Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Why the Public Library Does Not Need Toys

A week or so ago, my husband and I took Little Miss Muffet and Little Bo Peep to one of our local libraries. I noticed when we walked in that something was different, and Miss Muffet did too. Shelves had been rearranged, and the toy area, once somewhat possible to avoid, was now a prominent feature of the children’s department, just begging for my preschooler to run over and jump in. Alas, despite Miss Muffet’s very definite desire to play with toys, I laid down the law: “Libraries are for books, not toys.”

If a librarian were listening when I made this statement, I’m sure she would have swooped in to give me a spiel. She would be desperate to enlighten me about the fact that play is an early literacy skill, and these carefully selected educational toys are in the library to facilitate parent/child interaction that helps kids with their narrative skills and their vocabulary. Some children might not have toys at home, she’d tell me. Libraries aren’t just for books anymore, she’d say.  Go ahead and let her play with the toys, it's okay. (This was the collective reaction of librarians online, after all, when Kate Schweitzer’s post at PopSugar made the rounds over the summer.)

Because I am a librarian, I have heard all of this before, and I’m probably supposed to believe it if I want to be seen as hip, and trendy, and forward-thinking. But as a parent, and the primary educator of my children, I think it’s mostly nonsense. The public library does not need toys. I’ll tell you why.

Play does not have to involve toys.

Jean Piaget said that “Play is the work of childhood.” No matter what they are doing, young children are playing because that is how they interact with the world. My children have some toys, but more often, at different stages of development I have found them playing with their toes, their shadows, a mirror, a paper towel tube, blankets, spoons, and each other. When I play with them, we almost never use toys. Instead, we make up scavenger hunts, tell stories about what we did today, observe birds and animals in our neighborhood, make up dances, pretend to be firefighters, and hunt for letters of the alphabet. There is nothing inherent in a toy that encourages play, and there is nothing magical about the library that suddenly turns a toy educational when it is displayed beneath an early literacy poster. With or without the toys, the early literacy benefits of play depend entirely on the interaction between the child and another person. Allowing Little Miss Muffet to play alone with the train table keeps her busy, but it is not as educational - or as valuable to my educational goals for her - as staying with her parents and selecting books to borrow.

Toys are everywhere.

Most public places which cater to young children have toys. At diners, there are crayons and cardboard cars. Fast food restaurants will happily hand over hunks of cheap plastic alongside their kids’ meals. Even stores often have baskets of ratty stuffed animals, buckets of cars and trucks, and dollhouses with mismatched furniture. Waiting rooms, toy stores, nature centers, baby clothing stores, gyms, parks, sandboxes… everywhere a child goes, there are toys. But how many of these places have books? Sure, Chick-Fil-A occasionally throws a book in with the kid’s meal. Toy stores sometimes have a rack or two of recent and classic picture books. But the only place you can take a child where they can have the singular experience of being surrounded by books is the public library. Placing toys in the public library is robbing an entire generation of this experience, and it’s not something that can be duplicated elsewhere.

My child is learning the wrong thing about libraries.

Finally, the last objection to toys in the library is personal. Miss Muffet, who absolutely loves books, has begun to associate her local public library with toys instead. I say, “Today is library day!” and instead of asking for a book about trees, or snakes, as she might have done 6 months ago, she now says, “Do they have cars and trucks? Do they have a dollhouse?” Her enthusiasm for being in a building full of books has been overshadowed by the potential ten-minute thrill of playing with a toy we don’t own. I still intend to teach her that we don’t use the library for toys, but it’s disappointing that the library itself is what has turned this into an uphill climb for me as a parent.


  1. I have a friend who felt strongly this way regarding computers in the children's area of the public library. I don't personally have an issue with it, but in our library the toys are only out immediately following storytime. I think it's a way to keep the families there longer, and the kids playing together.

  2. I think it's like anything - different things for different communities. Ideally, you'd have a building with the space parceled out so that there were areas for playing, areas for quiet reading, etc. depending on what your community values and requests. I've chosen not to have computers specifically for children's use (and limited computers overall) in the children's department and I'll stick to that because it's what my community wants/needs and what makes sense for our space. I admit that sometimes when there's a ton of kids and the toys are strewn far and wide I wish I hadn't added toys! but when I remember what we started with eight years ago (some 1940s wooden puzzles and a broken table) and now I see how many more people visit the library and how often parents tell me what a big draw the toys are, I think it's a good fit for our community. We do still have quiet reading spaces and I try to get toys that are as open-ended as possible and switch them out so it's not overwhelming.

  3. I agree with Jennifer. I can see both sides. I am in a tiny library and we don't even have many toys. We have a kitchen, puzzles, and some stuffed animals. Every community is different but I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen a parent come in with the intent of reading to their kid(s). This is just not the reality of my community. I also have a little guy at home and he comes to the library to play. We read at home all evening, but the library is the only place he really sees other kids. I have not seen stores with play areas and I am looking at a 30+ minute drive to go somewhere like the mall with an indoor play place. He is too small to play at the fast food places yet, and sometimes we just need more room than we have in my 1 bedroom apartment.