Real Life: I Started a Toy Library

This is one of our Real Life interviews, in which we talk to people who are doing good for the Earth.

Are you ever overwhelmed by how many toys your kids have? Does it seem your kids outgrow or lose interest in toys almost as fast as they receive them? Molly Stern, one of the founders of the Minneapolis Toy Library, created a community solution to help solve these problems and decrease the number of toys winding up in the trash.

Minneapolis Toy Library founders Molly Stern and Rebecca Nutter

For those of us who don’t know, what’s a toy library?

A Toy Library is just like a library that lends books, only we are lending toys that are geared towards kids ages 0-5 years old. We have toys in many different categories that allow for learning and development to take place while children explore and play. 

Tell us how the toy library began.

The library began when a friend of mine from college visited me during my maternity leave. She talked about how quickly her son’s interests were changing and how she’s drawn to the theories and practices of minimalist lifestyles. She said she had read about Toy Libraries and wished one existed. I saw an email come through from the Center for the New American Dream about starting a project in your community. We got to work and achieved our first matching grant. The call was put out to find more people to help us get off the ground and luckily for us Rebecca and Rosie quickly jumped aboard! They both bring a specific skill set to this organization, both in terms of being moms themselves, but also having expertise in inventory structure and passion for recycling. Fast forward three years later, now we are operating with myself, Rosie and Rebecca and an array of incredible volunteers that help us staff each lending event and promotional outreach events. 

Real Life: I started a toy lending library
Inventory at the Minneapolis Toy Library includes puzzles, blocks, board games, and dress-up costumes.

What has been the community’s response?

We’re so grateful for the positive response we’ve gotten from the community. When we’re out tabling at events, people are thrilled to learn we exist. Some remember when there were more toy libraries around the cities. We have people thank us almost at every event, knowing we’re doing this because we love it and wanted it to exist and they’re so happy we do! We have reoccurring volunteers that help with shifts each week. We have families that donate regularly their children’s toys, one family even did a toy drive for us for their child’s birthday party. We’ve had members build us shelves, signs, really invest into our organization beyond our wildest dreams. 

Real Life: I started a toy lending library
The Minneapolis Toy Library stocks large toys like doll houses, puppet theaters, ride-ons, and trampolines.

Why do parents choose to use the toy library?

This is a great question, one that I think I’d pose to a toy library member. I wanted this to exist because first and foremost I care deeply about the development of my child and I know introducing him to new toys helps him learn and explore and build skills. I also don’t live in a mansion and don’t make a lot of money so having a place to check out toys every month saves me a ton of money. I also strongly value reusing and repurposing items that are associated with raising children. We all know about how much “gear” you acquire when you first have a baby. Then the toys on top of that gear can start to make you feel like the walls are closing in on you. Having toys that will get attention for the few weeks you have them and then you can bring them back. I often will joke with members when they check out larger items like car ramps or strollers for dolls that aren’t they glad it’s only a couple of weeks. Otherwise you know that toy would likely be collecting dust in a corner, cluttering up your house/mind when it could be used by another family. 

I also think there’s a huge benefit to “sampling” toys. If a child really gets connected to a certain toy or puppet, then the parents know what they can get them if they want to purchase toys for the holidays or birthdays.  

Real Life: I started a toy lending library
Popular inventory items at the Minneapolis Toy Library include bikes, basketball hoops, and sleds.

Walk us through a typical toy lending event. What do people see and experience when they show up for the first time?

I like to tell people to expect a bustling, busy library with a lot happening due to how we operate (being open two times every other week). A first timer should grab the attention of a staff or volunteer behind the check-in/out desk. We will then answer any questions and talk about how the toy library works (time for checking out, policies, toy categories, etc). They are more than welcome to walk around and look at all the toys and think about if this works for their family. Then we would ask them to fill out a membership form, pay the annual fee which is a sliding scale of $40-$100, depending on their family’s financial situation and decision about the membership. Then the family can select up to five toys to check out for four weeks. When they check them out, we’ll record the item’s code in our system. They will be given a cleaning solution that is eco-friendly and we ask that members wipe down their toys before returning them to the library. 

One thing I also like to tell people is to expect to select toys and check-out. A little playtime is fine, however we have so many toys, shelves and people to get around, it’s not set-up to be a playspace. We really love that we are helping families bring toys into their own homes/spaces, but we want everyone to be safe and keeping the isles clear of items helps to ensure everyone’s safety. 

Pro-Tip: You can purchase an awesome custom made MTL reusable bag for $10 or many families bring their own. IKEA bags are very popular due to their size and sturdiness. 

What are some of the most popular toys?

Dramatic play toys are really popular, ones that kids can play pretend and mimic adults through costumes/roles like chef, firefighter, doctor. Our Magnatiles seem to be checked out every event as well as our River Stones or large motor items. Being a part of the Minneapolis community, we hear that parents like to check out some of our bigger items: tool benches, kitchens, rocking horses or ride-ons because they don’t have room to store these things in their home but welcome them for a short period of time.

Real Life: I started a toy lending library
A sample of the toys at the Minneapolis Toy Library.

Tell us how you reduce waste and keep toys out of the trash.

