April 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Why toys should be in every children’s department—and how to make it happen | First Steps

I never thought that toys would be a polarizing topic, yet here we are. Librarians either love them or strongly disagree with their placement in children’s rooms. Today’s children’s librarians have the challenge of catering not only to school-age children but to their younger siblings as well. Large oak tables and straight-back chairs are not going to say “Welcome!” to a toddler, but a well-placed wooden puzzle, or blocks set out in a corner, will.

1609-firststeps-playThe value of toys

Early-learning research over the last 20 years has revealed staggering concepts. For example, according to the U.S. Department of Education, 90 percent of the brain’s capacity is developed by age five, with the most significant development occurring from birth to three years old. Reading, talking, and singing to young children are key components of brain development. Writing, or in the case of toddlers and preschoolers, scribbling, also fires brain synapses.

What about play? It imparts cognitive, physical, and social skills to children. The Association for Library Service to Children and the Public Library Association agree that play is as important as reading and writing to brain development. Playing is one of the five main components of their joint initiative, Every Child Ready to Read (everychildreadytoread.org). That’s a strong argument to bring to administrators who say toys and libraries don’t mix.

Easy ways to support play

You can integrate play and early learning in several ways. Certainly play-based programming alongside the more traditional storytime sessions signifies to the community that play is important. Adding a table small enough for preschoolers to your department shows that little ones are welcome. Rotated puzzles or cookie sheets with magnetic shapes or letters on top are inviting to tots and caregivers. Just make sure that loose pieces aren’t choking hazards. (They need to be too big to fit through a toilet paper tube.)

We routinely create spaces for specialized users, such as teens. We need to make sure that we have a space, even if small, for families with young children.

Ideas for small spaces

No room for a puppet theater? Find a spot in which a small tension rod will fit, perhaps between rows of picture book shelving, and clothespin a dish towel to either side for theater curtains. Put puppets in a small basket. Voilá!

Take half of the books on a lower shelf in the corner of the board or picture book area and display them. (Bonus: increased circulation.) Fill a clear bin with toys, such as soft blocks, push toys, stacking cups, or recycled plastic containers, and stash it on the shelf. You can also use those bins to create themed take-home learning kits. STEM is a good theme. Another one? Nature. Fill a bin with child-friendly binoculars, a sketchbook, chunky crayons, and a shovel and pail. Tie reading and play together by tucking in related titles already in your collection. Dinosaurs are always a hit. Many catalogs sell soft dinosaur toys.

Mess minimizers

A big objection to toys in the library is cleanliness. I get it. Libraries are fairly rule-based institutions, so when a collection is added, guidelines are expected to come with it. Who’ll pick up the toys? Clean them? How? Who’ll redo puzzles each night and hunt for missing pieces? It’s hard to create rules at the outset. Instead, live with the toys for a bit, and notice patterns of use. Hang a sign that reads, “Thank You for Tidying Up” to signal the expectation to patrons.

A little dirt never hurt anyone. Yes, toys that are visibly grimy should be washed. But when patrons—or staff—question the cleanliness of public toys, remind them that picture books are no different. Books can carry germs just like toys do, but I’ve yet to work in a facility where book covers are cleaned regularly.

Now excuse me while I go play with empty Tupperware, 1978-style.

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Lisa G. Kropp About Lisa G. Kropp

Lisa G. Kropp is the assistant director of the Lindenhurst Memorial Library in Lindenhurst, NY, and a forever children’s librarian.

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  1. Nina Lindsay says:

    Thank you Lisa! In our libraries, I routinely see parents lovingly directing their toddlers to put completed puzzles back in their right spot… And it’s a moment of pride for both of them. We use small toy caddies with pull out bins, and label both the bin, and the shelf it goes on, with a picture of the toy that goes there. Makes intention and instruction perfectly clear to everyone. A great idea from my colleague Amy Martin.