An interview with Jim Becker of Becker&Mayer! (SmartLab)

little-jim As you know the time frame for the new safety regulations under the CPSIA have been extended by a year. We asked Jim Becker, the co-partner of becker & mayer! some questions about the regs and the new direction of their science/activity kits under the SmartLab brand.

How has the last year of changing safety regulations affected your business?

Because we’ve been selling a lot of products to major retailers over the last few years, we’ve been in the thick of safety regulations for a while now. So we are ahead of the curve, so to speak. I would guess the effects on us are probably less than for other companies.

There are certain kits that we just won’t be able to sell anymore. For others, it’s an added extra expense. And for new products, we really have to design around the safety regulations.

Do you think the extra year before the enforcement of the new CPSIA was necessary?

Yes, because manufacturers need time to redesign their products to meet the regulations.

What was the goal of new redesign [rebrand] of your kits?
While we love the SmartLab dog, as do all of our loyal customers, we decided to rebrand in a way that showcases the components. Our goal was to retain the fun of the dog but focus on the excitement of the product.

What is your favorite kit in the new line?
You-Build-It RoboXplorer…We really created something entirely new that allows kids to build a robotic mechanism that is not only fun to play with, but also teaches kids the fundamentals of robotics. One of the greatest features is kids get to experiment and change things learning through trial and error—the best way to learn!

(SEO: we haven’t tested this one yet.)

What was your favorite toy as a kid?
Legos…I loved to endlessly build things. As a teenager, I graduated to building simple electronics, so my other favorite “toy” was a soldering iron. And, I still have it!

Pick of the Day: Ring-o Flamingo


Hooray! We have a new silly fun game to tell you about!  Ring-o Flamingo from Gamewright is really lots of fun to play.  The first thing that our testers loved was the game board.  You lock in the pink flamingoes and the two alligators into the board that fits into the box. The game play involves the concept that one of the flamingoes has gone overboard and you have to fling the flamingo a lifesaver as quickly as possible before the alligators get the flamingo!  Watch out, you don’t want to get a lifesaver around the neck of one of the alligators.  Now here’s the really fun part, each player has a life boat that is loaded with lifesavers–that you “fling” onto the game board. So it’s sort of like play ring toss…but you’re all playing at once.  The key is learning how to be far enough away from the board so that you hit the flamingoes repeatedly.  The more flamingoes you save the more points you get…and win.  Points are deducted if you save the alligators.  Fast paced and fun for all ages. We’re giving this one an Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Seal Award!

Pick of the Day: Kid Galaxy's Movin' Motors

51vnk4gtgll_sl500_aa280_ We loved the concept of these new vehicles from Kid Galaxy when we first saw them at Toy Fair.  Happily, they work really well.  The figure in the middle (left)  has a built-in motor.  Once you place it in the vehicle the truck will move forward and you can see the pistons moving–also cool.  It’s fun that the motor is also a character that can be used for spinning stories.  Our testers really liked the Dump Truck and the Pick’n’ Plow.  The mechanism on the Lift ‘n’ Load wasn’t as sturdy as the others.  These are interesting and engaging vehicles for preschoolers.  We’re giving Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Seal Awards to both the Dump and Pick ‘n’ Plow Truck.

Star Wars: Republic Attack Shuttle

We are now in full test mode here–and the number one request for boys in that 6-9 range are Star Wars sets.  So here’s some initial feedback. The large and showy LEGO Star Wars Republic Attack Shuttle with 636 pieces got mixed reviews.  One of our eight year old testers and his Dad had trouble with getting some pieces to connect. I loved that this tester could show me exactly which step (#25 on page 22 of the 1st model book) posed a problem.  We then had a teen builder take a look.  He did not have a problem but noted that this was a more advanced build.

Let us know if you’ve tried this one. It is a really neat build once you’re done! I would suggest that if you’re starting with LEGO (in any theme…start with the smaller sets and build up to the larger models).  There will be a lot less frustration in your house.

Almost 40 years since the first Lunar Landing…

Hard to believe, but July 20, 2009 will mark the 40th anniversary of the first Lunar Landing.  To celebrate that event, Stewart Ross has a new book,  MOON: Science, History, and Mystery (Scholastic). The book is handsomely designed with appealing photos and graphics that accompany Ross’ wide range of topics that include how the moon has touched our culture (i.e, moon music, the moon in movies, Moonlit love),  as well as specific information about the preparation of Apollo 11.  I’m always alittle surprised by how uninterested kids seem to be about the lunar landing…and how toy  makers always say that “space ship” toys appeal more to the dads than to their kids.  I guess it comes under the heading of generational experiences.

Great Tip for LEGO Builders

I’ve been testing LEGOs since we started reviewing toys.  And while I wasn’t big on too many toys as a kid, I did love my LEGOs.

One of our testers just told me that her son sorts out all the pieces by color first before he starts to build.  Maybe many of you already do this–but after decades of playing with LEGOs…it was a lightbulb moment for me.  So I thought I would pass it on.

It comes under the same heading of things you might not think of….I had a similar lightbulb moment when I realized that if you actually look at a ball when you’re trying to hit it, the chances of actually making contact rise dramatically.  Now if you’re a jock by nature, you are probably laughing…but for me this was HUGE.  I wish I had come to this realization when I was a kid.  So I mention it to all the coaches/gym teachers I come in contact with because I don’t think most people would even think it’s an option not to look.  Perhaps because I was always sure that I was going to get hit by the ball, I naturally closed my eyes…or later in life looked at my opponents while trying to hit the tennis ball.  So if this helps anyone…my good deed is done.

A sign of the times: less toot!

We just got the new Lamaze Play and Grow Elephantunes–similar to the original  Octotunes when you squeeze the “feet”–it produces a musical sound.   But now there are only four feet to toot.  Stay tuned. We’ll have to see what our testers think.  Both are cute–just less toot.


Yesterday I took a journey back with my parents–we did origami together. Or at least we tried…

Friends reconnecting with me over facebook–still talk about my 10th birthday party–my parents cleared the dining room and we had an Asian inspired party…with my Dad teaching a room full of kids how to do origami. It’s one of my favorite memories-so I decided we should do some origami again.

But since their house was destroyed in a fire, all of my dad’s trusty origami books were lost.  So we turned to the internet for instructions.  I have to say I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard.  We were doing pretty well until we would get to step 12…and then nothing.  My son Matthew ditched us after a few tries. My father, being the book lover he is, insisted that you really need a BOOK to learn anything.

He returned today with two books–which we will try this weekend.

More on Dora the Explorer….

doraexplorer_l The reveal of the new tween Dora the Explorer was going to be a pre-holiday event-much like the way the company rolls out Elmo every year.  Alas–the silhouette release in February caused alot of upset.  Parents were concerned that the beloved character was growing up too fast.   So what’s a company to do? Release the photo and assure parents that the Dora brand has not taken a terrible turn.  While the “great” reveal has been done prematurely, I’m sure the folks at Mattel are thrilled with the extensive coverage and general positive response to the new Dora. Taking a page from the American Girl (also owned by Mattel)- the new Dora celebrates being a girl. Her story line focuses on solving mysteries with her multi-ethnic group of girl friends.  While we haven’t seen the games yet–it seems they have steered clear of boys and shopping at the mall. Although there is a fashion component (even a ecologically aware tween needs to look cool). We look forward to seeing the on-line component to the new Dora. Stay tuned.