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At Toy Lending Library, Play Reigns Supreme

It’s the Holiday season and stores and companies are trying to outdo each other in toy sales. But at the Toy Lending Library in Shadyside, it’s not about buying or selling or what the hottest toy of the season is. It’s just about play. 

From the moment the doors open for the day at Pittsburgh’s Toy Lending Library, the room is filled with the sound of little feet running and young mouths squealing. Adults come trailing behind. The kids find their favorite toy – be it a rocking horse, a prop castle or a fake kitchen set -- and immediately set upon playing. That’s what Lia, age 2 ½ of Squirrel Hill did on a recent morning with her father Jim Fani.

"She loves coming here, she loves playing with the kids...she always says I want to play with the kids, play with the kids," he said. 

The toy lending library has been around for nearly 40 years. Originally it was part of a mental health clinic. Located in the basement of a church on Centre Avenue in Shadyside, it’s a cooperative play space for children up to six years old. Kids play with toys while they are there and they can also check out to take them home. Parents pay a fee to join and if they chose, work volunteer shifts.

"Its one of these places you walk into and your like, how are they not everywhere?" -Tonya Campbell

Tonya Campbell is the president of the Board of Directors at the toy library.

"Its one of these places you walk into and your like, how are they not everywhere? Especially in an urban area where a lot of our families live in smaller apartments or smaller homes and you don’t have space for a lot of the toys the kids are going to want," she said. 

You won’t find any Disney Princess items or the latest Transformers toy. The toys at the library are all gender neutral, there are no logos, and none are brand-affiliated. Above all, they are all creative play toys.

"I think the neat thing about toys that aren’t electronic is they lend themselves to more creativity if you have a light-up you or a guitar that plays one certain way and you push the buttons and the sound comes out its much different than having an actual guitar that your strumming, it’s a different feel, it lends itself to a different exploration of the toy," said Campbell. 

Campbell, whose four children play at the library, says with open-ended toys, children learn to stretch their imagination.

Parents cite all different reasons for coming to the toy library. But most of them say they go for several reasons – it is cheaper and greener than buying a whole bunch of toys their child may outgrow. It helps them socialize and is fun for their kids. And all that play – while on the surface just seems to put a smile on their young faces – is actually a critical component in shaping who they will become.

Play is more than just play

"In physical development it gives children a chance to develop muscles when they climb on swings and go up and down ladders in the area of cognitive development it helps prints and numbers…in social development, one of the wonderful things it gives children a chance to represent their experiences and manage them," said Roberta Schomberg, Associate Dean and Professor of Early Childhood Education at Carlow University. She’s been teaching and researching children’s play for decades.

Schomberg and developmental psychologists and neurobiologists say play is a crucial part of childhood development. Early childhood experiences, including play help all the trillions of neurons in a young brain form connections that lead to our smarts.

"Our early experiences with play gives us our sense of creativity, it helps us in terms of regulation and planning, helps us manage feelings, helps us get along with other people. When I think about things like sharing and conflict management all of those things are learned in the play setting with other children when they have to share resources, share materials ..negotiate what role they will be when pretending, those are all skills we need later on. One of the things we know is that the skills you have when you are about six are the ones they take with them into adulthood. So the pre-school years are really critical for these opps," said Schomberg.

"... in the early years just giving children blank paper is probably the best toy we can give them..." -Roberta Schomberg

Experts all agree that the kind of play kids need is open-ended play.

"Open-ended toys are things like blocks play-doh, crayons and paper vs things like coloring blocks and paint by numbers, things that can only be used in 1 way. Older children may really enjoy some of those more structured materials. But in the early years just giving children blank paper is probably the best toy we can give them for pres-schoolers," she said. 

Some experts say the art of play is lost – with so many close-ended toys on the market or with passive activities such as TV watching or goal-oriented regimented play such as sports or video and computer games. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey found kids spend an average of seven and a half hours a day in front a TV. In many schools, recess has been cut back and children spend less time running around the playground or gym. A report from the federal Centers for Disease Control found that only 1 in 5 kids live within walking distance of a park or playground.

Schomberg says while those statistics are all concerning – children when left alone or with some prodding will find a way to play. Its in their nature.

"One of the best toys is a ball, it was true when I was a child, it was true when my daughter was a child and its true w my grandchildren." 

Another option

Others in Pittsburgh who work with children know what kids play with and how they play is important. At the Arsenal Family and Children’s Center in the East End, young children only play with toys that prompt their development.

The center was founded by Dr. Spock in the 50’s when he was at The University of Pittsburgh.  It was created in conjunction with the Allegheny County Health Department as a preventive mental health model that could also serve as a training ground for the study of child growth and development. It was where Fred Rogers worked as a student teacher and where he tried out many of his child development theories.

Melissa Hankin is the Executive Director at Arsenal and is proud of that history. She says every toy in the center contributes to the developmental, physical and mental growth of the children.

"In the block area they will learn the math and classifying and sorting and problem solving skills because when something doesn’t work right they have to figure out why it didn't work and maybe try it again," she said. 

Back at The Toy Lending Library they have many of the same toys. 

Tonya Campbell says what is most important at the Lending Library is that the play that occurs there is all child-initiated.

"This is how kids learn, they learn to socialize and play and explore imagination, imitate mom and dad and friends and brothers and sisters.  And it’s a safe place."