Hard to believe that LEGO Mindstorms were first on our Platinum Award list in 2007. This year LEGO is rolling out a revamped version of the robotics kit for a new generation of kids. Knowing how essential smart phones have become, the new design enables them to operate their robots via their phones. The set comes with 17 suggested builds with three different levels of programming. Comes with a hefty price tag ($349.99) — but if you think of this as an after-school program in robotics, it seems more approachable. We look forward to testing this product.
I’m delighted to find that Hape has expanded the Quadrilla marble run line (a Platinum award winner from 2006). Here’s the new Xcellerator. These are pricey sets but the type of toy that will be handed down.
The design is so appealing. It looks like the track will provide for lots of speedy runs. We haven’t tested this particular set yet.
On the flip side of old-fashioned marble runs– take a look at Hexbugs Nano V2 from Innovation First. My mother thinks I’m obsessed with Hexbugs. I used to love capturing bugs as a kid–so that’s probably where the interest comes from. Now, instead of just having bugs on regular flat tracks, the new versions are designed so that they can move around tubed tracks that can be put in a vertical positions. How cool is that? Hope it works!! (As with most of my blog posting during Toy Fair, we are previewing the toys rather than reporting on toys we’ve tested yet.)
Anyone who has enjoyed playing with Hot Wheels will appreciate the promise of this new activity toy from Mattel. We look forward to testing the Hot Wheel Toy Maker that will comes with two molds, 10 wax sticks and graphics for customizing the cars. The company says the cars will work on most tracks– we’ll be sure to try it out.
Sometimes it feels like the toy industry has been overrun by less than highbrow ideas. For example, this year we received trash toys (where the play pattern is to collect simulated trash cans), fart producers (more on that later) and simulated animal dung. Which is why when I heard that a female Stanford engineering graduate started a toy company with the mission to encourage girls to consider engineering and other math related careers, I got very excited. Read my interview at toyportfolio.com with Debra Sterling of GoldieBlox.
Last year LEGO discovered an untapped market…building sets for girls. While there was a great deal of controversy over such a gender specific category, girls across the country (and our testers) gave the LEGO FRIENDS line a huge thumbs up. Girls that had not been enticed to try existing “boy” sets, were embracing these new sets and asking for more. The themes: stables, vet, cafe, a house and my favorite, the inventor’s workshop. Our preference for gender-free toys still remains, but the benefit of having girls build (even if it means with pink bricks) far outweighs these concerns since we know that construction sets help develop important skills (math, visual perception, spatial relations). We want to encourage girls to consider engineering and architecture – this is where it begins.
Building sets for girls means big business. Most telling are the NPD Group statistics that while the overall US toy market suffered an overall downward slide of .6%, the construction category was up 20%. Of course, success invites competition and 2013 is stacking up for a building war showdown.
Mattel has licensed the Barbie brand to Mega Bloks for her own line of Barbie related builds. Sets include more Barbiesque construction, e.g., a Fashion Boutique and a Mansion. Today Mattel announced that Barbie has put her mansion on the market for $25 million dollars. If they were really clever, they’d have girls compete to “design” the next new house. We haven’t tried these kits yet with our testers. The success of LEGO as a brand has always been in the instructions and building experience – something most companies don’t spend enough time developing.
Also a new contender in the market is Lite Brix from Cra-Z-Art. An interesting new line of construction sets (with both boy and girl themes) that have LED-powered bricks along with translucent bricks. To be honest, this is a childhood dream come true. I always wanted my LEGO sets to light up. We’ll be taking a careful look at these new kits as well.
In my ideal world, boys and girls would not have separate toy aisles but that’s a bigger issue.
There have been spy toys in the past, but this season’s batch will make you think that Q has quit his gig for MI5 and set up shop in toyland. With high-powered real audio and visual capturing capabilities, these “toys” pose real privacy issues. But just looking in terms of technology and design…they’re pretty amazing. (Of course, these are all prototypes and we have not tested any of them with kids yet.)
Spin Master has taken control of the Spy Gear line from Wild Planet and given it a real “spy like” make over. We were intrigued by the Laser Defense Network ($19.99). Here you set up the devices to create a red beam of light. If someone breaks the red line by passing through, an alarm will sound. Their Spike Mic Launcher includes an audio mic dart that you can shoot off onto a wall and grab 30 minutes of sound. (We don’t recommend projectile toys as a rule but we thought the design/function were worth a mention). The Panosphere 360 Spy Cam really got our attention.
The small probe like device (close to the size of a tennis ball) can be rolled into any room and then allows you to capture video (and sound) with a full panoramic 360 degree view. The software platform will enable users to access different perspectives each time they look at a video. Amazing if it works.
Now once you’ve captured your spy…you’ll want to test whether the information he’s giving you is reliable. To assist with your interrogation, you may want to consider Jakks Pacific’s new Spy Net Lie Detector. (At first I thought this was the name of the evil company in the Terminator movies–but that’s Sky Net). The three biometric sensors scan your body for temperature and brain activity – all meant to help determine the veracity of a statement. There is a free downloadable APP (of course there is) to help with the questions.
We will be testing these toys and posting our reviews to toyportfolio.com.
