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Growing trend lets kids check out games and dolls from a toy library

Parents coast to coast are discovering the convenience and benefits of borrowing toys rather than buying them.
Parents coast to coast are discovering the convenience and benefits of borrowing toys rather than buying them.

Every year, a month or two after Christmas, business picks up for Anelis Coscioni, who runs a dozen ‘‘toy libraries’’ that lend puzzles, dollhouses, train sets, and other playthings throughout Sioux Falls, S.D., and neighboring towns.

With the luster already worn off many of the holiday toys that were left under the tree, parents start showing up at branches of the Toy Lending Library of South Dakota with their children, looking for games, trucks, dolls, dress-up kits, puppets, and Lego sets to borrow at no charge.

Toy libraries are part of a growing green and cost-saving trend as parents coast to coast discover the convenience and benefits of borrowing toys rather than buying them.

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‘‘They’re always grateful that we’re here,’’ said Coscioni, 45, a former veterinarian from Brazil who in 2015 came up with the idea for a toy library system in Sioux Falls after she moved there with her husband and daughter and noticed a need for educational toys for children of all ages.

Coscioni volunteers as executive director of the libraries, most of which are in Sioux Falls book library branches.

‘‘A toy library not only saves parents money, it’s good for the Earth,’’ she said. ‘‘Why keep buying toys and watch them pile up or end up in the landfill when kids can borrow a few toys every two weeks and play with them until they’re ready to bring them back and try something new?’’

There are about 400 toy lending libraries in the United States, with some, such as the Rutabaga Toy Library in Philadelphia, charging a monthly fee, and others, such as Coscioni’s library and the Northwest Denver Toy Library in Colorado, being free, said Judy Iacuzzi, executive director of the USA Toy Library Association.

‘‘Some of these libraries started in a closet somewhere and then grew with the community,’’ said Iacuzzi, 70, who lives in Evanston, Ill., and has served as the USATLA’s director for about 30 years.

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The majority of toy libraries are in regular libraries and schools, she said, and some cater to specific needs: specialized toys for disabled children, for example, or developmental toys for babies and preschoolers. Most, though, try to carry something for everyone, she said.

‘‘Something that seems to be disappearing in our country is the idea of kids playing together outside naturally, in the streets of their neighborhood or in a park,’’ Iacuzzi said.

‘‘So encouraging companionship and working together with other kids is another thing that toy libraries can do,’’ she said. ‘‘Because most of them are located inside public libraries, kids can play right there on the floor with their Legos and trucks and learn some social skills, too.’’

The art of play has never been more important, added Iacuzzi, pointing to a 2018 American Academy of Pediatrics report showing that playground play is more powerful than classroom learning in the development of a child’s cognitive, social, emotional, and language skills.

‘‘A toy library does a lot of things to stimulate a child’s imagination,’’ she said. ‘‘There’s the open-ended, creative component inside the library — the act of a child taking charge of the agenda and slowing down to play — but there’s also the responsibility that the child takes on to care for a toy for a week or two, then bring it back.’’

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At the nation’s oldest and largest free toy library, the Los Angeles County Toy Loan Program, children have checked out toys from ‘‘toybrarians’’ since 1935.

Libraries at 50 locations around Los Angeles primarily cater to low-income families that find it difficult to keep their children supplied with age-appropriate toys, said Marcia Blachman-Benitez, who manages the countywide program.

With about 45,000 toys in circulation (they’re regularly cleaned and replaced when they show too much wear), more than 30,000 children borrow playthings from board games to Barbie dolls, she said. Most of the toys are donated by area businesses and individuals through annual drives.

Once children have checked out and returned 20 items in good condition, they’re given several free toys, Blachman-Benitez said.

‘‘What I love most about our program is our ability to bring toys to families where they’re not a priority,’’ she said. ‘‘Most of our families are struggling right now, working two jobs, and play is essential to a child’s life. Our toy libraries have become part of the fabric of Los Angeles County.’’

At the end of January, said Blachman-Benitez, a new toy library will open at a community center in the San Fernando Valley, catering to homeless families living in motels or in cars.

‘‘No child should have to go without play time,’’ she said. ‘‘And because these families are mobile, borrowing a toy or two along with a book is a great option for them. They don’t have to lug around a bunch of items, and they can exchange the toys for new ones at locations all over the county.’’

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Every Monday for the past nine years, Bernabi Velasquez, a Los Angeles maintenance man, has taken his children to the toy library in his neighborhood after school. It’s a ritual he said he has learned to enjoy almost as much as his five children, who range in age from 2 to 14.

‘‘My wife is a homemaker, and this is something that I can do by myself with the kids when I get home,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s helped us save a lot of money, and with each child getting one toy each week, it cuts down on the clutter. After a week, they’re ready for new toys, and off we go. My kids especially like Legos, dolls, cars, and airplanes, and I always tease the librarian, ‘Do you have a toy for me?’ ”

In Sioux Falls, Coscioni said she hears similar comments from parents, and she encourages them to sit down and play.

‘‘The toy library is a great way for parents and grandparents to spend some quality time with their kids,’’ she said.

Coscioni and a small band of volunteers regularly clean and circulate 485 clear plastic storage boxes. When children check out toys, they come in one of the boxes, which will contain a book and information for parents about community activities.

‘‘The toy library is a lifesaver for us,’’ said Jamie Maurer, 30, a stay-at-home mom with two daughters: Maddie, 4, and Molly, 2. ‘‘It’s an opportunity to try out new stuff without having to buy it, and it also gets us out of the house.’’

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It’s good to get out, even in the frigid chill of a Sioux Falls winter, she said.

‘‘It’s literally 3 degrees outside,’’ Maurer said. ‘‘But it’s never too cold to go to the toy library.’’