Play has always been a part of human life and, like everything else around us, it changes over time.
Since the first toy libraries were set up in Europe around 40 years ago, we have seen a lot of changes in the types of play we bring to children. In the beginning, it was mainly about board games and traditional toys like vehicles. Over the years the range of toys and play we offer has expanded.
- "Water, sand, stones and paper continue to be ways to encourage kids to create their own, very often fantastic, play things" - Renate Fuchs
Fifty years ago, children did not have many toys, but they had more space and more possibilities for free play with less involvement from grownups. When I was a child, we were able to play all kinds of street games as there were less cars. We had more freedom - our parents were happy for us to go to the woods where where we found all kinds of materials to play with.
Playing board games was popular, especially on a Sunday afternoon and all kinds of role playing games were in. But times were hard for many and not all children had the possibility to play. Toys were frequently separated by gender - dolls and little kitchens were for girls, trains and trucks for boys. Very often leisure activities like play and reading were considered to be a waste of time.
New trends in play have come and gone, whilst others have stayed for the long run – toy libraries have taken all of this in their stride. Special play clubs and play cafés were founded for example, especially in the German speaking countries. As well as responding to an increased understanding of the importance of playing to learn in the 1970s, many toy libraries looked to integrate digital play into their repertoire since the development of the first electronic games back in 1985.
A key challenge for toy libraries is to keep up to date and offer games with new technology, but make sure other kinds of play are not forgotten. It is important that they can offer a range of different toys - board games to encourage social and cooperative play for families, kindergartens and schools as well as toys for outdoor activities. We should never forget that water, sand, stones and paper continue to be ways to encourage kids to create their own, very often fantastic, play things.
We held our first International Toy Library conference back in 1978 - at our thirteenth event this year, play with new technologies was one of the big issues on the agenda. Everybody agreed that it is important that kids play and work with digital toys, but that it’s also important that they aren’t the only form of play because they are often played alone and children are immobile. Of course, they can often help to keep children quiet… but it is also important that they are active and learn to communicate and to interact with others. This is a challenge for all of us, especially in light of changing attitudes to kids out door play which is increasingly restricted.
Another topical question was also raised at the conference “Does a toy have a gender”. In toy libraries, there are no restrictions on play – all toys are for everyone – and whether a boy wants to play with a doll or a girl with a car, everything should be possible!
Encouraging intergenerational play is another interesting development in toy libraries’ work. In some toy libraries, school classes are brought together with seniors’ associations, to play – a great experience for all the parties involved. The project “Play for dementia patients” is another new approach being taken by some toy libraries, and is a field that deserves much greater attention.
Although play will always change, toy libraries will continue to bring play and playthings to children young and old around the world.
Since 1996, Renate Fuchs is the coordinator of the European Toy Libraries Group, an informal group committed to the belief that play, playthings and playful interaction are essential to optimal educational, physical, psychological, social and cultural development. Co-founder of the toy library in Küssnacht (Switzerland), she was also President of the Swiss Toy Libraries Association and Board member of the International Toy Library Association.