Responding to the concerns of worried parents over the lurking dangers to kids on the internet, toy makers are trying to make computer experiences safer. Fisher-Price and Hasbro have created “gated environments” where parents pay for the platform or key to safe sites that also block your child from surfing the web. Taking it a step further, LeapFrog has created a platform that stimulates a computer experience on your television (not a bad idea if you’re worried about your child’s sippy cup near your expensive equipment!). Of course it should be noted that screen time is not as important for your preschooler as active physical play and creative activities that develop fine motor skills as well as imaginative play of their own making. Interacting with a screen is no substitute for interacting with real objects and real people.
For the time being–or until there’s another recall, I’m pretty talked out on the safety issue as the overriding trend in toyland. So I thought it would be a welcomed changed of pace to discuss the more light-hearted trends we had intended on publishing in our book before we were forced to cancel the publication. The first is WEBKINZ-Connection and Collecting.
If you know a school-aged child well, you’ve probably heard about this on-line gaming phenomenon that has the whole toy industry playing catch up. Webkinz live in both the real world (stuffed animals) and in cyberspace (the stuffed animal gives you a code enabling on-line player). Players take care of their Webkinz and play arcade games. From our testers’ point of view, there is always something new to buy on the site for their pet or their room. The experience is the high-tech blend of Beanie Babies, Tamagotchis, NeoPets, and on-line shopping. Everyone wants to be the next Webkinz; even Barbie now is focusing on her on-line persona. More sites will follow. And why not? For the toymakers this is a new way of generation sales. Like toy-driven cartoons on TV, these toy-driven internet sites play on connecting, collecting, and consuming. In truth, they are long-playing commercials. While some of the games are free without a buy in toy, players will often discover that in order to access certain rooms, or in the case of Barbie certain hair styles, you do need to pay.
One of the best steps you can take this holiday season is to sign up for recall email alerts which you can do at http://www.cpsc.gov/cpsclist.aspx. This is the fastest way to get the information you need to determine if you have a recalled product and how to return the product for a refund. Unfortunately the companies all seem to have different policies for getting your money back or obtaining a replacement product.
We’ve noticed that during the past two weeks there are a number of folks suggesting that all is fine in the toy industry. Some recommending that parents stick with big stores and well known manufacturers as a way to assure safety. Others recommending buying products that are Made in the USA or buying from small mom and pop stores since they know what’s best and what’s not.
All of this advice may be intended to make you feel better this holiday season, but it really doesn’t work. While we’ve answered many of the common myths on our website, www.toyportfolio.com, it does seem that most of this spin seems to ignore the facts of the toy industry.
Both big and small retailers and manufacturers have been involved in the recent recalls. There really isn’t one safe place or one safe company to buy from–that’s not comforting but until the government really steps up their regulations and enforcement of the industry there will continue to be recalls.
Made in the USA sounds great–but take note that they may be made with imported component parts. Plush toys also sound like a safe choice, but again there have been plush and fabric toys recalled because they had painted features that contained excessive levels of lead in the paint.
After talking to a reporter this morning about these issues, she kept asking the same question…so what are you recommending? Honestly, this is the question we’ve been working on for months. We’re happy to have a Lead-Free* Toy List that’s full of good choices (they’re on our website)–but as always I’m always stuck saying that we only tested one sample of these these toys and that we can’t guarantee that other samples or other production runs will have the same result. Not very satisifying the reporter pointed out. True….but then again that’s where we are for this holiday season.
I guess nothing should surprise us anymore after this season of “rolling recalls”…but how is it possible that any product sold to children could possibly include a hallucinogen? Aqua Dots sold in North America by SpinMaster (a Canadian company) is the same toy sold in Australia under the name Bindeez (sold by Moose Enterprise). The product was recalled in Australia after two children were hospitalized after suffering seizures.
Aqua Dots are a lot like Hama Beads that you may remember as a child. With Hama beads you make the design and then a parent would have to iron them to make them stick. The Aqua Dots take the ironing out the equation with a machine that seals the dots. So why didn’t they win an award from us? Our testers liked the gadget, but we thought the kit didn’t come with enough dots. Something about having a need to buy refills almost immediately upset us. Who would ever have guessed that less would be more in this case?
This is just another example of how self-regulation does not work.
Ok, so we released our top list of award winners on Monday (you can see them at www.toyportfolio.com). The list was screened for lead content and even though we have to repeat the caveat that only this particular batch of toys tested lead free– we felt pretty good about the list. Less than 24 hours later, we were greeted with the upsetting news that Fisher-Price is voluntarily recalling one of the toys on our list for small parts. The Laugh n Learn Learning Kitchen is a great activity center for older babies and toddlers but apparently if you pull hard on the faucet or the hands on the clock, pieces can become loose posing a small parts problem. For info on the recall visit www.service.mattel.com. We’re pretty upset that Mattel, knowing that they had won the award weeks ago, did not give us a heads up…but that’s the nature of the recall restrictions. The company told us yesterday that they will be shipping replacement parts in 3-5 weeks to consumers that call or write in, and that new production runs will be shipping very soon.
Last week I activated my new business credit card. Usually not something to write about but the customer service person had several questions for me when she heard the name of my business. Do I really need to take the recalled trains away from my son? He really loves them.
So does it really matter? The answer is a resounding yes. The health risk from lead poisoning is extreme- loss of IQ, learning delays, permanent brain damage, kidney failure and death. Seriously, this is real. The CPSC reports that a four year old died from lead poisoning after swallowing a charm that had embedded lead. Our biggest message this year is to be your child’s own consumer watchdog. Check your playroom and anywhere else your child plays for toys that have been recalled. The complete list is at cpsc.gov. We were surprised to learn that only 6% of toys that are recalled are returned (of course many would say that companies don’t always make it easy!). The key is to make sure the toys are taken away from your child. A reporter this summer asked me “but what happens if your child cries?” The question floored me and stuck with me. The message about the health risk clearly has not been made strongly enough.
The customer service person then asked the question I have really come to dread this season…so what should I buy? This year my answer is not as enthusiastic. It also comes with a huge asterisk.
The majority of our scheduled Platinum Award list tested negative for lead. While this is great news—it’s qualified. We tested one batch of toys. Those specific toys were fine and you’ll find them reviewed on our website but here’s our concern. The same products six months from now could have a problem if something changes in the chain of production. Until the government requires mandatory independent random batch testing, there is no guarantee about their lead free status going forward.
The good news – yes there is some. The lead issue is completely fixable. The State of Illinois wisely passed the Lead Poisoning Prevention Act, that among other things bans both surface painted and embedded lead in toys and children products in excess of 600 parts per million. While lead poisoning experts indicate that even minimal amounts of lead can pose a health risk, at least it’s a start. Presently the federal government does not even regulate embedded lead that is used commonly as an additive in plastic and vinyl.
We are calling on federal and state officials to take up this cause and act quickly so that we can all go back to sharing toys with kids without the fear that we are bring home something dangerous, not playful.