Salinas’ toy lending library.

The Play’s The Thing: Temp Toys: Children can borrow a wide variety of toys for a month at a time. Jane Morba

A tiny head full of raven-colored braids peeps out from behind a bright red curtain. “Watch, Mommy,” seven-year-old Akiye Lasu calls out to her mother from a pint-sized puppet theater. “Are you watching?” she asks. “I’m watching, I’m watching,” her mother Donna reassures.

Donna is the sole audience member. Then again, there’s only one chair. And it’s toddler-sized. But she’s sitting in it anyway, watching her daughter pull off a master production of her imagination. Maybe they’ll even take the puppet theater home. And the tot-sized chair, too. They can if they want to—well, if they can cram it in the backseat, they can. At the Toy Lending Library in Salinas, taking the toys home for a little while is the whole point.

It’s a novel idea, really, so rudimentary it’s mind-boggling. The Toy Lending Library has thousands of toys. For $30 a year, county residents can borrow toys and keep them for up to a month at a time. When the kiddies get bored, they just take the toys back to the library and get some more. That’s it. Same premise as a library.

“I used to have this one when I was a kid,” a 38-year-old named Doug was overheard saying as he examined the Playwright Airport. He withheld his last name when he realized he’d been cheerfully maneuvering a plane through the puffy blue plastic airport.

It’s hard not to, really, because the place is full of the old school basics, toys that have spanned generations: cars, trucks, board games, scooters, trikes, slides, puzzles. And baby dolls—the kind of babies that don’t take batteries. They don’t cry or wet or crawl or eat packaged baby food. They’re just baby dolls.

“Our philosophy is that play is educational, and passive toys lead to active children,” project specialist Gay Spitz says. And so the Library’s tricycles and scooters and ride-on cars aren’t motor-powered; they’re kid-powered.

That’s a philosophy that hasn’t changed since the first Toy Lending Libraries started more than 70 years ago. It was July of 1934, when the Heckscher Foundation first opened its doors to New York City kids. The program was for families in need, and its mission back then was “An educational toy for every child, every day.”

The number is a little bit different in Salinas. It’s seven toys at a time now. And it’s open to anyone. But the “educational toy” philosophy is still the same.

“We have a life-sized torso with removable organs,” Spitz says. “It’s an anatomical model, and the kids love to examine it and see how their bodies work. But it’s checked out right now. It always seems to be checked out.”

The same holds true for the bright orange-and-yellow Cozy Coupe Car. It’s a hot toddler toy. “We can’t seem to keep that one in, either,” Spitz says.

The New New Toy

While the toys are generally appropriate for kids from zero to about ten, a basketball hoop and a game of Perfection nabbed one twelve-year-old’s attention. “Oooh, this is tight,” he said breaking open the Perfection pieces. (“Tight” is apparently synonymous with “really cool” to a preteen nowadays.)

Borrowed toys aside, the Library also serves a slew of other creative purposes.

“A membership is a really great gift for a baby shower,” Donna Lasu says, “or Christmas gift.” She’s also used the Library to try out toys for her daughter.

“She wanted a play kitchen for a long time, so we came in and borrowed one to see if she’d really play with it. She loved it, so we bought one,” she says. Lasu also checks out the musical instruments for kid parties.

But it’s not all fun and games to Spitz, though the kids may not realize it.

“There’s a much bigger picture here,” she says. “The constant recycle of toys in a child’s environment keeps their brain cells firing. Some parents just bring their kids in to play for an hour, just for that kind of broad play experience.”

While the California Department of Education funds similar programs throughout the state, Salinas’ little-known Toy Lending Library began with a grant more than 20 years ago and is now funded through the Salinas Union High School District and local donations.

“We take toys, money, whatever,” Spitz says. If the toys aren’t appropriate for the library, they’re sold at a fund-raising yard sale. “The proceeds come right back to us. So anything someone gives ends up with us somehow,” she says.

One day last week, it was a wasps’ nest Spitz collected out of her own backyard. “See? This is how they live,” Spitz explained. Parents pointed and kids ooh’d and ahh’d. One scrunched up his face hard and backed away, over to a couple of deserted birds’ nests in glass cases. Maybe he’d take them home.

In 1934, the vision was: “The educational aspect is not so emphasized as to detract too much from the idea of play, which is justly uppermost in the plan…and it is hoped that the toy-lending library will become as universal as the playground in the very near future.”

More than half a century later, it’s not quite as ubiquitous as the playground. But the “uppermost in the plan” has stuck like glue, and kids seem to be getting out of it exactly what was intended. Akiye doesn’t know that just yet. She’s just there to play.

“I want them all!” she laughs. And she can have them. Seven at a time.

Monterey County’s Toy Lending Library is located at the Salinas Adult School, 20 Sherwood Place, Salinas. For hours and information, call 753-5611.

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