The power of toy-lending: Playing it forward at the Taranaki Toy Library


A New Plymouth mum pours her heart into a global movement, bettering the planet one toy at a time.

Words: Cari Johnson

If toys could speak, imagine the lively gossip as they are passed from child to child. In a way, the happy chatter already exists — ringing, tooting and jingling throughout New Plymouth homes.

This makes Jana Dunnet smile. The coordinator of the Taranaki Toy Library says there’s no better sound than children playing. “Our toys belong to the community as opposed to one family. Instead of a toy sitting in a corner collecting dust, here they are used all the time.”

The toy-lending movement was born during the Great Depression — a Californian discount-store operator saw a way children could play with toys their parents couldn’t afford. The concept took off in Europe over the next century and, by 1972, a library was established in Hamilton. Today, New Zealand has more than 220. “It just makes so much sense. Toys are used for such a short time, so why not share them with the community?” says Jana.

While libraries range in size, venue and pricing, each shares a goal. “A toy library allows a child to progress through development and interests in a financially sustainable way,” says Jana. Parents, teachers and caregivers can hire a new selection of toys — weekly or fortnightly — in exchange for a membership fee.

In New Plymouth, Jana’s 100-square-metre prefab has the same bustle as a book library. Members can browse for toys on a database or, with their kids in tow, sort through about 1600 toys arranged by category. Jana and six volunteers act as librarians, organizing returns and scanning barcodes as members leave with their puzzles and playthings.

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Jana believes the benefits go beyond day-to-day entertainment. “Lessons are easier for a child when you build a good relationship with them; play is a perfect way to do that,” she says.

Over the past nine years, she has seen the community support the library — and vice-versa. Locals donate thousands of books for an annual children’s book sale, which Jana started in her spare time. The profit enables her to give it right back, whether it’s providing toys for family-friendly fundraisers or gifting memberships to other not-for-profit groups. “The role we play in the community makes such a big difference,” she says.

Community means the world to Jana who, born in Germany, fell for Aotearoa (and one of its countrymen) while on a working holiday. “I found the Kiwi lifestyle suited me. Community, cherishing relationships, and not being too career-focused is a way of life here.”

When she had her first child, she found her local toy library ticked those same boxes. After several years of membership, the job of coordinator came up. “Even though it had been going for nearly 30 years, the toy library didn’t have the community visibility that it deserved. I wanted the job because I hoped to make it bigger, more successful and more recognized.”

She spends hours scouring catalogues and Facebook groups to find new additions. The challenge is to find toys that will last, and stimulate children in different ways. She’s always on the hunt for playthings that inform or are suitable for special needs — her latest splurge was a collection that teaches te reo Māori.

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If Jana had her way, there would be libraries for everything people need. But, for now, she’s more than happy to give others what her own children received when they were tots. “The importance of play is undervalued. A lot of problems are solved when parents find the time to play with their children.”

BUY LESS, PLAY MORE

In theory, a toy hired every fortnight for a year will be played with by at least 26 children. If a household has more than one child, that number could be double. Jana ensures toys at the Taranaki Toy Library are used for years — some as long as a decade — thanks to her well-stocked room of spare parts. “I think everything, especially things made of plastic, should be used to their full potential,” she says.

JOIN A LIBRARY

Toy libraries are built on the backs of their good-natured members. They are run mainly by volunteers, with some offering reduced membership fees to those who join the roster, and are dotted around suburbs, towns, and cities, with nearly 30 in the Auckland region alone. Learn how to join or volunteer at toylibrary.co.nz

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.
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