Dominoes with a Twist, literally

bendomino.jpgOne of my favorite games to play with my grandma as a kid was dominoes. They came in a really neat leather blue case with a real buckle closure. Being old enough to open the case made me feel very grown up (at 5). it was our game–and unlike my other grandma, she would let me win. Probably why I loved playing dominoes. Being the youngest of three kids, I also liked playing dominoes because my brothers were not interested–so it became what we did, sans older, more competitive siblings. When our family home was hit by lightning (and destroyed)– one of the brighter moments was finding that blue case (untouched by the fire/water damage).

This is a long intro about why I really love the new Bendomino set from Blue Orange Games. How could you improve on a classic like dominoes? These dominoes are “bent” in the middle — making the game just a bit more challenging, but not so far off from the original to be disconcerting. When we played this game at a game testing day we discovered that perhaps my grandmother also made playing the game a bit easier by allowing the “blank” space to be a wild card. Other adults we played with disagreed. I haven’t found an answer to this “wild” domino question.

Bendominos comes in a sturdy red tin and for $15.95 this is nice toy that will be enjoyed for a long time. For other great games to share, visit our website.

Beatles Music in the Nursery

One of the late arrivals to our office this year turned out to be one of our favorites! Rich Frog has a new collection of musical toys called Mommy & Me ($18.95). Each animal pair plays a different Beatles tune (Yellow Submarine, Imagine (ok, so not technically a Beatles tune but you get the idea), And I Love Her and Here Comes the Sun). After spending weeks listening (and rejecting) the electronic noise that has become “baby music” on most mobiles and musical toys–these were such a treat. The music sounds like an old fashion music box. Very old fashion and well designed. For other top-rated infant toys visit our Platinum List.

More News On Lead and Toy Safety

A new list was posted this week at of toys that have been tested for lead. The group also looked at levels of other substances of concern: cadmium, arsenic, mercury and pvc (polyvinyl chloride). The group tested over 1200 toys and found lead in 35% of them. The website has a lot of information on it that you may find interesting – not clear why they require viewers to register to view the lists. While we are not personally in contact with this group that has brought together a coalition of national/regional environmental health organizations, from our point of view, the more information out there the better. For our list of toys that tested lead-free*, visit our website

Thanks for the calls/ No new Oppenheim Toy Portfolio for this year

We are getting lots of calls and emails from folks looking for our 2008 book. As we let people know on our website a few weeks ago, we have decided not to publish our book this year because of the lead safety issues. I have a feeling that a lot of the people calling in may not visit the website–so this may not be the best way to get the word out either. We’re hoping that the list on the website of Lead-Free* Platinum Award winning toys will be helpful this holiday season. In the meantime, please check out our Read It! Play It! series that focuses on fostering a love a reading with a great reading list for each age group and related (fun) activities that extend the book experience. The Read It! Play It! with Babies and Toddlers is now available in Spanish.

Are you listening? / Diggity Dog

diggity.jpgOne of our favorite games this year has to do with listening. Diggity Dog (International Playthings $19.99) asks players to listen to the number of times the big electronic dog barks – and then the player must move his game piece that many times. When you land on the space, your magnetized dog picks up a bone. If the color on the bone matches your dog, you keep the bone in your dog house. One of our parent testers loved that kids really had to concentrate and listen. The games involves simple counting and color concepts. The kids loved the sound effects! A good choice for kids 3 & up. For other award winning games visit

Gender Free Toys: Do they exist?

Sometimes it feels that for some reason, some group of toy makers, somewhere have determined that girls can only play with pink toys. A new innovative toy is introduced and within one season, there’s always a new “pink” version. Even great classic toys like Monopoly and Twister are now pink-a-fied. Perhaps it’s my formative years in the 70s women’s movement, but why must it be pink? Several years ago when scientific studies indicated that playing with building blocks developed important visual perception skills that helped kids achieve higher math scores — toy makers responded with building kits for girls (a good thing)–pink and lavender (unfortunately), and the themes: build a mall, a stable or a cottage (even more upsetting).

I have nothing against pink. Ok, as a kid I did. Much to the dismay of my mother, I really preferred the Hot Wheels tracks that my brothers played with to the dream dollhouse she bought me (that stood without a homemaker for most of my childhood). I have since apologized for not really getting into the whole “doll” thing either. My worst playdate — being sent to a house where the effusively pink bedroom was chockful of huggables and dolls — both sisters were very excited to play dolls. I never went back. They were well meaning, but it just wasn’t my thing.

