Wild Planet: Animal Scramble a favorite

Our toy testing family was a big fan of the original Hyper Dash from Wild Planet–so we thought this was the perfect family to try out the new version designed for preschoolers – Animal Scramble.  Instead of calling out numbers or colors, the game calls out clues (sounds) about the animals.  Players have to “tag” the smaller animals (monkey, parrot, elephant and tiger) with the larger giraffe.  Designed for one to six players, this is a friendly game that calls for listening. What we really like about the game and the original Hyper Dash is that it requires kids to be up on their feet–thinking and moving!  All good. For other great games visit our website.

Cranium Games: Say goodbye to so many

It was bound to happen. Hasbro acquired Cranium this year—and as with most acquisitions the remaining slate of products gets smaller and smaller. (Zooreka, Balloon Lagoon, Conga and Family Fun Game among the causalities.) Many of our favorite games for the past few years designed specifically for preschoolers and early school age kids came from Cranium. The games were graphically pleasing, the game play was fun and decidedly age appropriate. The overall feeling of the company was so positive it was hard not to “catch” their enthusiasm for board games. Our yearly meeting with one of the founders often felt like we were with the Willy Wonka of toys. We’ll miss that whole team and hope that Hasbro supports the remaining Cranium games. They were truly a bright spot in the toy industry.

On the bright side there are two new Cranium games that have been introduced this year, Cranium Duck Duck 123 and Polar Bear ABC — both games we liked very much.

New Puppet Theater from Step2

We’re big on puppet theaters as a great prop for your family’s own shows. The new Puppet Theater from Step 2 is small in scale– really on the mark for the 3-5 crowd. The small plastic theater comes with with two sides that fold out, a stage curtain and two hand puppets. There’s also a dry-erase board for posting the name and time of your show. Our only complaint is that the nifty light that you’re suppose to attach above the theater really requires a power drill since the holes for the screws are not pre-drilled. For many folks this won’t be an issue, but if you’re not great with power tools – it can be challenging. Our testing family came up with attaching the light with Velcro – a clever alternative. The light itself is a nice addition. You can pair this theater with some of the great puppets we have reviewed from Gund, Manhattan Toy and Folkmanis.

Teddy Bears – Still a good gift?

We’re asked this question every year — mostly by grandparents and aunt/uncles that want to do the right thing. A soft huggable bear that can say whatever your child wants it to say is a great gift! For kids under three you need to be sure that the bear in question is age graded for all ages. Eyes need to be anchored and ribbons need to be absolutely secure. Fuzzy bears are not great for kids that still mouth their toys – you don’t want your child to get a hairball of bear fuzz. We’re not big on “teaching bears” that are meant for practicing zipping, buttoning and tying –these skills are better learned with real clothes and shoes!

Each year we have a Bear of the Year…this year it is Mary Meyer’s Big Ben Bear. Last year’s over-sized Creamy Bear (also from Mary Meyer) is the first thing every child goes to and hugs when they visit our office!

At our house we are huge fans of Gund’s Blue Chip Snuffles (technically a polar bear). My older son received his first Snuffles on his first birthday–over the years we had an entire family of polar bears that had their own language and own tv show. The dramatic play of the polar bears became a nightly ritual for my boys.

Say Farewell to American Girl Samantha

When I told my 23 year old niece that American Girl was “retiring” Samantha (and her best friend Nellie)–she gasped. Before I started the Toy Portfolio with her grandmother, I remember the holiday season when she got her Samantha doll. It was a huge deal. My contribution was a matching nightgown for my niece (that cost more than most things I bought for myself!). I couldn’t believe the excitement that this doll and catalog generated with kids (and many of their mothers). I wasn’t much of a doll person myself so the whole experience was new to me. Of course after years now of reviewing the American Girl line I get the whole appeal. The attention to detail and the quality of both the dolls and the books were, and remain, unmatched in the industry.

I’ll miss Samantha…I wonder if she’ll be like the Disney DVD’s that come out of the vault from time to time?

Samantha now becomes an official generational marker–young women like my niece now share a part of Americana unique to their generation. American Girl is suggesting that girls (and women) can share their Samantha memories at americangirl.com/stories.

Great Toys for Encouraging Crawling

Now that babies are put in cribs on their backs (for safety reasons)…they aren’t crawling as early or in the same way (we get so many reports of that half scrunching across the floor). Because babies are not having a lot of tummy time–those muscles that are used for crawling are not being used as often.

Finding toys that will encourage that up and forward motion are even more important. We got several new rolling toys this season–our favorite is the new Lamaze Fun Mirror Crawl Toy from Learning Curve ($29).

Another fun choice is Follow Me Fred or Crawl Along Leo from Tiny Love. Both move slowly across the floor-encouraging babies to follow along.

Election Toys and Books

With so much interest in the elections this year, it’s a great opportunity to bring your kids into the process.

1. Read a book about one of the candidates. There are new picture books about Obama, McCain and Clinton. While we have seen books for adults about Governor Palin, the children’s book industry is not that speedy. For reviews visit www.toyportfolio.com.

2. Play a game. With all the discussion of blue and red states-here’s a perfect opportunity to work on those state skills. Some of our favorite games are on our website.

3.Put a map up – have your kids track the states. Where does Grandma live? Red? Blue? Battleground?

4. Volunteer–it’s not too late. Showing your kids that everyone can make a difference can begin with grassroots support activities.

5. Take them to vote. One of my favorite activities as kid was pulling the lever. Most voting districts will allow you to take your child into the voting booth. They also have sample paper ballots so that your child can also “vote”.

Dinosaurs Rule Toyland

Every year a new animal takes over the imagination of toy makers. This year dinosaurs will rule the day. We found dinosaurs for infants (puppets), construction toys, and very high tech dinosaurs.  I feel sorry in someways for the pricer dinos (Kota from Playskool, Spike from Fisher Price and DRex from Mattel). They are from a design standpoint really amazing, but with the economy as it is I can’t imagine toy makers will be selling too many $200-$300 toys this holiday season. For complete reviews, visit www.toyportfolio.com.