Give it away: toy swaps teach Hong Kong kids valuable lessons
The problem is a familiar one in affluent consumer societies: winding up with too much stuff. With Irene Wong Wing-yee, it was a flat overflowing with her children's toys. For the past couple of years, it seemed as though there wasn't a single corner of their home where she wasn't tripping over their playthings.
"I seldom splurge on toys, but inevitably there are learning aids that we want to buy as the boys reach different stages of development," says Wong, a former teacher who writes a blog called My Delicious Wife.
"When they were babies, my boys loved musical toys, then walkers came in handy after they started learning to totter about, but they would become useless once they grow older."
Although her younger son, Damien, could take over some items that his older brother, three-year-old Boris, had outgrown, they had an ever-expanding toy collection as friends and family constantly showered them with gifts. What's more, they often wound up with duplications: the boys had building blocks of various designs and several xylophones.
So when Wong learned about an upcoming campaign to collect unwanted playthings for a community toy bank, she signed up immediately. How to dispose of the unwanted toys was becoming a headache.
The drive was being organised jointly by ohmykids, a family-oriented social enterprise, and storage service AirBox to benefit the YMCA's toy bank in Tung Chung.
Wong is glad the chore of transporting the surplus toys from her home (some of which were quite bulky) to the toy bank in Tung Chung is being undertaken by the storage service. More importantly, it helped her older son to learn to share.
"At the beginning, Boris was quite reluctant to give away any toys, even those that he hadn't touched for years," Wong says. "He insisted that he still loved them and was going to play with them. But after I reminded him of the plentiful collection he has and that his forgotten treasures were going to children who needed them more, he eventually let go. It's great to see that he has learned to appreciate the joy of sharing."
The one-month collection campaign has attracted the support of parents from across the city, who donated nearly 3,000 boxes of toys.
Its success is another win for ohmykids' effort to champion the idea of reallocating community resources.
Cheung Wing-yin got the idea for the site while she was pregnant with her first child. Together with two like-minded friends, former drama teacher Helen Lo Hoi-ling and psychologist Jess Tang, she created ohmykids as a platform to share experiences on how best to raise happy, healthy children.
"I was bombarded endlessly about various academic oriented topics to enrol my child in even before she was born, and it made me think about the kind of education and upbringing I want for my children," says Cheung. "What if my child is not the type that is good at studies? I started doing a lot of research and found there was not really a lot of choices - especially with non-academic activities. That's why we've decided to start our own experiment."
The trio started organising workshops to teach skills that children do not learn at school. For example, a workshop on party planning is designed to help youngsters develop their capacity for organisation and collaborating with others, while a photography trip to an old neighbourhood aimed to nurture their powers of observation and love for community.
"It is true that bringing up a child can be very expensive, but is it really necessary to spend so much to attend so many extracurricular classes? We believe that with a bit of wisdom and creativity, there are plenty of alternative ways to pass on the right knowledge and values to them."
That's why the ohmykids tagline is "It doesn't take HK$4 million to raise a child," Cheung says, referring to a bank advertisement which suggested that was the minimum amount a family would need.
Although the workshops didn't take off, the trio persevered in exploring options for more sustainable ways to raise children. That led to the current model for their platform, which reviews new playthings in the market and organises a twice yearly toy swap that also ranks the items.
The reviews help allow parents to make more informed decisions before buying, but the toy swap has become a better learning opportunity than the founders ever imagined.
While a store would have games and other attractions sealed in a box, children get to try out different playthings at the swap before deciding which they want to take home (items have to be cleaned before bringing them to the event).
Ohmykids encourages parents to stay at the sidelines and observe how their children respond to various toys as the results can be illuminating.
"As parents don't have to spend extra for what their children take from a toy swap, they are more relaxed and are often surprised by what their children may choose," Cheung says.
"Children are curious about all kinds of things that they haven't come across before, regardless of how new the item is. They fall in love with some unremarkable things. Parents may consider some things to be worthless, but youngsters find them the most interesting as they allow them to dream up many different ways to play."
Because toys at the swap are given scores based on their condition, children also learn to take better care of their playthings so that they exchanged for nicer ones at the next event.
Cheung cites a parent who reported that it has motivated her son to stop throwing his toys around the home.
"It is much more effective than having the parents yell at their children to be grateful and care for their toys," says Lo. "It just proves what we believe in is right: there is more than one way to teach your children, and learning should not be restricted to the classroom.
"We can all explore different ways of learning. Instead of talking and rote learning, interactive events and workshops like ours are both fun and educational."
Items that are left over from the ohmykids swap are donated to the YMCA toy bank. Started in 2009 to complement the new YMCA family service centre in Tung Chung, the toy bank benefits underprivileged children in the area.
At the same time, parents from low-income families are able to use the toy bank as an incentive for children to develop good habits or break bad ones.
When families come in, parents are asked to decide with their children what goals they need to work on in the coming month, Pao says. These can be something as simple as waking up in time for school or making their beds every day. This helps children understand that they have to work to get what they want.
"We learned that many middle-class families find there is a lack of channel for them to donate used toys," says Cynthia Pao Sau-yee, of YMCA's Tung Chung branch.
"With our toy bank, it's a win-win situation because useful material will not be sent to the landfill and less fortunate children can still enjoy some fun, even though their families cannot afford to buy playthings."
However, it may take a while for ohmykids' notion of sustainable living (and playing) to gain traction in the wider community.
"Some parents treat our [toy swaps] simply as an outlet for disposing of their used toys. Many find it a handy way to get rid of what they don't want any more - they feel less guilty than just throwing the toys out in the dumpster since we donate all leftovers to the toy bank," Cheung says.
"I've had families come in with several large red-white-blue carry bags filled with toys and leave without letting their children take part in the swap. They just want to clear some space in the home."
PLAY IT FORWARD: WHERE TO GET THEM
Rather than racking your brain for new novelties and constantly buying toys for the children while trying to find the room to store them all, why not rent or exchange some of the playthings that they have outgrown or simply lost interest in.
Ohmykids Toy Swap Day
Coronation Circle, 1 Yau Cheung Rd, Yau Ma Tei, May 1, 2pm-5pm, free shuttle to and from Elements and Olympian City. For more details, call 8103 3038
Hong Kong Toy Library
Set up by Kate Choyce of recruitment agency Choyce Group, this social enterprise recycles nearly new toys and equipment and rents them out at affordable rates. It also operates a mobile library, which visits low-income areas where children can rent a toy for free each month.
Hong Kong Public Libraries Toy Library
Located on the second floor of the Central Library in Causeway Bay, it is run by the not-for-profit Playright Children's Play Association, and is aimed at children aged eight or below and their parents.
Hong Kong Toy Club
This service rents out large and medium-sized toys such as ride-on cars and slides for play dates or parties as well as baby gear such as pushchairs.