Parents, Educators Rally For Toy Library

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Education

Future clients of the Cape Cod Toy Library. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

HARWICH PORT With any luck, kids and their parents could be spending some fun, quality time together at a new Cape Cod Toy Library as early as this summer. But it’ll take more than Play-doh to make the toy library a reality.

Deb Wilsea of Chatham, who is organizing the effort, is spreading the word about the need for children and their families to spend time engaged in creative play. Doing so strengthens family bonds and helps youngsters develop social skills, creativity and curiosity.

Wilsea and her fellow volunteers are seeking to sign a purchase-and-sale agreement on the property at 432 Route 28, Harwich Port, the former Woelfel and Sons Plumbing building, which will become a lending library for toys, a play space for kids and their families, and a resource center for parents. The group is actively seeking donations to help them purchase the land and building, and the owner has agreed to accept a $10,000 monthly deposit to keep the property off the market. Various small-scale fundraisers are underway, and Wilsea said the group is actively recruiting “angel” donors who can make larger contributions.

“People are definitely showing interest,” Wilsea said. The volunteer board includes parents, educators and others who see the need for a toy library like the one Wilsea helped establish in Rochester, N.Y.

Last week, volunteers, parents and children visited the site to show their support for the effort.

“It’s very unique,” parent Jaime Mullen said. “It’ll be something more for the kids to do.”

It will be free for people to come in and play with toys, with a membership fee for visitors who want to take out the toys. The facility will include a library of books for children, and a section for adult books about child development.

“Particularly with the Lower Cape, there are less resources for children and families,” Wilsea said. The central location in Harwich Port will be convenient for Mid- and Outer-Cape families, she added. “Remember that this affects grandparents and anyone who’s working with children in other ways,” Wilsea said.

There’s ample evidence from neuroscientists that time for creative play is important to the development of the brain, “but it’s essentially eroding in society,” she said. Family time is more scheduled and more stressful than in the past, with more distractions caused by technology. Play time is also hard to come by during the school day.

“There’s less focus on play because the education arena is saying, we need to be more focused on academics,” Wilsea said.

Kristen Berner, a licensed mental health provider who specializes in play therapy, is one of the Cape Cod Toy Library’s board members. The need for interactive play time is obvious, she said.

“I see it in the classrooms, in terms of social skills and abilities,” Berner said. And as a mother who reluctantly weathered February school vacation week, she sees the toy library as a great resource for local families. “Most of the normal programming is shut down,” she added.

Teacher and volunteer Beverly Johnson said she was touched to hear the toy library story.

“It breaks my heart to go into classrooms” and see kindergarteners focused on reading skills rather than creative play, she said. “That’s why this excites me.”

The toy library will focus specifically on children up to age eight or nine, but older children, up to about 12 years will also find it a fun place to visit. The fact is, even high school or college-age kids benefit from play.

“We need this as adults,” Wilsea said. Given today’s fast-paced, activity-packed family schedules, many grown-ups have forgotten how to play with their kids, “because today’s society is isolating us from each other,” she said. In the past, kids hung out with one another in neighborhood groups of mixed ages, and that happens less frequently today, she said.

The organization’s total financial goal is $2.5 million, which covers the cost of starting up the group, purchasing the property, meeting capital needs and funding initial operations. The first phase, which aims to allow the toy library to open up in limited fashion this summer, will require around $1.7 million, Wilsea said. When it comes to renovating and furnishing the space, the group plans to seek volunteer labor and in-kind donations of building supplies, furnishings, equipment, materials, toys, books and other needs. Though the library will eventually have professional staff, volunteers will be donating their time during the first year to keep administrative costs down, she said.

To learn more or to make a tax-deductible contribution, visit www.CapeCodToyLibrary.org.

Once the library is up and running, seven-year-old Ben De La Vega said he knows what he’ll be looking for.

“I like Legos,” he said. Friend Lucy Fratantonio, also seven, said she loves the idea of a toy library.

“It’s a place to learn and play,” she said.