Toyportfolio.com: Top Ten Toys for Babies and Toddlers Under $20

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Sassy Crib & Floor Mirror

With budgets tight, it’s important to bring home things that really count – and there is no reason to break the bank!  Here are some of our top picks for 2009 — all under $20.  Read the full reviews on our site.

Sassy Crib & Floor Mirror (Sassy)

Infantino Wall Mounted  Mobile Mirror (Step 2)

Stack ‘n Surprise Blocks Blockity-Pop Caterpillar (Fisher-Price)

Baby Deglingos Dog, Rabbit, Hedgehog or Cow (All New Materials)

Satin Ears Bear Security Cozy (North American Bear Co.)

Infantino Spiral Spin Top (Step 2)

Kids Preferred Nutbrown Hare or Peter Rabbit Hand Puppet (Kids Preferred)

Bright Starts Bees & Blooms Balls (Kids II)

Earlyears Zippy Zoomer (International Playthings)

Leapfrog Counting Candles (Leapfrog)

Barbie Doll'd Up Nail Digital Nail Printer

Barbie Doll'd Up Nail Digital Nail Printer

Barbie Doll'd Up Nail Digital Nail Printer

I’m not sure why this product captured my interest so much, but as soon as I saw it at toy fair, I really wanted to try it.  While I was particularly tom-boyish during my middle school years, I did have one set of nail decals–they were of an apple that progressively gets closer to the core as you go from your thumb to your pinky. Very old school.  So maybe that’s where my interest comes from.  I’m also oddly fascinated by the elaborate nail designs that many women sport in new york–they really are like moving pieces of art.

Usually when we get a toy, we have lots of time to try it with various kids and families and we don’t have to return it.  For this machine, we agreed to try it quickly and return it since there are limited samples.  Sadly when the toy arrived, I discovered that the toy is only PC compatible.  I’m a MAC person living in a predominately MAC world — so I needed to enlist my son Matthew (and his PC) to help me install the software and test the nail design studio.  His friend Daniel–who usually builds all of the advanced LEGO and K’NEX sets for us–was also part of our team.   We also decided to tape our trial runs–with the agreement that none of us would be shown on the video tape…it seemed like a fair deal.  Who could blame two teenage boys for not wanting to be taped with a Barbie nail salon…and I wasn’t have a great hair day…so we were all happy.

I can’t tell you how much fun we had.  We had several failed attempts…you really do need to read the directions to make sure that you have all the steps in order.  There was so much laughing –  interrupting our video attempts several times.   Our failures really inspired them to help me get it right…and then we all got excited about the possibilities…there are over 1,000 plus possibilities with this machine.  Like Jorge Posada* of the New York Yankees, I kept adding more and more white nail polish so that we could try it again!

Ultimately-do I think anyone needs an expensive digital nail printer?  Not really.  But if you’re techy  and looking for something different and fun, this machine is fun and it does work.

If you’re planning on using this for a group, I suggest you really know how it works ahead of time so that you’re up and running and in the groove…it’s fun as long as it works!

Here’s how it works (or watch the video).  Follow the instructions for setting up the printer ( just like an ordinary printer, you must install the software on your computer, load the ink, etc.). You can either use your own nail polish as a base or use their white polish.  Let that dry and then add a layer of Pre-print polish–it’s clear.  You then put your finger in the machine and take a picture of your nail.  This is where the alignment issues arose.   (I was sticking my finger too far into the machine, so it was printing on my finger, not my nail.)   Once you get that step down, you remove your finger from the machine and then you can play around with the software to design your own nail design.  This part is lots of fun — there are seasonal designs, classic Barbie motifs, fruits, sweets, cupcakes and you can even import your own designs. You then re-insert your finger and then push print…the design is printed on your finger! They provide top coat to seal the design.

Adding the white coat that comes with the printer

Adding the white coat that comes with the printer

Given the current climate, it feels off suggesting that anyone spend this much on this type of product. In the past, this machine would have definitely made our Big Ticket Item List for those over-the-top kind of gifts.  The machine is marked 8 & up…and while most girls are aging out of Barbie earlier, I’m sure this will be a hit with tween, teens and their moms.  In fact, I suspect that many 20 somethings would LOVE being invited to try this machine out.

You'll need a PC computer to work with the printer

You'll need a PC computer to work with the printer

We went with the Classic Barbie Head

We went with the Classic Barbie Head

To see the finished product…one nail with Barbie’s Head, one with an “S” and one with a pineapple….

