Guest Blogger

Too Many Toys: Recovering Library Programming and Play Spaces

Play food scattered atop a table in the children's play area with other toys on the surrounding floor.

Have you ever looked around the library and wondered where all the toys came from? Or who was going to clean them up? Did it make you want to cry? Or maybe kick and scream and have a bit of tantrum? I’ve been there, and I’m guessing you have, too.

Whether you’re looking at a public floor play space or programming toys, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Supporting play in libraries often means giving children and caregivers access to many toys and activities. Open-ended toys provide more learning opportunities, but often means more loose parts. If you’re like me, you’ve probably seen something that would be just perfect for your program or space and purchased it. But when does it become too many toys? Can you recover? Let me tell you what my library did.

The Background

My library recently underwent an extensive construction project. During this time, our play area was temporarily removed and we couldn’t offer play-based programs like our Family Place Playgroup. When we reopened following a temporary closure, it was a chance to reevaluate both our play space and our programming.

The Problem: Too Many Toys

We had a few challenges with our spaces and programs:

  • Too many toys in the play area made it hard to clean up. Most maintenance fell on one or two people rather than the whole team. Inventory, cleaning, and evaluation were unsustainable.
  • It was hard to distinguish between what belonged in the library and what might have been left behind by patrons.
  • Too many choices were overwhelming for many children. Instead of quality play and engagement, we saw sporadic interactions and disorganization.

The Plan: Evaluate the Toys

We started with a simple evaluation plan:

  1. We took out all the available toys and determined whether they were a better fit for programming or the floor.
  2. We identified staple categories. For example, we keep some play food on the public floor with our kitchen.
  3. We sorted and grouped toys, asking lots of questions. What was similar? What was unique? How many categories did we want? Did this toy work better with supervision or independent play? What did families ask for most?

Once we identified the goals, it was easy to complete an initial sort. Then, we reevaluated to make sure we had an even toy distribution hitting all our targets. We created a quarterly rotation of toys for the public floor, and a weekly rotation for playgroup. Once sets were created, we labeled. On the floor, we labeled containers to help families return toys. For playgroup, labels indicate the week used and the expected contents.

Here’s what it looks like:

Public FloorPlaygroup
Frequency of RotationEvery three monthsWeekly through 5-week session
Intended UseIndependent play on the floor, supporting existing play furnitureChild-directed play with caregiver during playgroup sessions
Contents1 set of play food/utensils
1 set of blocks
1 set of puppets
1-2 sets of manipulatives
3-5 infant toys

1 set of baby dolls
1 set of blocks
1 set of costumes
1 set of puppets
1 set of puzzles
1 set of transportation toys
1-2 sets of dramatic play toys
2 sets of infant toys
2 sets of instruments
2 sets of manipulatives
NotesToys are evaluated daily by staff during clean up processSome sets of toys are used weekly, some rotated through several weeks, and some rotated each week
Toy rotations in place at my library

The Progress: Less Toys, More Fun

Our public floor toy rotation has been in place since reopening in January, while our summer playgroup session was the first iteration of a toy rotation. We’ll host a second session in late fall. While we’re still adapting, we’re already seeing positive change:

  • Fewer toys means more engagement. Adults and children are playing together more intentionally, and often use toys in new and creative ways.
  • Clean up is much easier for caregivers, children, and even library staff.
  • There’s more intentional play in each playgroup. Caregivers are having more dialogue with their children during play and spending longer at individual toy stations.
  • It’s easier for everyone to find their favorite toys. We still have good variety, but most identify their preferred toys and play stations faster.
  • It’s easier for staff to evaluate what’s working and what isn’t. We can see which toys get heavy use, which are avoided, and which aren’t working quite the way we thought.

What’s Next?

Our space and programs constantly evolve and adapt based on community needs, so this is still very much a work in progress. Next steps include evaluating the use of space, reviewing and replacing toys, and purchasing additional materials as needed. Staff feedback and observations are an important part of this process, too, which means more questions and conversations.

What are your favorite strategies to manage too many toys?

(All photos courtesy of Jaime Eastman)

Today’s guest contributor is Jaime Eastman (she/her). Jaime is a senior Public Services Librarian and Family Place Coordinator at the Harrington Library, one of the Plano (Texas) Public Library locations. She’s currently serving as a member of the ALSC Board of Directors. Jaime is also working on at least two ambitious cross stitch projects, dreaming of future travel plans, and reading far too many books at once. As a child, she wanted to grow up to be an author. Writing for the blog and publishing with Children and Libraries feel like a good start, and she regrets nothing about her adult decision to be a librarian doing storytimes who didn’t have to grow up too much.

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