It's like Christmas every fortnight and an antidote to the great plastic pile-up, writes Kerryanne Nelson.
Every day, once my daughter has gone to sleep, I pick up around 30 plastic toys strewn across my house and shovel them into a room where I can't see them. Trips to the shops to get groceries or birthday presents become plastic-dodging missions. A magpie for brightly coloured plastic, my three-year-old will play enthusiastically with some new acquisition for a week or two, but soon it's forgotten, relegated to the bottom of the toy box. I try to pass these discards on to friends with kids, so that they can have another brief life-cycle, but there has to be a better way.
And there is: the toy library. A welcome antidote to the plastic accumulation problem. Here's how they work. Once you become a member (it's about $60 a year, or $40 for Community Services Card holders) you can go in as often as you like and hire toys for a very small fee and a couple of shifts helping out. There are hundreds of toys for kids of all ages and not only does it solve the problem of not having to purchase plastic, it also means that after a week or two when your kid has become sick of the massive plastic basketball hoop you hired, you can take it back and get something else.
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It's basically like having an (almost) free shop where you can just grab whatever you like, play with them and then bring them back and start over. It's like Christmas every two weeks. In an age of low waste intentions and limited budgets, it's a way to reduce landfill waste from discarded toys and packaging.
The community aspect of the toy library is wonderful, too. I've met mums and lovely local volunteers who suggest toys and activities that my daughter might be interested in. It's also a nice feeling to wander the aisles with your child and be able to say yes to the things that she finds.
"It's a great way to test out which toys kids are ready for or really interested in without having to buy them," says Keren Norling, chairperson of the Onehunga Toy Library. It also helps teach kids "about sharing and respect for things, because they have to return the toys". As charities, toy libraries also donate retired toys to families in need.
But some toy libraries are facing difficulties and need more support. "Our main challenge is maintaining a large enough membership base to cover our costs. Our membership numbers are quite a bit lower than they were five years ago and we are constantly looking for ways to increase our membership numbers and promote the Toy Library service. It is also becoming difficult to find enough volunteers willing to give up a bit of increasingly sparse free time to help keep the Toy Library running, says Norling.
The only way toy libraries can keep operating is by continuing to grow their membership. The best time to join is when you've had your first baby, so you can benefit from their range of age-appropriate toys as they grow.
There are around 220 libraries across New Zealand, with the first opening in 1974 in Hamilton. If you have babies or young children, please consider joining your local toy library - you can find the closest one to you here. Or just pop in and say hello and have a look around. You won't regret it - and it might just help you avoid adding to the great plastic mountain.