Colorful blocks and puzzles fill red canvas bags at the library, each serving a different purpose. The wooden puzzle imitates the sounds of ships and trains. The blocks are stacked into a tower with numbers on each one.
These are sensory toys, designed to help children on the autism spectrum and others.
The Alachua County Library District recently expanded its collection of such toys, making them available at all 12 of its branches.
“We’ve had this collection in place since 2017, and so what we have done is work to expand the reach of the collection and make it a little bit more accessible,” said Rachel Cook, the library’s public relations and marketing manager.
The collection now features 37 different toys, with more than one copy of each toy.
“Patrons can still go into our online catalog and select the toy that they want and have it delivered to the branch of their choice,” Cook said. “So if you live on Archer, you can find the toy and we can have it delivered there for you.”
Susan Wright, senior library manager in youth services, says she believes these toys can be innovative for children of all ages and needs.
“Any child can really benefit from them because they all need to learn colors, words, sounds and mobility,” Wright said. “Children on the autism spectrum still might get something out of it if they are older and in preschool.”
Amanda Morin, a writer specializing in child development, said all children can benefit from sensory play.
“There are certain groups of children, such as those who have autism or those who have sensory integration dysfunction disorder, who have specific difficulty making sense of and organizing all the stimuli that come at them via their senses,” Morin said.
Along with the sensory toy collection, the library district also hosts a program called “Sensory Storytime.”
It was developed with the University of Florida’s Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, and it’s intended for children with sensory integration difficulties, according to Cameron Burris, a librarian in youth services.
“It’s a structured story time where the children are aware of the activities that we’re going to do that day,” Burris said. “We try to minimize the distraction and we also provide tools for calming children and making them feel more comfortable such as fidgets and weighted plush toys.”
The Alachua County Library district received the Northeast Florida Library Information Network, or NEFLIN, Innovation Award for their Sensory Storytime program back in 2015.
The district plans to purchase more sensory toys this year.
“Libraries are about resources, so it’s not just books,” Wright said. “Toys are something that children can really learn from.”