This solution is available to so many of us, but few parents even know that it exists. It helps you save tons of money, too.

By Erica Pearson
Lenora Gim/Getty Images

We bought a new shelf for our girls’ cluttered playroom and set it up only to realize, instantly, that while it was now loaded with neat stacks of puzzles and bins of toys, the room was far from tidy.

“We need another shelf,” my husband said. “Maybe two,” I replied.

That’s when we realized something needed to change. I thought about making a major toy purge, but wasn’t sure where to start. I wondered if we could stop buying new toys altogether. I searched online for new ways to organize everything, and that’s how I stumbled on a trick I hadn’t heard before—joining a toy library.

A toy library is much like a regular library, but with toys instead of books. Many charge a yearly membership fee and allow families to check toys out for weeks at a time. There are hundreds of toy libraries across the country—from the Pittsburgh Toy Lending Library in Pennsylvania to the PDX Toy Library in Portland—but many parents aren’t aware they exist.

The first was founded in the 1930s in Los Angeles after a shopkeeper realized kids were stealing toys because their families were too poor to buy them. That toy library is still running today, managed by Los Angeles County. According to Judith Iacuzzi, executive director of the USA Toy Library Association, toy libraries, many of them managed by volunteers, continue to open as the idea catches on.

Iacuzzi’s group has a comprehensive online directory of stand-alone toy libraries, public libraries with toy lending sections, and organizations that allow parents to check out toys or activity kits. Some libraries offer toys for a wider range of ages than others, while some have collections of adaptive toys for kids with special needs.

We decided to join the Minneapolis Toy Library, thinking it would help us do our part in saving the environment by consuming less, free up some money, and save our sanity by cutting down on the sheer amount of stuff we need to pick up around the house each day. The library was formed in 2014 by a group of Minnesota moms who, like us, wanted to see if a minimalist lifestyle could co-exist with parenting.

“The amount of space you get back from having [fewer] toys at home and being part of the library has been huge for families,” says library co-founder Rebecca Nutter, who added that her project is also a way for parents to keep their kids engaged during playtime without spending a fortune.

“During the first five years, children's developmental needs and interests change so much,” she says. “Buying those different toys can cost a lot of money.”

Nutter and the other founders got a grant from a national nonprofit, New Dream, to get started, talked to members of another Minnesota toy library about how to organize and package everything, and decided on policies about checkout limits, lost toys, cleaning rules, and membership fees (they chose a sliding scale, from $40 to $100 yearly). After launching the library in the free meeting spaces at local book libraries and then running it out of Nutter’s garage, they found a permanent home in a church basement that now has nearly 2,000 toys—both donated and purchased.

Starting a toy library in your community, Nutter says, is less daunting than most people might think.

“The concept was fairly simple,” she says. “We grew from word of mouth and social media posts. Now we have over 200 members and have been in our current space for over one year.

When we made our first visit, my two girls ran around excitedly and started pulling doctor kits and musical instruments from the shelves as I worked to explain that we were going to pick five—and only five—items to bring home with us.

“The toys are going to stay with us for a few weeks, and then come back here, just like the books we check out from the library,” I told my three year old, who also helped pick out things for her one-year-old sister.

The pair of them ended up checking out a series of toys—from a cuddly Baby Stella doll to a Haba wooden kaleidoscope camera—that would have set us back more than $100 at the toystore. The volunteers doing checkout also sent us home with a vinegar cleaning spray and instructions to clean everything and machine wash the doll before returning.

Once home, most of the toys retained that new-toy-glow for only about a day and a half, which is typical in our household. One or two seemed like real keepers, so we may check them out again or eventually look into purchasing similar ones.

Bringing the toys back can be hard for some kids, Nutter says, but added that learning to cope is actually one of the toy library’s benefits.

“We hope that over time children become used to this concept,” Nutter said. “Having things is just temporary, they can break and get lost. Spending time playing with your family is more important.”

My own family now looks forward to our monthly visit to the toy library and gets excited to play with something new—without actually adding to the number of toys in our overstuffed playroom. Someday soon, we will also go through our own toys and donate the ones the girls have outgrown to the library, freeing up even more space to play.

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