LEGO joins companies complying with new safety requirements

images1.jpgWe’re delighted to announce that LEGO has sent in safety verification forms for the products that had been awarded Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Seal Awards for 2008. They include:

Hogwarts Castle, Ultimate Lego Duplo Building Set, A World of LEGO Mosaics, Monster Dino, Tiny Turbos, Tiger Shark Attack, Aquabase Invasion, King’s Castle Siege and Fire Station.

The form asks that companies verify that their products are lead free (surface coated and embedded) and phthalates free.

So far the companies complying with our new Safety Requirements are a very exclusive club of three:

Edushape, Publication International and Lego.

For more information about our new protocol please visit our website,

Edushape Verifies Lead Free Status

kiddyconnects.jpgI’m happy to report that we just received verification forms from Edushape certifying that their products are lead free. The products that were submitted have won awards from us in the past: Wood-Like Soft Blocks, Kiddy Connects (last year’s Platinum Award winner), Mini Edublocks, Rollipop Stacker, and Caterpillar Race Game. We’re delighted that Edushape has filled out all the forms–especially since these are many of our favorite products for toddlers and preschoolers. Bravo!

Number of Companies Complying with New Safety Requirements: 2 (Publication International and Edushape)

Our new safety protocol is on our website at

Hello Truckers/Best Books of the Year

Just did a radio interview on Sirius satellite’s show for truckers. A first! We discussed the Ten Myths in Toyland. I unfortunately didn’t get any calls from listeners. I feel better about that–do you really want someone driving an 18 wheeler on the phone? I was kind of surprised to have been booked on this show which I thought would be more sports, cars and other topics.

After much internal debate, we settled on our yearly Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Platinum Book Awards. Visit our website to see the complete list. In the shadow of all the lead stories, our beloved book list certainly got sort changed this year.

Webkinz: A real mistake in marketing

Last holiday season all of my tween testers kept asking for Webkinz. It was clearly the “hot” toy/play environment of the season. Even parents sent us emails saying that they too loved the site and used it as a way to play on-line with their kids. Webkinz brillantly blended all of the trends of the last decade: virtual pets meets Beanie Babies meets on-line shopping. What’s not to love?

Last week I was puzzled that the spin on the site was that it taught kids how to be “responsible” (the site was featured on iVillage In the Loop). True, you do have to feed your webkinz — I don’t believe it rises to the level of social responsibility. It’s a fun site, and as one of our kid testers explained “there’s always something new to buy!”

With the hottest children’s site on the web, it was predictable that the folks at Ganz would look for ways to build on their amazing success (especially when success in the toy industry is usually a fleeting phenomena). So the site, that had been ad-free, now posted ads and tie-ins to the Bee movie (where wasn’t the Bee movie tied in?)….Here’s where the company angered their base. Parents expected the site to be ad-free.

Of course these sites are really not ad-free. The sites are a perpetual ad for their own product but at least parents know what they have bought into. It’s another issue to have kids bombarded with ads for other products that parents may not even be aware of. When looking at these sites this summer, we were particularly taken aback by the Barbie site where kids can only access certain hair and nail designs by paying an additional fee.

Back in the 80s, my mother wrote a book called Buy Me! Buy Me!–which looked at the never ending buy ins of such hot properties of the time (can you say ninja turtle?)….Webkinz and it’s followers have just found a way to move the buy me, buy me possibilities into our family rooms–just an easy click of the mouse and you’re in.

Our advice remains the same– look at the sites with your kids from time to time. See what’s being posted. Webkinz promotes “academic questions” as a way to make more money on the site. Our testers tell us that they’ll do the questions sometimes, but they are really much more interested in the on-line shopping and the more arcade-like games offered on the site.

While I was Shopping for Socks

Not really about toys but on my mind today….I went to DSW to buy socks (with a $10 coupon, really neat)…I went to pay for the socks.  It was really earlier in the morning — so there was no one else on line.  The beginning of the day– there are three associates behind the counter.  I’m forced to ask “where should I check out?”  No one says anything–a woman steps over to a counter, and puts her hand out for my socks.  I  said good morning…no response.  Complimented her on her necklace to see if that got a response. Nothing.  The sales associate was talking to her colleagues–but would not even really look in  my direction, much less acknowledge my remark.  We finished the transaction and at this point I was really feeling up for a challenge.  I wished her a happy holiday season (in a very even tone, really)…and still nothing.  I know there are stores where employees are trained to greet people as they walk in, but have we really come down to a situation where basic courtesy is absent without an aggressive training seminar?  I probably should have left–but then I wouldn’t have gotten my three pairs of socks for $4.

