May I borrow some health and well-being? Toy libraries as a one-stop shop 

  • Henley and Vivienne race their borrowed trikes. Photographer: Bridget Sarah

Henley and Vivienne race their borrowed trikes. Photographer: Bridget Sarah

Bridget Sarah
Bridget Sarah (Deakin University), Louise Bell (Toy Libraries Australia), and Debbie Williams (Toy Libraries Australia)

Access to quality toys across the geographically, socially, and economically diverse pockets of Australia varies greatly. With increasing remoteness comes decreasing access to play materials and increasing rates of poor child and family health status. There are over 280 toy libraries in Australia, with more than 100 of these located outside capital cities. 

Toy libraries, work to support families by physically resourcing them with toys and the knowledge on how to use the toys in their homes. Parents, carers, and professionals can borrow a large variety of toys, puzzles, and games for a small membership fee. Each library varies, with some located in community halls or within municipal literary libraries. Some toy libraries have 20 family members while others up to 1200. Although some toy libraries employ paid staff, most rely solely on volunteer community participation. 

The positive impact of play on children’s overall health, wellbeing, and development is undisputed. Children use toys to play about their inner worlds, express feelings, and work through troubling or worrisome matters within the safety and metaphor of the play world. While children are typically incredibly adept at making do with natural environments and limited materials, access to a range of quality toys promotes playful experiences, which in turn stimulate the production of feel-good brain chemicals to act as ‘brain fertiliser’ for healthier, stronger, more regulated, and happier brains. 

Toy libraries are a dream lesson in a sustainable, capacity building, and community strengthening initiative. Despite the number of toy libraries dotted across Australia, they are wildly underutilised by early childhood professionals and remain an untapped resource by many. Early childhood best practice guidelines call on health professionals to deliver inclusive and participatory practices which engage children in natural environments and build systemic capacity. Health and education professionals have a significant role to play in raising the profile of toy libraries and maximising their potential for wellbeing at the micro and macro levels of the Australian community. 

The resounding benefits of toy libraries in countering mental health challenges are therefore easy to list. They provide opportunities for access to high quality, educational toys, bolstering children’s social, physical, cognitive, and emotional skills. Not just for children, volunteer and work opportunities are generated, particularly when libraries become self-sustaining, promoting a powerful sense of personal purpose and contribution. Toy libraries create a safe and enjoyable context to meet others, develop friendships and enjoy a whole family outing. The physical space can further act as an entry point to complimentary co-located services with warm, non-threatening education and support in a playful environment.  

For such an underutilised, grass roots organisation, Toy Libraries may well hold one answer to providing rural communities with the lowest cost, most powerful psychosocial health intervention that we have - the enriched family and community connections that time playing, talking and working together brings. 

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