PASADENA — Three-year-old Vincent Torres sat on the floor at the library, building a car out of a set of wooden blocks.
It was obvious that there would be a commotion if anyone tried to take the car away from him. So when he and his parents left, they stopped at the desk, checked out the blocks and took them home.
The Torres were taking advantage of a new program that began at the Pasadena Public Library last month under which parents of preschoolers can check out a variety of educational toys for periods of up to three weeks.
"Toys are simply another type of information, and libraries have to provide everything from stock market charts for the businessman to something for the kids," said Sharon Smith, acting head librarian at the Santa Catalina branch, one of two branches that now loan toys.
Vincent's father, Gerry Torres, said he frequently takes his son to the Santa Catalina branch.
"Before, when I brought him to the library, he'd get bored, but now he wants to stay."
The toys, which include mostly puzzles and building-block items, such as trains and toy telephones, are designed for children under 5 and can be checked out only before, during or after a special program at which preschool children are given basic instruction about how society functions by library personnel who tell the children stories and show films.
Pasadena's library system is believed to be the only one in the San Gabriel Valley that provides a structured program under which preschool children can borrow educational toys. Other libraries keep some toys on hand for children to play with, but do not loan them.
The Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services operates a program in which toys are loaned to children who visit centers in several cities throughout the county, including Montebello, Lawndale, La Puente and Norwalk.
But unlike the Pasadena program, which limits its program to educational toys for preschool children, the county toy-lending program is open to children of all ages and loans everything from jacks to bicycles.
Pamela Groves, coordinator of children's services for the Pasadena library system, said the toy loan program was started partly as an effort to increase participation in the preschool programs offered at the Santa Catalina and Hastings branches.
Not So Ominous
"If we can get children to feel comfortable in a library at an early age, when they're older, it's not going to be such an ominous place," Groves said.
The programs are held at the Santa Catalina branch from 3 to 4:30 p.m. on Thursdays and 2 to 3:30 p.m. on Saturdays, and at the Hastings branch from 10 a.m. to noon on Wednesdays and from 2:30 to 4 p.m. on Thursdays.
Groves also stressed that the toys are intended to "foster inquisitiveness and creativity in children at a young age . . . and to teach them spatial and coordinational skills that will prepare them for the time they begin reading."
Groves hopes that as the children grow, they will have a positive attitude toward the library.
"We want to get the children started early in their life so they can learn the value of a library," she said.
The library has emphasized preschool programs at the Hastings and Santa Catalina branches because studies have shown that those two branches serve neighborhoods where many preschool children live and because of the ethnic and economic diversity of people who use those libraries.
Groves said a community analysis conducted by the library in 1981 and informal surveys made yearly since then show that the Hastings branch is frequented by large numbers of Asians, Hispanics and Caucasians, and that the Santa Catalina branch serves large Hispanic, Armenian and black populations.
"The combination of the two branches represented about every group we have in Pasadena," Groves said.
The Pasadena system plans to begin toy loan programs at other libraries by July. The size of the toy collections "will vary according to the number of preschoolers in an area," Groves said. The two branches are still cataloguing their toy collections and librarians estimate that each has from 50 to 70 toys to loan. By the time cataloguing is completed, Groves said, each collection will have about 100 toys.
The Allendale, Linda Vista, San Rafael and Hill Avenue branches will have smaller collections because fewer preschool children live in those areas.
Smith said that since the program began in early February, the number of preschool children at the Santa Catalina branch has increased.
Geni Sowell, head librarian at the Hastings branch, said parents have responded enthusiastically to the program.
"As parents we're always buying dolls and stuffed animals and that's good, but these are things that will help children in the long run," said Arpi Haleblian, who watched as her 2-year-old daughter, Liana, put a number puzzle together at the Hastings branch.
"If you're on a limited budget, this is great," she said.