Many ways. We offer the ability to donate your used toys to our organization which means we’re one more avenue for keeping items from being thrown out when they can have a second life. When you think about how many kids each toy passes through as well, it’s a little astounding. We have a rocking giraffe, for example, that was donated to us, so far it’s been passed through ten families and it’s only been in our inventory for ten months. We’ve had toys that started with us three years ago, like our original dump truck so it’s use has been triple that of the giraffe. I love reducing waste in this way, to me it’s the most fun way to recycle. I love sharing with parents, oh my kid loved that one, or that game was a riot, you’ll enjoy it. 
We also have had volunteer repair toys that were damaged but not beyond a repair by a handy person, which rebirthed a toy. We also have partnered with Terracycle, a company that recycles items that most city recycling programs can’t take. We’ve filled two of these boxes to the brim and shipped them off to Terracycle where they repurpose, melt and find uses for them. Our terracycle box was filled with broken toys and some of those smaller prizes kids win at places like Chuck E. Cheese but don’t use for very long and other kid related items sippy cups, markers, shoe soles.
Real Life: I started a toy lending library
The Minneapolis Toy LIbrary purchased a Terracycle box and saved 32 lbs of broken toys from the trash.

What other sustainable practices do you use?

We offer education around eco-cleaner, we’ve hosted swaps and community events in addition to toy lending where members can trade halloween costumes, shoes, winter clothing, drop off diapers that are unused for other members. We’re trying to leverage that we have this awesome group of people that are all dedicated to reducing waste and sharing resources to further our impact when it comes to sustainability. This helps fight against consumerism that is harmful to the environment and our culture.

How do you make the toy library accessible to all income levels?

We have scholarships available for any members that cannot afford the $40 minimum membership level. We can also offer shorter term memberships if spreading out payments is helpful to members. We are willing to work with anyone and can count volunteer hours towards memberships as well if someone would prefer to lend their time (we know it’s extremely valuable to us!).

What’s the future for the toy library?

It’s a great question. We’re working hard to get established as a 501(c)3 organization and that will include a board of directors helping to steer us in the next direction. I want to see our organization again leverage this awesome group of people that have signed up for the Toy Library to start exchanging more child-related items. I think we’re moving in that direction right now. I also would absolutely love to have a second location but Rosie, Rebecca and I cannot do that alone so we’re thinking about how we would approach that and who else we will need to involve in order to make that happen. We know it’s something that would greatly benefit our members and the Minneapolis community to have two locations at least. What we’ve started to do is offer pop-up play spaces within coffee shops around town. This has been a great way to say hey you can play with our high quality toys at this location while supporting a local business and giving parents yet another place to enjoy with their kids.

Real Life: I started a toy lending library
A sample of the toys at the Minneapolis Toy Library.

What advice would you give to others who are interested in minimizing their kids’ toys?

Personally, I’d tell them to start a toy library if they don’t have on in their area. They can do this between friends too – switch toys up every month.

Something that has helped our family is to not have more toys than this shelf I have in my living room can store. It makes our family more intentional about what we purchase or bring in. It might sound restrictive, but I have this other area where I shelf toys and can switch up the items from time to time. Honestly, it’s made me more sane because having Lincoln Logs/blocks get dumped out everyday but not played with was a tedious task to have to clean up everyday. It helps that everything can be put away and has a place, it allows our family to have more open space too for dancing, playing pretend and exploring one or two things at a time. You can create a pseudo toy library within your own home, something I learned from my co-librarians who were “rotating” toys for their own children. It creates more excitement around items you already have when they disappear for a while and then reappear again.

I’d also recommend talking to family members, grandparents, aunts and uncles about other possible gifts for birthdays and holidays. We love experience gifts and communicate that to our super giving and loving family members who are so giving to our son.

Having a toy library has really impacted my son’s degree of ownership over toys in many ways too. He knows when I’m loading up the toys to bring back to the toy library, that others will likely come home with me. This has been an interesting experiment as a parent, because I remember when my mom would gather up our toys to donate to the thrift store I would cling to them even though I hadn’t played with them for months or a year. He doesn’t have that kind of attachment with the toy library toys, it’s understood it’s part of a community toy box, not just our own. It’s really neat to see.

Thanks, Molly! I stopped by the toy library for the first time in December and brought home an indoor trampoline. My boys loved it during those cold, bitter weeks, and right when they moved on to something else, it was time to return it to the library for the next family. Couldn’t have worked out more perfectly! 

For more information on the Minneapolis Toy Library, check out their Facebook page or visit one of their lending events. The Minneapolis Toy Library is open every other Wednesday evening (4 PM to 7 PM) and Saturday morning (9 AM to Noon) at Richfield Lutheran Church, 8 West 60th Street, Minneapolis, MN 55419. A yearly membership begins at $40 per year with the option to contribute a higher amount to support the toy library’s mission. The Minneapolis Toy Library is committed to making the library accessible to everyone regardless of income level and will count volunteer hours towards memberships, offer short term memberships, and spread out payments.  

It’s your turn! How have you minimized toys in your home? We’d love to hear what’s working for you in the comments!

Jenna Bergendahl is a homeschooling mom of three in Minneapolis. She loves biking, camping with her husband and kids, and staying up late reading sci-fi novels. In 2018 she’s taking on a zero waste challenge, trying out veganism, and catching up on episodes of Game of Thrones. She’s also the editor of Zeroish.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *