • How long you can use the space
  • How many people are allowed inside at once
  • Where people can park
  • Where to find restroom facilities
  • Whether tables and chairs are included
  • Whether you can have food and drink in the room
  • Whether you need insurance
  • Whether the space is handicap accessible

Decide where you want the swap to be before you settle on a date. Then choose a date when both the room and the people you want to invite are available.

Choose Time Place

4. Spread the Word

If your toy swap is small, you can simply put out the word to your friends by phone or email. Dawn Friedman of Shareable says she sent out a single “spur of the moment” email inviting all her friends to a toy exchange on Thanksgiving weekend.

However, if you are planning a larger event, you can attract more attendees with a little planned publicity. Put up flyers in public places, including details about the time, the place, and the rules, as well as your contact information. You can also post details of the event on your social media pages and on Internet groups for parents in your area.

5. Gather Supplies

To make it easier for parents to sort through toys, you need space to spread them out. Plan to set up several tables in the room you’re using and arrange toys on them. To make it easier to browse, you can designate specific tables for different types of toys, or you can arrange items by age group.

You should also plan to have bags or boxes on hand for participants to pack up their finds. If you don’t have enough bags or boxes for everyone, ask participants to bring their own. Plastic baggies are also useful to have on hand for organizing toys with lots of small parts.

Finally, providing refreshments for your guests can make the toy exchange more fun. Friedman says she made coffee and muffins for her toy exchange to “help everyone get comfortable,” and sure enough, the kitchen was the first place people gathered.

6. Plan for Leftovers

After all the parents are done swapping, there will probably be a few toys left over. While you can ask participants to take their leftovers home with them, many parents probably won’t be thrilled with this idea, since a major point of a toy exchange is to clear away clutter. So plan ahead by finding a local charity that’s willing to take whatever toys you have left at the end of the day. For instance, you can donate extra toys to Goodwill, a church thrift shop, or a local preschool.

Final Word

The Austin Toybrary offers a good summary of a toy library’s benefits in its slogan: “Happy Wallet, Happy Kids, Less Clutter, Less Waste.” Your wallet is happy because you pay less for toys, your kids are happy because they have more toys to play with, and both your home and our landfills are less cluttered as a result. In other words, when you share toys with other families through toy libraries and toy exchanges, less really is more.

How much do you spend each year on toys? How much do you think you could save by sharing them?

Amy Livingston
Amy Livingston is a freelance writer who can actually answer yes to the question, "And from that you make a living?" She has written about personal finance and shopping strategies for a variety of publications, including ConsumerSearch.com, ShopSmart.com, and the Dollar Stretcher newsletter. She also maintains a personal blog, Ecofrugal Living, on ways to save money and live green at the same time.

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