Vail Vincent McClure didn’t know which way to direct his attention. Magnetic blocks? Dump trucks? Floor puzzles or pull toys?
Christmas morning, right? Nope. This was five days after the holiday, when, despite wet and blowing snow and slippery roads, Vail and his grandmother, Ceola McClure-Lazo, happily shopped bountiful options at the Minneapolis Toy Library.
McClure-Lazo made the trip because she knows her 21-month-old grandson isn’t just having fun. Vail is learning to be a good steward of the earth.
The toy-lending library, launched in 2014 and housed at Richfield Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, is a place for parents, grandparents and other attentive adults to connect with children — ages birth to 5 — through play. The library evolved out of a collective desire by parents of young children to maximize fun and learning without loading up landfills when kids lose interest in a toy after a week or two.
“We love not buying toys all time time,” said Allison Corrado of Minneapolis. The library volunteer and mother of a 3-year-old daughter was admiring a sushi slicing play set.
Matt Allen agreed. “It’s definitely appealing to just not feel like we had to constantly acquire new toys,” said Allen, 38, of Minneapolis. Allen has been visiting the toy library with his 2-year-old son, Ellar, for about a year and a half.
“It’s such a good place for trying out toys, where everyone gets to share these things and you don’t then have to buy every single toy,” he said, noting that the price tag for some toys is $50 or $60 a pop.
“I’ve told a lot of friends about it,” he said. “I’ve definitely been preaching the gospel.”
It’s a gospel he and partner Caitlin Cook-Isaacson were mostly successful at getting across to family members at Christmas.
“We tried to tell aunts and others that we don’t need a lot,” Allen said. “And we tried to limit grandparents to one gift each, but they just sort of shake their head.”
The Minneapolis Toy Library was founded by moms Molly Stern and Taryn Tessneer, who were motivated by the idea of toy sharing. They received a small community grant and launched the toy library as a mobile program at free meeting rooms at Hennepin County libraries.
Rebecca Nutter, a mother of three young daughters, eagerly joined them and now runs the program. Nutter has an education background and a keen interest in sustainable toys.
“We’d load up four bins in my car and go to the library, load and reload,” said Nutter, 37, of Minneapolis.
The idea didn’t exactly explode at first, she said. At the first gathering, the moms spread out 55 toys on white buffet tables and “three or four curious families came in.”
Today, the toy library has as many as 500 members at a time, with nearly 4,000 toys available for lending in a carpeted lower-level space chock full of well-labeled and age-specific puzzles, board games, blocks, trucks, math and science kits, instruments and much more. Each family can borrow up to five toys and games for as long as a month for an annual fee.
The idea of sharing toys is growing. Nutter said a school in Roseville offers a similar program. She knows of a retired couple in South Dakota who offer boxes of toys to check out. In Philadelphia, the Rutabaga Toy Library offers 350 toys, including play lawn mowers, colorful xylophones, activity cubes and wooden dump trucks, for kids up to age 6. Australia, too, “is a big one,” Nutter said, when it comes to toy lending libraries.
After expanding from community rooms to a brief stint in Nutter’s garage — “that was interesting because my husband got into motorcycles” — the Minneapolis Toy Library found a permanent home at Richfield Church. They pay a small fee to use the church space. Hours are every other Monday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.; every other Wednesday from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.; and every other Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon.
The toy library does charge a late fee — a whopping $1, which never changes. “I’m so Minnesotan when it comes to that,” Nutter said.
Toy donations are also accepted at any of these times, Nutter said. They ask that toys be in good condition, safe and designed for children from birth to 5. They do not accept stuffed animals, baby bouncers or any other baby furniture, books, or broken or recalled toys.
Kamie Moen was nearly invisible as she carefully navigated the stairs with an armload of toys in “pristine condition.” Megablocks, electronics, a walker and two push cars — all to be donated. “We are so glad that this is here,” said Moen, the mother of 4-year-old daughter, Caroline.
While Moen’s toys looked as good as new, Nutter and her fellow volunteers work hard to find a place for everything. Items not accepted into the toy library are sometimes given to secondhand stores or added to their collection for an annual spring garage sale, she said.
“We will try to find a way to re-purpose the item or put it into recycling, if possible,” Nutter said. “We work hard on creating very little toy waste that goes to the landfill.”
They also work hard to add items to keep families coming back. The library recently added “trip kits,” which are shoe boxes filled with fun games that are easy to transport during road and plane trips, and “birthday kits” that include games to play such as a beanbag toss.
You can find camping sets, too, which include a lantern, binoculars and a head lamp.
The toy library has received additional grants from Hennepin County, Nutter said, for its focus on reducing waste. They’ve used the money for new sustainably crafted toys and green cleaning supplies.
Annual membership runs on a sliding scale from $40 to $100; the higher fee allows the library to offer free memberships to those in need. Digital and print gift card memberships are available.
Beginning Jan. 1, families can join or renew for $20 for a one-year membership as long as they volunteer for four lending events during the year.
“Our biggest need is to find people wanting to help us,” Nutter said. After Stern took a new job and Tessneer moved out of the state, Nutter was joined by business partner and Montessori substitute teacher Kari Carlson, of St. Paul. Carlson, a 40-year-old mother of two children ages 7 and 5, staffs the library on Mondays and every other Wednesday.
“The appeal even before I was staff was the eco-friendliness, how to not leave such a big footprint,” Carlson said.
Kathryn Spotts, also a teacher, heard about the toy library through friends. “I checked it out and I was hooked,” said Spotts, a mother of two young children who serves on the toy library’s board of directors where she is tasked with running the toy inventory committee.
“They’re such an amazing, small, scrappy organization that goes right to the heart of what I want my family to be about: reducing our environmental impact, borrowing rather than buying, sharing resources.”
She’s also deeply moved by the actions of other volunteers, such as a grandfather who repairs toys and artists who paint replacement game pieces. “It’s just a group of people who are pouring in their talents to make this possible,” she said. “That’s one of the most inspiring parts of it.”
Nutter is particularly pleased that her children, Charlotte, 7, Emily, 4, and Zoe, 2, are growing aware not just of what she does but why she does it.
“Charlotte got a wooden doll house when she was around 3,” Nutter recalled. “She didn’t play with it too much so, after about six months, I asked her if she wanted to add it to the toy library and she said, ‘Yes.’
“It’s a conversation I see parents having with their kids when they come in,” she said.
“If they’re at a store, they can say, ‘Let’s look at the toy library first.’
“At the toy library, you can say, ‘Yes.’”