Toy Librarians on a Mission to Build Community and Reduce Waste

We're happy to share the stories and positive work of our Ambassadors in their own words. Our Be Zero Ambassadors bring life to the Be Zero Mission by sharing and inspiring ways to live simple and low-waste lifestyles. Our Ambassador, Bobbie, shares her recent conversation with the Minneapolis Toy Library! 

Toy Librarians on a Mission to Build Community and Reduce Waste

Tucked in a small side entrance of a Lutheran church basement in Minneapolis, Minnesota sits 1,400 toys and counting; a collection that is rotated, reused and loved by 165 members of the Minneapolis Toy Library.  I met with Rebecca Nutter, co-founder and toy expert of the organization, to hear about how three moms operate their library with a mission to reduce waste, promote child development and build their community.

The library was born from a realization that a child’s interests change quickly and acquiring enough stuff to keep up is overwhelming.  Looking for a way to embrace minimalism as a solution led them to the toy library concept, and a timely grant opportunity that focused on local community projects was their ticket. A grant application, a website, social media presence and a call out to volunteers recruited the full founding team and a first concept meeting.  After 9 months of planning, pondering and dreaming, the toy library opened.  It started out as a service brought into local libraries, and when hauling the toys got to be too much, they opened their own space in Rebecca’s garage—right next to the family vehicles. Before long, they decided to upgrade to a bigger space.

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Between grants and membership fees (for which they offer a sliding scale), the founders were able to acquire half of a church youth room for $200 a month.  Rebecca said they really struggled to find a location on their modest budget and looked to churches knowing a lot of them had unused space and could use rent money.  Their inventory was originally tracked by paper and pencil, and is now stored on an application designed by Rebecca’s husband.  The batteries used in the electronic toys are donated by a member’s workplace.  The shelving and fixtures that line the library were donated or found discarded in alleys.  “It’s been a labor of love”, Rebecca says.  They found support in their member community and their network of toy librarians, and stayed true to their minimalist philosophy.  

I asked Rebecca how that philosophy transferred to her kids when they learned that they’d be purging all of their toys at the start of the library’s operations.  She said that she was raised to believe that she didn’t need a lot of stuff, and she instilled that concept with her kids at a young age.  They’ve learned how to be resourceful with other things.  A cardboard box for instance, or a basket of unused fabric.  Her daughter, Rebecca tells me, recently made a cape out of a piece of fabric, and kept herself busy with just that.  She expects that her kids will be bored from time to time, but that is where she believes creativity comes from.  

Rebecca admits, however, that all kids are different and giving up toys can be difficult.  All of the founders purged their houses when the library started, and she suggests that the transition can be easier when you talk to your kids about how much other kids can enjoy their toys.  Rebecca and her kids do things outside the home to stay busy.  She takes them to the zoo and the library, and they play outside all summer.  She believes that it is also important for parents to model resourceful behavior.  Her kids often see her donating to Goodwill or shopping secondhand.  Be slow about the change so that your kids can adjust, and give expectations, she suggests.  For instance, tell your kids that in two weeks, the family is going to donate their set of blocks, and give them time to process that.  If it helps, start by sharing and swapping toys with your neighbors so that the kids can get used to letting go before you start donating. 

Starting a toy library can be as simple as a network of neighbors getting together and realizing that they don’t all need a Little Tykes basketball hoop.  Their toy library has grown just by word of mouth, social media and flyers.  They’ve received three grants since they started and are otherwise running on the courteous donations of library members and others in the Minneapolis community.  Their latest grant, donated by Hennepin County Green Partners, will be used to continue education around recycling and reusing.  Rebecca says they teach their members about fixing broken toys rather than tossing them.  A trip to the hardware store and a little creativity has occasionally saved broken toys returned to their shelves.  The library has also hosted a successful childrens’ shoe swap, they recently partnered with Terracycle to collect 32 pounds of broken toys, and they are currently collecting crayons to be recycled through The Crayon Initiative.  They’ve got a few other ideas in the works, Rebecca says.  Hopefully one of those is a sister branch for their growing library!

To donate, become a member, or learn more about the library, visit www.mplstoylibrary.com or find them on Facebook or Instagram @mplstoylibrary.