'From Archway to Selfridges… The Toy Project'

The Toy Project

The Toy Project's The Play Room - Credit: Jane Garfield

"If you want toys for Freddie you have to visit the toy project on Junction road," was the recommendation of my actor friend Jennie. She was totally right. 

The display cabinets are enticing enough, before I had even stepped inside, with an array of Star Wars Lego, Playmobil and what looks like an identity parade of Harry Potter characters.

Inside the shop there are figures everywhere – Superheroes, Pokemon, Toy Story, Disney, Power Rangers and a huge collection of vintage toys.

This is a toy emporium unlike any other and I learnt more about the toy project when I chatted to the founder Jane Garfield during her weekly Lego workshops for the over 55s at its second residence, The Play Room, a few doors down Junction road, which opened its doors after the pandemic. 

Jane Garfield at The Toy Project

Jane Garfield at The Toy Project - Credit: Jane Garfield

Speaking to some of the participants of the adult Lego workshop, the group consensus was this activity was a reconnection to their past, and an important social event, made more pertinent post pandemic when many people are longing for human interaction.

One of the group members, Leah, told me that her mother didn’t allow her to play with Lego as a child, and this was her opportunity to engage with an activity that was seen as inappropriate for a young girl.

Phoebe, who always wanted to be an artist, received her art degree aged 60. She told me how difficult It was for her during lockdown when face to face meetings were restricted.

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Following Phoebe’s recent family bereavement, the sessions at The Play Room have provided an opportunity for her to reengage with others in a creative setting.

Lunch is provided by The Toy Project, which creates a homely and welcoming atmosphere for all the participants. It is the human interaction and the feeling of connection, perhaps nostalgia that we all feel with toys regardless of our age.

Aside from adult Lego workshops, the space offers free after school workshops for children five and over including animation, arts and crafts, chess club, Lego play therapy and even yoga.

Jane set up the organisation as a charity in 2013, with Angela Donovan, after many years working as a primary school teacher in Camden and Islington.

She saw that the more advantaged children would return to school after the Christmas holidays having received copious and generous gifts from Santa while others, less fortunate, would return having received very little or nothing at all.

“Children couldn’t understand why Santa had brought them so little and asked if it was because they were bad,” she said. "It wasn’t just Christmas, it was after birthdays, holidays and weekends too.”

This prompted Jane to start the charity and she did this by collecting unwanted toys and giving them to families in need. They now provide toys to schools, refugee centres, hospitals, homeless families and even to fathers in prison to provide for their children. With the primary goal of providing toys for children who desperately needed them. 

Word spread fast and hundreds of families and toy companies began to donate toys to Jane, which piled up in her living room before being sent on to these organisations. The toys amassed to such a degree that Islington council donated space to store them.

In 2016, The Toy Project Shop opened in Junction road in Archway with the proceeds funding activities through play for children and adults. It’s not just children and families who visit this mecca, it’s collectors looking for that special Pokemon card.

However, collectors hoping to get rich be wary, as they employ Playmobil, Lego and other specialists so that the goods are all priced accordingly and fairly.

This month sees The Toy Project heading to the West End as Selfridges department store opens its doors to The Toy Project’s pop up shop until December 23.

It is part of the store’s message of highlighting sustainable and reused items, and came about when The Toy Project met Selfridges at the London Toy Fair. Immediately engaged by Jane’s crusade the planning began and the partnership arrived on the fourth floor of the iconic institution.

Jason Donovan is the patron of The Toy Project and illustrates their annual charity Christmas cards. His smile beams from one of the photographs proudly adorning the wall of the Toy Project and I can understand why. The community spirit shines brightly in The Toy Projects domain.

Toys can be donated in store by appointment and financial donations to the charity can be made via the website www.thetoyproject.co.uk

Russell Bentley is a Belsize Park actor and writer.

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