Toy libraries

Have fun, save money, build community

Marketing researchers have long studied how parents affect their children’s development of consumer habits and skills. A new study, co-authored by Pamplin College of Business marketing professor Julie Ozanne, focuses on the impact on children of parents’ support and use of toy libraries.

Julie Ozanne in front of a shelf of toys
Marketing professor Julie Ozanne

“Parents are a crucial socializing agent of their children in the marketplace,” Ozanne says. “Our study examines toy library patronage in an effort to better understand the processes behind this mediating role of parents, including how they counter what they see are detrimental effects of consumerism.”

An important community resource

Toy libraries originated in the United States but are more common today in Europe and elsewhere, says Ozanne. With a borrowing process similar to public book libraries, toy libraries can provide children with developmental tools for play and be an important community and social resource, she adds.

New Zealand vs. the United States

Ozanne and her co-author — sister Lucie Ozanne, a senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand — conducted the study in New Zealand, which has more than 200 toy libraries and about 4 million people, in contrast to the U.S., which has the same number of toy libraries and a population of more than 300 million. Their study was based on interviews with parents and children and observations of them at a toy library.

The study found that toy libraries offer multiple benefits for children, their parents, their community, and society in general. Toy libraries mean many different things to their users, Julie Ozanne says, “from being a good way to save money and have fun to a political act of conscience and a way to build community.”

For children, the benefit is clearly the toys, she says, but several children interviewed also cited the opportunity to play with friends when they visited the toy library.

Benefits for parents

For parents, the pleasure of borrowing was compared to the pain of shopping. Parents viewed the toy store setting, with its advertising and brands, as fraught with potential conflict and described toy shopping with their kids as a stressful task, full of begging, negotiating, directives (“don’t touch this,” “stay here,” “do this”), and struggles to control and limit their offspring.

Visits to the toy library were far less stressful. With little financial outlay at stake, parents gave their children significantly more latitude in borrowing toys. This freedom is aided in part by library policies that edit and restrict toys that might be controversial by local community standards: “Different libraries have different policies, but most select durable toys that are developmentally appropriate and avoid toys that might promote violence.”

Parents also encouraged their children to try toys and activities that challenged their strengths, explored underdeveloped skills, or developed new ones. Trying out toys sometimes resulted in a store purchase, Ozanne says.

Foiling marketplace messages, materialism, and consumerism

With the displays, packaging, and branding aimed at influencing purchases largely absent, she says, “toy libraries offer a foil to marketplace messages that parents fear will fuel their children’s potential for materialism and consumerism.”

Toy library patronage can be a “transforming political act” for many parents. “The most common political interest driving families’ use of the toy library was avoiding supporting a consumerist society and fueling materialism. Others included protecting the environment by reducing purchases or purchasing toys that are more sustainably produced.”

In addition, Ozanne says, parents believed that borrowing toys helps their children develop a different relationship to goods that is a counterpoint to overconsumption and materialism: “You can still enjoy something when it doesn’t belong to you,” one parent said. “Parents stress that the toy library teaches their children that goods can have value even without ownership,” Ozanne says.

Opportunities for social and civic engagement

Toy libraries also supply opportunities for social and civic engagement through volunteer work at the libraries, for example, and allow parents and children to socialize and form informal networks with other users: “The libraries directly build the social fabric of the local communities through ongoing social interactions, connections, and exchanges.”

Several parents, for instance, reported major and minor acts of kindness from fellow library patrons. One parent noted that volunteer work sends a potent message to children: “we’re teaching them, aren’t we, about looking after each other.”

Volunteers might also get to learn new skills as a result of their work, including community organizing, leadership, public speaking, fund raising, grant writing, toy repair, and web design. One parent-volunteer described how she was able to apply some of the skills she had picked up to her job. Thus, another benefit of toy libraries might be helping to develop human capacity, Ozanne says.

Creativity is possible with used toys too

Children also learn that they can be just as creative in playing with communal, used toys as toys they own, Ozanne says — that, as one mother put it, “toys can be just whatever a child is prepared to make of them.”

Toy libraries also educate children on the nature of citizenship. “Borrowing teaches children to share collective goods, take their turn, be considerate of the next user, and be good stewards by taking care of the toys.” Children “are regularly asked to think of other people as they borrow, use, and return toys,” she says. One mother explained to her daughter: “another family might need this.”

Three recommendations for public policy

The study makes three public-policy recommendations. First, more toy libraries should be created in disadvantaged communities, Ozanne says. “In a period of significant economic challenges and reduced government budgets, toy libraries may be one of the few good deals. They might be housed in existing primary schools, creating a bridge between the educational activities of teachers and parents. They can be run by volunteers and customized to meet community needs.”

Second, more toy libraries should be created for children with special needs. “Appropriate toys for play are particularly important for engaging children challenged by disabilities.” Third, a web-based clearing house should be created to document best practices and share resources. It might provide parent-generated toy reviews, webinars for training volunteers, methods for evaluating the impact of the toy library, and promotional materials to increase awareness of services.

The Ozannes’ study, “A child’s right to play: the social construction of civic virtues in toy libraries,” will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing.

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