Watch Our Video

*Major league catchers often put white nail polish on so that their pitchers can see their signals better.

Oh by the way, the band-aid on my finger is not from this toy.  In fact one of the reasons I insisted on trying this myself is that you do have to stick your finger in a machine…so I wanted to do it before I suggested that any child do the same. It doesn’t hurt at all and, in fact it’s very cool.

Baby Einstein Videos: Not a Ticket to Harvard

We’ve taken a lot of heat for not embracing baby videos.  When the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with their recommendation against videos for kids under the age of 2– we were delighted (and quite frankly it made it possible for us to continue excluding these videos from our television segments despite a lot of pressure). But we still knew that these videos have become a staple in most households with very young children.

So I was really happy to read  The New York Times article “No Einstein In Your Crib? Get a Refund” by Tamar Lewis that discusses the announcement that Baby Einstein has agreed to offer parents a refund of $15.99 for up to 4 videos bought during the last five years.  The settlement came after a threatened class action lawsuit alleging that the company made false claims that these videos were educational.  Kudos to Susan Linn, Director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, for taking on Disney (it bought the Baby Einstein Company in 2001).

While we were taping a segment about the best toys for babies, one of our favorite producers from the local WNBC came to our offices with her baby and one of her friends brought her baby as well so that we could get their kids on tape.  Our producer’s baby was completely engaged– at 9 months he was completely taking in the world around him.  He delighted when his mom would play with him.  He was thriving.  In contrast her friend’s baby, also 9 months old–was very muted.  His mother, an investment banker, was insisting that the Baby Einstein videos were doing wonders for her son.  She was a walking billboard for the Baby Einstein marketing strategy.  And no matter what my mother and I said to her about how babies benefit more from  “real life” interactions with real people, she would not be moved from her belief that these videos were preparing her baby for preschool, doing well in elementary school and beyond.

When the videos first came out I was taking a graduate class  in neurological development in children at NYU.  I thought maybe my mother and I were missing something. It’s important not to be closed minded so I brought in one of the best selling Baby Einstein videos for a screening.   The class and my professor were stunned and then there was just a lot of laughing.  When I told them that this was a multi-million dollar business, they were shocked. There was no research supporting that  showing random images and exposing kids to the four different languages at the same time delivered any magic educational bullet.

What Baby Einstein and others in the market  accomplished was to scare parents–that if they didn’t buy these videos their kids would be left behind.  The success of these videos spawned a multi-million dollar industry and I can’t tell you how many video makers in this category would try to get us to change our mind.

That investor banker mom also argued that her child knew and wanted the videos.  So we put one on and watched both babies.  It was true that when the music came on,  both raised their arms in excitement and then they became glued.  “See they love it!”   She’s right they recognized the music and responded happily. Anyone who has watched young children (or let’s face it, adults) in front of the tv, know that it’s easy to become dazed- it certainly doesn’t mean something educational is happening.  (In fact, young children will often watch something very scary on the tv without emotion or moving away because they can’t make the leap between reality and fantasy, they literally can’t make that break.)

When we suggested that awake  play time would be better spent getting down on the floor and engaging her son, she just shook her head. The video had won.

Of course the whole “smarter baby” push is not limited to videos.  During the same period that Baby Einstein came on the scene, most toy companies got on the same bandwagon- pushing toys that were going to make your baby smarter, faster.  This meant that almost every baby toy was covered with the “ABCs”.  One of my “you have to be kidding” moments at toy fair was being shown a Baby Einstein toy (licensed to Playskool) that encouraged babies to find the rhyme!  Yes, babies that aren’t even talking yet were to find the word and image that rhymed with bat.  What was even more alarming were the number of young editors from parenting magazines taking it all in–”wow” “that’s great”….

The whole “hurry-up baby syndrome” unfortunately gave parents the wrong information about what they should expect from their babies – not to mention that kids were being given toys that were well beyond them–teaching them nothing but frustration.  While we wrote about this trend in children’s media across the board in our annual books, it was hard to convince new parents that the nursery doesn’t need to be filled with school based skills. Children don’t make the leap to abstract thinking much before the age of three.  So if your child can sing the ABC song at two, it’s usually very cute and will delight the grandparents, but if you ask a two year old what does LMNOP mean…you’ll see, it’s not really too meaningful.  What is important is that babies and toddlers are engaged–we know that young children that are read to on a regular basis, will enter school with at least 300 more words than kids who don’t have that exposure to language.

So I’m delighted with the news and the refunds–just sad that it took so long.  And for what it’s worth my older son probably learned more about his ABC’s  from  Wheel of Fortune.  “Give me an N!”

