As an early childhood specialist at the Brooklyn Public Library in New York, I find that buying toys is one of my favorite tasks. While it may sound like child’s play, building and maintaining a toy collection takes thinking and planning. Below are ten tips that usually guide my thinking for non-circulating toy collections used in library programs and spaces. There are a couple of parallels between developing your book collection and toy collection, so some of these suggestions may sound familiar.
- Find a good vendor: You will likely find more interesting, sturdier toys through vendors who sell to the early childhood or school market. They won’t be branded with a trendy, fleeting licensed character, and most kids are not likely to have these toys at home. Read the customer reviews on the vendors’ websites, often from teachers who have used the items with groups.
- Think diversity: Just as diversity in in our print collections is vital, remember to keep diversity in mind when purchasing toys. Make sure your dolls are gender balanced and ethnically diverse. Buy dolls that have different abilities and use wheelchairs, guide dogs, crutches, and canes (they’re out there). Don’t buy toys stereotypically “boy” or “girl” toys; avoid sparkly tea sets and pink LEGOS.
- Buy open-ended toys: Bricks (aka LEGOS), blocks, stacking cups, and other manipulatives are open-ended, because children can play with them in many different ways. A child may pretend a rectangular block is a cell phone, while another child will turn it into a boat, and third might turn it into a car. With these classic toys, children can literally build their understanding of the world.
- Buy representational toys, too: You also want to get toys that look like actual objects that are familiar to children, such as toy pots and pans, fruits and vegetables, animals, vehicles, and cell phones. Representational toys are great conversation starters. During play time, pair different kinds of open-ended and representational toys. Blocks plus animals will have the children building zoos. Blocks and toy food items might encourage the children to set up a restaurant.
- Read the fine print (you’ll get choked up): If you see a symbol or a written choke-hazard warning on a package or online product description, don’t buy it for your babies or toddlers. Anything that is 1 1/2 inches in size is a potential choking hazard for little ones. The rule for balls is even stricter: 1 3/4 inches. Use the width of a toilet paper tube as a tester. This warning is on almost every toy for children over three, so just keep these items out of reach when the little ones are at play.
- Librarians need toys too: Put some toys in a special place for your use. Puppets, scarves, toy fruits and vegetables, dinosaurs, animals, dolls, and toy vehicles all make great storytime props.
- Remember, sharing is hard: You will never have enough of a very popular toy. If kids are fighting over the toy dump truck every week, get a couple more. But remember, sharing is a learned skill that many adults still haven’t mastered. This is a problem you will never solve with quantity, nor should you try. Kids need to learn they can’t always get their own way and that they are going to have to give someone else a turn.
- Make it yourself: Maybe you’re not Geppetto, but you can make your own toys. Cereal boxes can become blocks or the merchandise for a play store. A salad spinner is a great cause and effect toy. Plastic bottles and a small ball make a bowling set. A few online searches will have you raiding your recycle bin for toys, and you will give parents new ideas for things they can try at home. Encourage adults to carefully supervise play with objects not originally designed for the very young.
- Weed, weed, weed: To avoid your play space becoming the Land of Misfit toys, you need to weed. Throw away broken or cracked toys (many sanitation departments will recycle them). If a toy is dated and kids don’t know what it is, say bye-bye. I am looking at you, toy flip phone. Ask a parent volunteer to launder your soiled stuffed animals. If they don’t survive the wash, throw them out. If you accept toy donations, weed and clean these items with extra care. Check to make sure donations don’t have safety concerns. (Search for recalls here.)
- Clean up your room: Toys need to be cleaned, but it can be a labor intensive task. At your program, ask parents to put any toys that were mouthed into a designated basket so you can quickly wash these offenders off. For more intensive cleaning, enlist the help of parent or volunteers (teens love this task). There are many toy-cleaning methods, from special sprays to a diluted bleach solution most child care programs use. Do a little research online to find a method that works for you.
Rachel G. Payne is the coordinator of early childhood services at Brooklyn Public Library. She has reviewed children’s books for SLJ and Kirkus, served on the Caldecott Award Committee, and presented on early literacy at conferences nationwide.