As a professional toy reviewer (and mother of two boys), I quickly saw that there was also a problem on the other side of the equation. Boys tend to get two types of presents: things that move and things to build- that’s pretty much it. When we first started, a mother was surprised that I suggested a toy kitchen for her son. “Do you want him to grow up and feel comfortable in a kitchen?” I asked. This is where it starts. When my younger son and his friend took their dolls (yes, both my sons loved huggables and dolls) in their strollers to the park, an adult commented loud enough for everyone to hear “only in Greenwich Village”. He then asked the boys (almost three years old) what they were doing. “We’re playing daddys” they both chimed. It was one of my proudest parenting moments. They parked their “babies” and ran off to play on the climbing equipment.

Throughout the years we have kept track of what we call the GenderAgenda in Toyland. Our annual book has a gender-free list of toys and products that bend the gender agenda. We applaud toy kitchen makers like Step 2, Little Tikes and Small World Toys–that have broken away from the stereotypical pink kitchen.

So what can you do?

Buy building sets for your daughter – the more open-ended the better!

Buy a gender free ride-on (they also have the added advantage of being enjoyed by younger siblings no matter what their gender).

Buy your son some dishes and a toy kitchen. Your future daughter-in-law will love you for it.

Buy board games for both – playing games enforces not only reading, math and language skills- it’s an important way of introducing negotiating skills – something we all need!


Since we didn’t publish our book this year, I thought I’d share our GenderAgenda list with the caveat that with the exception of the Cat In The Hat Game and the Kidizoom Camera, we did not test any of these toys for lead.

ActiviTot Developmental Mat (Tiny Love)
Amazing Baby Sound Balls (Kids Preferred)
Cosmic Catch (Hasbro)
Go Baby Go Stride to Ride Lion (Fisher-Price)
Hyper Dash (Wild Planet)
Cat in the Hat! I Can Do That! (I Can Do That!)
Kidizoom Camera (VTech)
Kitchen Appliances (various makers)
Retro Rocket (Radio Flyer)
Trikke 5 (Trikke Tech)
Word Whammer Fridge Phonics (LeapFrog)
Ultimate Lego Duplo Set (Lego Systems)

Eye Clops: So gross and so cool

eyeclops1.jpgWhen we received Eye Clops (Jakks Pacific $49.99) during the summer, it was at the end of a very long day of toy testing. I know that sounds like fun, but after several hours of screening games with poor directions–it can get a little tired.
Anyway we plugged the Eye Clops into the tv and followed the suggestion to put the device (that magnifies up to 200X) up to fabric we had in the room–the sofa, a sweater, etc. — the fibers looked like something out of “Honey I Shrunk the Kids”…but the coolest and grossest thing we did was to try it out on our skin. The smoothest skin to the naked eye became a sea of scales–with some odd variations in coloring. Let’s just say I called the dermatologist the next day!

While kids are having such a great time finding new things to use the Eye Clops on–they are having a hands on science experience that’s fun and interactive! And because kids can see the results on a large tv, it really does allow younger kids to explore the concept of magnification that would usually happen much later in an intro lab situation.

Eye Clops received an Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Platinum Award. For more information visit

Hot Toys- not this year

Perhaps one of the upsides to our collective focus on toy safety this year–the absence of a hot toy. With the news cycles focusing on the latest recalls, there really hasn’t been room for soft and fuzzier stories about the hot toy. As much as Elmo tried, he couldn’t giggle his way to center stage this season.

While we often have some hot toys on our list, most know that featuring the heavily promoted toy of the season isn’t our function. The reality is that a hot toy is not necessarily a great toy and certainly not a toy for everyone. A few years ago when Furby took off (in large part to a pre-market article in Wired Magazine) we were struck by the number of people trying to hunt Furby down for their kids–even though Furby’s gremlin like character would be frightening to most younger kids. Even though no child had played with the Furby when the article put the creature on the map. Quickly we learned that “hot” often has more to do with adult collectors on Ebay than a truly kid-driven craze. It can happen (Beanie babies, Cabbage Patch, the original Tickle Me Elmo!)– but they are few and far between (as most toy makers will tell you).

Now we’re left to wonder as we look around our homes—not whether we have the hot toy–but whether we have safe toys.

Can you say Spartacus?

One of the most innovative pretend settings of the season is Playmobil’s Arena. Complete with lions, trap doors and the original “stadium seating” this is a large setting that also comes with a play mat to extend the area of play. As with most Playmobil sets, the Arena will require an adult involved in the building. There are lots of pieces and no one expects your five year old to be able to do the building independently. One parent we spoke with plans on having the whole thing built and under the tree ready to go for Christmas morning. That’s one approach (if you haven’t left everything else to be wrapped)…but I much prefer making the building project a parent/child event. Depending on the age of your child, you may be doing more of the building–but putting it together is part of the experience. It also reinforces that not everything is instantaneous…projects can take some time. Not a bad concept to share with your kids.

If a more modern pretend setting is more your thing, we also liked the new Playmobil Hospital (but it was not tested for lead content). This multi-level hospital has all of the wonderful attention to detail that Playmobil is well known for including wheelchairs, gurneys and a baby nursery.