The Toy Project founder Jane Garfield on the importance of play – and the many ways her charity provides it.
Jane, thanks for making time. You came to my attention when Playtime PR sponsored The Play Room at The Toy Project for a month. So let’s start with the easy one… What is The Toy Project?!
The Toy Project is a children’s charity. We collect unwanted toys – new and used – and give them to children who need them. We take referrals from teachers, doctors, social workers and community workers and provide toys all year round to children living in difficult situations.
Great! When you say difficult situations, though, what might that include?
It would include children living in hostels, children in hospital and those with life-limiting conditions. It includes children of a parent in prison, say, and survivors of trafficking and modern-day slavery; refugees, children living in poverty, and children fleeing domestic violence… We also provide toys to schools, nurseries, hospitals and community spaces.
That’s a very sobering list. And am I right I’m saying you’re also supported by a bricks-and-mortar shop?
You are, yes! We have a beautiful shop in Archway, North London. We encourage people to donate unwanted toys there, and buy used toys rather than new. We also invite school groups to learn about the importance of recycling and reusing toys, and donate them to prevent them ending up in landfill.
Brilliant. We’ll put a link in to the site at the end so people can find you. I know you also offer Play Room therapy sessions. Can you tell us about that?
The Play Room is a safe place for children to enjoy playing quietly and comfortably with like-minded children. We’ll be running a variety of sessions including LEGO play, Sylvanian Families house workshops, Imaginative play, art sessions, singing, storytelling and a book club. In addition to the open activities we’ll be running play-therapy sessions, LEGO-based therapy for example, for children with social-communication needs.
Tell me a little about that…
LEGO-based play therapy for children with social-communication needs allows three children to work closely together… One as the architect, one as the supplier and one as the builder. This encourages teamwork and relies on communication in order to complete the building task. It’s an amazing method, and it’s very rewarding see children who have difficulties working together sharing, collaborating and achieving.
So this is in a group? Or one on one with a facilitator?
There are very natural opportunities for developing social competence while playing with LEGO, and these are facilitated by an adult therapist. But you can use LEGO-based therapy individually or in groups. Entirely up to you! The key to this approach is how engaging and enjoyable it is for the participants! Building LEGO collaboratively is great fun, and people develop social skills while enjoying themselves.
You know, I think I’d quite enjoy that myself! How many LEGO-based therapists do you have?
We have six trained therapists. Four of them are also qualified teachers, and one is also the LEGO consultant for The TOY Project.
One of your biggest supporters, though, is Sylvanian Families. How did that come about?
We’ve been supported by Sylvanian Families for almost three years now. We made a connection at The London Toy Fair where we have a stand each year. We encourage large toy companies to donate unwanted stock to children in need.
When you say unwanted stock, what might that be?
That might be end-of-line toys, or stock with damaged boxes, or it could be returned items. Last Christmas Sylvanian Families gave us 25 pallets of toys for children in need. They’re amazing… And this year they’ve donated £4500 to sponsor The Play Room for three months.
That’s brilliant. Presumably, it would be great if other toy brands did the same… How can they support you?
We’re always welcoming new toy brands who’d like to partner with us in donating unwanted stock. Many large companies still burn their stock, or send it to landfill, and we’d like to offer their toys a new home with a child in need.
Oh, burning it is just nuts! I don’t think I asked earlier, Jane, but what’s your own background?
I’ve been a primary school teacher for 20 years. I developed The Toy Project as a result of working in classrooms where there were children who had everything and children who had nothing. I started collecting unwanted toys from children who had too many, and I provided children in need with books and toys to take home.
What was your favourite toy as a child?
As a child I loved soft toys animals. I had a cat from Hamley’s that was very important to me. He was called Moggy! I confided in him, took him everywhere I went and thought of him as a ‘friend’.
I was going to ask if you also had a favourite game… But I’m more concerned to know if you still have Moggy!
I do actually! He now lives in a wooden box frame on my wall at home. I wasn’t a big fan of board games, though, no. I preferred drawing and painting. I was also a very bad loser so board games were always off putting – just in case I turned!
Noted. It wasn’t Colonel Mustard in the kitchen with the lead pipe… It was Jane Garfield in the sitting room with the Cluedo board! Before we start wrapping this up, Jane, I’m curious: given the increase in business that many toy-and-game industry people saw during the recent lockdowns, it seems very apparent that play is recognisably important for children. Why is that, do you think?
Play is an essential part of a child’s development and it’s essential that ALL children are given a safe space to play, not only to have fun but to develop social, emotional, intellectual and physical skills. While lockdown was a luxury for many children, for others it was a never-ending nightmare of loneliness and neglect with absolutely nothing to do. SO many children excelled in so many ways – but we must think hard about the children who did not. Play can be a way to see them through very difficult situations.
Good answer, thank you. You make me wonder, then: what’s the one moment you think best sums up the value of your work?
We once did a donation to a little boy who lived in a flat. He had no furniture, no bed and no toys. When we gave him a rucksack of toys, he asked how long he could keep it and when we would take it back. When we told him they were his and he could keep them forever he just cried with joy. And so did we.
Okay. Oh, my. Okay. Let’s imagine people read that, they get it and they want to support you. Right now, what’s the one thing they can do to take a positive action?
Right now, people could visit our gofundme page to sponsor The Play Room. That lets us offer free activities to children who need play now more than ever.
A donation of £5 is welcome; every bit helps. Corporate sponsors might choose to fund a whole month.
And there are other ways? We can list them… We can also say, “To find out more about The Toy Project…” visit where?
Okay, thank you! So you can visit www.thetoyproject.co.uk or email firstname.lastname@example.org. And people can support us right now. I would say – in no particular order…
• Donate unwanted new toys
• Donate unwanted used toys
• Sponsor a month of The Play Room for £1,500
• Set up a direct debit to support running costs
• Sponsor a workshop
• Provide a workshop
• Run a workshop
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