A guest posting by toyportfolio.com’s co-founder Joanne Oppenheim
At dinner in an upscale restaurant the other night, we were seated beside a family with two small boys. One, I guessed, was half past two and the other four at most. One sat with Mommy the other sat opposite with Dad. The two boys never looked up nor did the family talk about anything. Mom was eating dessert and dad was drinking his coffee. The boys were completely engrossed with their parents’ smart phones. The younger boy seemed to be doing nothing but moving his finger from right to left. After a time he lifted the phone to hand it to mom but she didn’t notice until the phone fell on the floor as both mother and child gasped. The child put his hands over his face in horror and when he was scolded looked totally mournful. He slowly formed the words, sorry mommy…and looked away.
Fortunately the screen did not crack. But I thought at that moment of a case we recently reviewed that is made to protect just such events, but would be far too babyish for this family. But I couldn’t help thinking how glad I am that I missed parenting in this brave new age. Now maybe the precocious child was playing with an app designed as so many are for toddlers. My guess is he was doing nothing more than making things happen by moving photos on the screen. Whatever he or his brother were doing, their interactions at the dinner table had nothing to do with each other until something went wrong.
Though I can no longer imagine a world without my own smart phone, computer and other devices, I have to admit I am glad they did not exist when I was raising my own children or eating out with grandchildren. When I think of that little family that barely talked to each other, I can imagine a time not far off when these same parents will be telling their kids to put their cells away and scolding them to “be present” during the limited time when the whole family is together.
Years ago it was mostly poor families that did not have a dinner hour when the family sat together and talked about the day. Often children from such homes came to their early school years with less language than those who came from homes where families shared more than food at the dinner hour and even read books aloud to children who could read.
Affluence has given us a new deprived class of kids. As always, the problem is not in the technology…but how we use it.
Let us know how you deal with technology in your family? Is there a “no phone” rule at your dinner table?
1. Scum Drum Garbage Game. The game play here is to collect all the garbage. We couldn’t make this up if we tried. Pieces promise to “tumble through the sewer pipe!”
2.Scatter Brainz – Sticky brain-like darts. The game play is to collect them all. Play pieces include: Coma Toes, Stinkin’ Rich, Darting Death, Nano-Neurotic. (Also good luck explaining neurotic to your 8 year old.)
4. Little Mommy Doll with simulated poop in the potty. Some things should be left to your child’s imagination.
For toys worth your child’s time, take a look at our list of 2012 Platinum, Gold, Blue Chip and SNAP (Special Needs Adaptable Product Awards) at www.toyportfolio.com.
The NYT’s article Has Lego Sold Out?seems to start from a hazy memory of the authors’ own Lego building experiences. Yes, there have and continue to be LEGO buckets for open-ended building, but the company’s mainstay for the last two decades has been themed, instruction-based sets. What has changed are the themes.
LEGO made a decision that their own castles and space sets were not enough to keep media-savvy children coming to the construction aisle. They took their engineering talents to the world of Harry Potter, Star Wars and most recently, The Lord of the Rings. As someone who has reviewed and covered Lego Systems since the early 90s, I remember feeling sad when the announcement was made that LEGO would enter the world of licensed properties. In the end, it was a move that probably saved the company from the fate of way too many toy companies — but it did not change the building experience. The key to a good licensed product, is to look beneath the license. Our testers continue to love building these sets and the instructions that come with each set are without equal in the industry.
While we also are avid proponents of open-ended play, we know that school-aged children learn a great deal from following step-by-step directions – not the least of which is the ability to stay with a task. In a culture where everything is instantaneous, this alone is worth the price of the toy. To discount this experience because of a license or a set of directions, ignores the significant benefit of engaging kids in fun activities that do not involve electronics. (Of our school-aged testers, LEGO sets remain the number one request by our families that review products for us.)
It’s also not true that building a model from instructions means the toy is void of imaginative play potential. Our LEGO testers not only use their models for pretend play (some even have epic battles between their Star Wars and LOTR characters) — but they use their LEGO pieces for builds of their own. LEGO’s own City and Creators lines are popular with our testers.
As most toy companies continue to scramble to find a way to remain relevant in the age of APPs – LEGO has uniquely found a way to retain their appeal to children. Have they sold out? If they did, it happened decades ago. But from our point of view, they have adapted to their audience without giving up their core building experience that is both fun and educational.
This holiday…try not to fall into these traps…
Big Box Theory – Big isn’t necessarily better. Especially with building sets, if you have a beginning builder – start small. The idea is for them to enjoy the project, not watch an adult do it.
I Remember When Gifts.Yes, I’m sure you loved play an epic game of Risk or Monopoly…but chances are you were more than five years old. The same is true of your beloved Chemistry Set. Toys should be age appropriate for right now not only for safety reasons, but because you want kids to build their sense of confidence through play. Toys that require your child to grow into them can lead to frustration.
Only Novelty. Buying only novelty toys or all of the same type of toy will likely result in an early chorus of “I’ve got nothing to play with!” Be sure to bring home a variety of playthings that will be enjoyed all year long. With 60% of toy dollars spent this time of year, it’s important to bring home toys that have staying power.
Visit our site at www.toyportfolio.com for reviews of this year’s Platinum and Gold Winners. We also review toys for kids with special needs. They receive our SNAP Award.