As any teacher can tell you, personal toys brought into the classroom by kids can be a real pain.
For one thing, if it's a particularly attractive toy, like something branded with the Disney princesses or almost any kind of toy vehicle, it becomes a sort of attractive nuisance whereby the toy owner gets into all kinds of conflicts with classmates over this toy that is "mine" in an environment designed to be full of things that are "ours."
But even worse for me is that these special toys invariably get lost in an inattentive moment leading to anxiety and tears that can only be soothed by finding the damn thing. I know I should be more sympathetic. After all, these special toys are sometimes important comfort items, but nothing sets off my "I'm wasting my life" self-talk like hunting for lost objects. (I've developed a fairly complex set of routines and rituals at home to make sure I never misplace things like keys, wallets, glasses, favorite coffee cup, etc. because it makes me so crazy to have to search for these things.)
Generally speaking, our policy is to not allow personal toys in class, but . . .
The difference between a policy and a rule, in my mind, is that I have permission to fudge a little on policies, and when a child is dealing with his separation anxiety, for instance, by taking comfort in a special item, the "no toys from home" policy is not a hill I'm willing to die on. Willie, for instance, took great comfort in gloves of any kind, arriving at school on most days with his pockets bulging with them. Sometimes he would wear the gloves on his hands, but more often than not, in stressful moments, he'd slip a hand into the pocket just to feel them. The ability to self-sooth is something many of us spend our entire lives working on, so I'm not about to let some policy get in the way of that.
On the other hand, as the kids get older, more often than not, the toy is coming into class because the child is super excited about it and wants to show it off. These are the toys that cause the headaches. These are the toys I'd like to ban, but at the same time I'm an advocate for letting children make their own informed decisions, and learn from the consequences.
By the time a child walks in with a toy, I know his parent has already tried to get him to leave it at home, then leave it in the car, then leave it in his cubby in the hallway. He's determined to at least show it to me so I take a moment to listen to what he has to say about it, then ask, "Have you brought this toy to share with everyone or are you going to leave it in your cubby?"
That sends most of them back out to their cubby, but a fair number want to try out the sharing option. To them I say something like, "Sharing means letting other people hold it and play with it." This reminder alone causes some to reconsider, but many still insist that they are willing to pay the price of sharing in order to keep this special toy at their side. This is when I start teaching.
"That means I get to hold it." They always hand it over. The moment they do, I start enthusing over it, calling out to other children to join me in checking it out. I keep an eye on the toy's "owner" for signs of second thoughts. Some are clearly overwhelmed by the stark reality of sharing, especially once I hand it over to another child. I'll ask, "Are you sure you still want to share with everyone? You can put it in your cubby."
Some, however, remain calm enough, but still bird-dog their special item, hovering at the elbow of whichever child is handling it, hands inches away, apparently fighting the urge to snatch it back, often giving instructions on how to properly play with it or asking for its return. When this happens I like to make sure that toy gets into the hands of the child I feel is least likely to give it up until he's good and ready and let things go from there. If there are a lot of children asking to play with the toy, I'll make a show of putting everyone's name on a list, with the "owner's" name appearing somewhere near the bottom. And I'll ask, "Are you sure you still want to share with everyone? You can put it in your cubby."
Typically, this is where it ends, but not always. There are some kids who are genuinely at peace with the idea of letting their friends have at their special toy. More often than not these are the older children, the ones who have gone through this whole routine before. They know what to expect when they bring their toy into class and have decided that the benefits outweigh the costs.
This handles the "conflict" aspect of having a special personal toy in the room, but there still remains the very high likelihood that I will be expected to waste part of my very short life hunting for it when it gets lost, especially if its something small, like jewelry or a Hot Wheel. I've tried just letting it get lost and having that stand as the natural consequence lesson, but what I've learned is that this really only delays the irritation of me having to help hunt for it. Inevitably, at the end of the day, the "owner's" parent will stick her head in the room and ask if I've seen said special object and could she just poke around to see if she can find it. Call me weak, but I can't let her hunt alone. Arg!
Instead of going through this nightmare, I prefer to just take charge of the timing and direction of the special object getting lost by waiting for a moment of inattention and simply hiding it. This way we get the "natural consequence" without my having to later join in an aggravating hunt. This technique has the added benefit of my knowing exactly where the toy is should the child experience overwhelming remorse at its loss. I can produce the lost object saying something like, "Here it is. You might want to put it in your cubby before it gets lost again."
In eight years, Charlotte is the only child who has overcome all of these hurdles without concluding that personal toys are best left at home.
When Charlotte was a 2-year-old, she came to school most days dressed as a cowgirl, but by the time she was 3, she had more or less set this aside in favor of bringing her favorite stuffed animals to class.
Oh, I worked her over about those stuffed animals, but she was always completely sanguine about her classmates playing with her toys. She would happily go about her business while the other children handled her stuffed animal, although the moment it was set aside, she would retrieve it, keeping it near her, but not necessarily in her hands, free for the taking.
I would sidle up to her and stealthily swipe her toy to hide somewhere in the classroom. When Charlotte realized it was missing she would give the room a superficial scan on her own, then calmly round up friends to help her in an all-hands-on-deck search for her missing stuffy. There were days when she would have half the class searching for her raccoon or unicorn. When they found it, they cheered, reuniting Charlotte with her toy. After the first time this happened, I asked, "Are you still sure you want to share it with everyone? You can put it in your cubby."
She answered, "No, I'll just keep it on this chair beside me." Then she got to work on her painting, apparently satisfied with the fate of her special, personal toy in this place where everything is "ours."
It would be a pity to have let some stupid policy to get in the way of that.