Pick of the Day: VTech's Kidizoom Digital Camera Plus

If you’re looking for a sturdy digital camera for your child (4 & up), our testers really gave high marks to VTech’s Kidizoom Digital Camera Plus. Read the review. Rec_kidizoomplus It won an Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Platinum Award for 2009.

Ecotronics Mr. Robot Head….fun in the dark

ecophotoI’m always looking for toys that work in the dark.  Maybe because when I was little we would go to FAO in NYC and then on the way home in the car, my brothers and I were always disappointed that we couldn’t enjoy our new toys in the backseat.

As a professional toy reviewer, I’m also amazed by the number of toys that say they’ll work in the dark, but don’t.

So that brings me to the wonderfully novel and silly Ecotronic Mr. Robot Head from International Playthings.  First, it’s red–an attribute that always does well here. We love red…so this deliciously red cube already had us smiling.  CRANK up the back (no batteries required–hence the name Ecotronics) and then touch the stylus to the top….

Crank Up the action on Mr. Robot Head

Crank Up the action on Mr. Robot Head

Watch our  video with the lights on.

Watch our video in the dark.

Read our full review at toyportfolio.com.  ecofront

Update on Doodle Track Cars

You know how much we love the Doodle Track Cars…the folks at Daydream Toy just let me know that the interactive site is now launched–so that you can customize your own tracks.  You go to www.doodletrackcar.com and click on Design and Print a Track. Next week they will have a Halloween theme posted.  Lots of kids will enjoy customizing their own track–but my favorite is a huge piece of white paper and making your own track.  Either way, this is an affordable must have for kids 4 & up that love all things cars! Watch the video.

While I was Whole Foods….

There was a little boy with his Mom. He wouldn’t stop pushing the cart–she was rightly concerned that he would hit someone.  She stopped, had a quiet talk with him…even suggested that if he couldn’t control himself, she would take him home and do the shopping another time. Really?  As I was picking lemons near by, I observed that he did stop  and she praised him when he was doing it right.  Bravo on all fronts!  So when we were both at the fish counter, I commented on what a big helper he was being.  He nodded.  His mom then leaned in and said ” he insisted that he dress just like his dad.”  How did I miss that this little person was wearing a sports jacket, a patterned shirt and an orange tie?  She seemed a bit embarrassed…but as the mother of two teenagers I just said…in about ten years  you’ll miss this day. Enjoy it!

Maria Shriver, Oprah, Chris Rock and Hair…oh my!

I admire Maria Shriver – let’s start there.  While I’m not sure why she had to stop doing broadcast media when she became the First Lady of California, I knew that she would make her own path in that capacity even though the title of First Lady rubbed my feminist sensibilities the wrong way.  She took all of that energy and star power and redirected it to help families in her state with a call to community service.  The Women’s Conference she leads gives women’s issue an important platform.  And this week she is a special correspondent to NBC about women called a Woman’s Nation.  I also have to say that when I sent her our Read It! Play It! book, I got a beautiful letter from her which meant a great deal to me.

images-2So this morning I was looking forward to watching Maria as she kicked off her week long series with an appearance on Meet the Press. And as hard I was trying to listen to her–I got completely transfixed by her hair.  Her hair is extremely long, has gotten lighter (seriously beautiful highlights) and just big loopy curls on a substantial mane that was positioned on both sides of her chest.  My husband, not big on such comments, said without prompt–”What’s with the hair?”

The big “fantasy” hair just doesn’t match with the serious message and discussion Maria is hoping we’ll have as a nation. Maria is not alone.  Her friend Oprah Winfrey is also wearing her hair very long with bouncy curls.  Oprah made the point of establishing that her long locks are her’s and not a weave or a wig.  She acknowledges that her hair is possible because of the staff of professionals that work on her hair for her show.  To her credit, she showed a picture of what her hair looks like beforehand. Oprah’s show on hair was inspired by Chris Rock’s documentary on Good  Hair.

When I turned 40 I cut my hair relatively short–thinking this is what older women do.  I didn’t want to look silly with long hair.  Of course almost as soon as I cut my hair, I realized that this was a carry over from another generation.  I was making myself look older than I needed to (or felt) and I started growing it out almost at once.  Although I haven’t gone blond yet, I do spend a ridiculous sum of money making sure it has all the color and luster that I remember it having when I was about 12.

If 50 is the new 30, I guess Maria and Oprah are just fine with their long locks. I just wonder if anyone else was distracted by them?