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Genius: Italy’s toy libraries

The author’s daughter, Celeste, at the ludoteca. (Vicky Hallett)

The other morning, my baby announced that she was awake by clapping her hands. As I picked her up out of her crib, I drowsily joined her in a round of applause. When I peeked out the window, I realized we indeed had an excellent reason to cheer. It was a gloomy scene, dominated by gray clouds and a constant drizzle. A quick check of my phone confirmed that yep, the rain would be sticking around all day long.

In other words, it was absolutely perfect weather for our scheduled playground play date.

That’s because here in Florence — like all over Italy — you’re never far from an indoor playground. The concept is called a “ludoteca,” which translates into English as “toy library.” Like outdoor playgrounds, the city operates these free for families. Florence has 10 scattered in various neighborhoods. Each one offers slightly different amenities and activities, but basically they’re places for kids under the age of 11 or so to scamper around.

Since my family moved here six months ago, I’ve stood in front of (and in awe of) Michelangelo’s David, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Brunelleschi’s famed dome. So it’s weird to admit that the sight that’s really left me speechless was my first look inside Gianburrasca, the ludoteca closest to where we’re living. It’s three rooms: One’s got books. One boasts a playhouse along with assorted goodies — blocks, fake produce, doll strollers, etc. Then there’s the no-shoes room packed with colorful mats and other squishy stuff.

I don’t know the name of the genius who deserves the credit for this masterpiece, but he or she should be celebrated in sculpture. Perhaps one made of Play-doh?

Soon after we arrived in Italy, I heard other moms speak of these “ludoteche” around town. I was skeptical. We’d spent quality time in several government buildings while acquiring all of our necessary legal documents, and they were some of my least favorite places on earth. Even the Italian consulate in Washington sticks visa seekers in a cheerless subterranean room without air conditioning.

Plus, toys require a fair amount upkeep. And Italians tend to be sweet and welcoming — and a tad too easygoing. Fact: If you are engrossed in admiring a fresco while strolling down the street, you will step in dog poop. During Carnevale season — which lasted well over a month —  kids tossed confetti and streamers everywhere. It made standing at the bus stop feel weirdly festive. But as the paper bits turned brown and muddy, I asked some other parents about who cleans all this up. They looked at me like I was crazy. (I guess that’s another reason to root for rain.)

So my expectations were not grandissimo when a friend and I decided to visit Gianburrasca. But we brought our pair of tykes inside, and were immediately greeted by a friendly woman who gave us the tour, registration paperwork and a set of printed guidelines. And because the kids were distracted by their discovery of a xylophone, we were actually able to read them.

Enrollment really is free. There’s no catch! Each child, however, must be accompanied by an adult. (Grownups can be responsible for up to four kids each.) To prevent the toys from resembling broken antiquities, folks are asked to treat items with care and put them back in their proper spots. If anything is damaged “intentionally” it’s up to the kid — and caregiver — to replace it.

And with that, we played. We donned firefighter and construction worker hats, answered a plastic telephone, and built a, um, something out of interlocking cubes. Another infant and his mom showed up, and they seamlessly joined in on our fun. That’s another benefit of a ludoteca: There’s something intimate about being indoors that I’ve never felt chit-chatting by the swing set.

After another hour of rolling on beanbags, flipping pages of books and staring at a group of older kids hiding out in a fort, we sat down at a squat table to pretend to drink a coffee. Did I mention this is Italy?

The fact that the ludoteca concept has taken hold here is maybe one of the most interesting things about it. It would make sense for indoor playgrounds to be a thing in Iceland, or Canada, or somewhere else where just reading the forecast makes me want to seek out a fireplace. But here, they think it’s cold. They think this even when it’s 60 degrees and sunny out. At my daughter’s international day care center, there’s constant tension between the foreign and Italian parents. The expats, particularly the Scandinavians, want their kids playing outside even when it’s slightly chilly. The locals pretty much consider that child abuse.

Over the past few months, I’ll admit, I’ve started to come around to the Italian point of view. How do you argue with the kid-raising know-how of country where virtually every restaurant serves pizza, pasta and ice cream?

There’s definitely nowhere I’d rather be living with my daughter — especially on rainy days.

Vicky Hallett is a freelance writer living in Florence, Italy. Follow her on Twitter @vickyhallett

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