Toys on a Budget/ Great toys under $10

Every year we try to stress that you don’t need to spend a fortune to bring home a great toy.  Here’s the list of best toys under $10 (note: with the exception of the rattles and the mini automoblox these products were not tested for lead by our organization):

Amazing Baby Teether Mirror Rattle (Kids Preferred)
Bendy Beeper Rattle (Sassy)
Crayola Color Wonder Paper & Markers (Crayola)
Gertie Balls (Small World Toys)
Hats Off! (Gamewright)
Highway Riggz Trucks (Little Tikes)
Imaginetics (International Playthings)
Mini Automoblox (Automoblox)
Pin the Fairy on the Flower Game (eeBoo)
Puzzles (Lauri/Ravensburger)
Sassy Baby’s French Horn (Sassy)
Scratch Magic Sets (Scratch Art)
Works of Ahhh Animals (Balitono)

Diary of a Toy Tester

Truth be told I really didn’t play with too many toys as a kid. I much preferred playing in the bottomless sandbox outside of our house. I was big on flooding — mud being one of my ultimate play mediums. My older brothers had also left years of treasures behind (mostly spoons) but sometimes there were Hot Wheels cars and plastic animals to unearth. I also spent a lot of time chasing frogs and salamanders…and bugs. (Probably why I’m always fascinated with the bug and butterfly kits that arrive every spring.)

So as an adult it wasn’t lost on me that my “job” was now to test toys. I’m always amazed by the number of toys that don’t do what they say they’re going to do. How could someone spend so much time making and marketing a product that doesn’t deliver?  So many of the products we see each year never get beyond this point.  We’re also big on directions. If the directions aren’t clear to us, how can anyone expect an 8 year old to follow along?

So when we started, I decided to take on a building set. Could I follow the directions for a Lego kit that had hundreds and hundreds of pieces? Well it took me until 1 o’clock in the morning the first time–but I did it! And I loved the experience. In fact I recommend trying a building set as an adult. It’s fun and very satisfying. I know lots of people feel that way about cooking something (I didn’t get that gene). I’ve always wanted to have a Lego building party for grown ups–and see what people would come up with. Kids have no problem getting started–they just build. I have a sense that a group of grownups would be more guarded if they were given no set plans to follow.  The sets we have on our Platinum List this year–really do require two sets of hands. Both Ferris Wheels from Lego and K’nex make great projects for two–but I’m suggesting a smaller set that you can do on your own. So next time you’re walking down that aisle, try a set.

Toy Sewing Machines vs. the Real Thing

One of our toy testers posed a great question to me this week that I thought I would share. She wants to buy a sewing machine for her kids and wondered whether there was a toy sewing machine that we would recommend. In interest of full disclosure I don’t sew and even though my husband’s business is Andover Fabrics (which specializes in fabric for quilting) I don’t know how to quilt either. During the past few years I’ve learned how to knit (I make a mean scarf) –quilting is also on my life list of things that I would love to explore. So for now, I admire all of the fabric designs and the amazing creativity out there in terms of quilting!

The good news is that I asked Gail Kessler (Fabric Designer and Marketing Director for Andover) what she would recommend. Here’s Gail’s answer…

“Toy” sewing machines do little to cultivate future sewers. Their poor quality almost always leads to frustration and sub-par results. I always recommend purchasing the best equipment that is affordable, and have these two recommendations:

Bernina “Bernette” series – the models range $199 – $399 or so.
Janome Gem – there are several different models in the $199- $399 price range.

These are entry level machines from two fine companies that back their products and provide good service to their customers. I have found over the years that machines sold in the “big box” stores are of the sew-and-throw variety, and would not recommend purchasing a machine from an establishment without on-site service or knowledgeable staff.

I suggest visiting your local sewing machine dealers and check their entry level models, and consider taking a look at gently used machines and floor models as well. At this time of year and through January, many experienced sewers “trade up” and there are bargains to be had for the savvy shopper.

Any sewing machine has movable parts including a sharp needle and a strong presser foot mechanism. I would recommend adult supervision and certainly sewing classes to ensure that the children learn how to sew safely and develop skills that will provide a satisfying creative outlet for a lifetime.

Thanks Gail!

Who knows maybe this will be the year I take the plunge!

So what are you buying?

Update: The number of companies that have submitted our safety form indicating that their product has zero lead: zero.

The big issue this holiday season for reporters (and retailers)…is whether the lead safety issue will affect our buying patterns. Soon the numbers will reveal themselves, but I think the question is wrong.

If everyone buys the same number of toys, does that mean it doesn’t matter whether we have toys with dangerous levels of lead? If consumers buy more made in the USA products, does that send a message to the majority of companies that manufacture overseas? Once the holidays are over, will the coverage end?