Optimal Building Conditions? The LEGO solution

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.

Three Biggest Toy Buying Mistakes

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.

toyportfolio.com Best Toys of 2012 on NBC’s TODAY Show

We had a fun segment on the Today Show talking about some of our Platinum Award winners. It’s always painful selecting the 10 toys to show (turns out we actually had 11!). As we pulled up to the show, Martin Freeman was already at the door – surrounded by photographers and people looking for autographs. I prayed that as my mother and I climbed out of the very high SUV we would not fall with all of those cameras so near by. We exited the car gracefully. You can watch the segment below.

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Before hand….

While I was getting hair and makeup done, I tweeted that there was a hobbit in the building. Just as I finished, Martin Freeman walked out of his dressing room behind me. I smiled. He returned my smile.  My grandmother always used to tell me “it doesn’t cost anything to smile” – he got the same lesson along the way. He was very friendly to everyone. Until I see The Hobbit next week, to me he is still Watson from the BBC Sherlock series. I’m a huge fan.

Martin Freeman visits the Today Show

We had lots of kids for this particular segment. They all were terrific while they waited for our time in the studio. In fact, we were brought upstairs and then the schedule got moved around a bit. They were amazingly well-behaved and calm as they waited even longer out in the hallway.  Here are some of their pics.  








This was the first time I was doing a segment with Willie Geist, the new host of the 9 o’clock hour. He’s great…and with two young kids, he’s in the toy zone.

Happily we got to talk about some of our favorite toys of the year from Fisher-Price, Wonderworld, Hasbro, North American Bear Co., LEGO, Playmobil, Marbles, The Brain Store, LeapFrog, Silverlit and Mattel. All of our Platinum Award winners are broken down by age with full reviews at www.toyportfolio.com.

After the segment, Willie took a picture with Joanne (who has been part of the WG fan club from his Morning Joe days).

It was a very good day…and I am forever grateful to my mother for taking a risk and starting the toyportfolio with me. She is the most generous mentor and business partner. Our adventure through toyland together is one of the great gifts of my life.

Willie Geist and Joanne Oppenheim at the TODAY Show


Where do you hide your toys?

According to Walmart’s new survey of parents and kids:

Parents are in the dark when it comes to knowing whether or not their kids find their gifts ahead of Christmas. Nearly twice as many kids as their parents say they found their gifts before the big morning (23 percent vs. 14 percent). The top hiding place? The closet.”

I remember as a kid that I was crushed when I discovered all of our holiday presents in a shower (that no one used). Pretty much game over on the whole fantasy aspect of the season.  On the other hand, our Easter candy was always in the trunk of the car. I used to think it was odd that the Easter bunny had a key to our car, but as my brothers will attest, I believed almost anything.  Later I thought the location of the candy had something to do with the fact that we were Jewish. But in the end my mother told me, it kept her from eating the chocolate ahead of time!

The same survey reported that nagging your parents does work. That kind of makes me sad.






Can the toy industry stay relevant?

We have been testing toys for this holiday season since last February when the new toys were “launched” at Toy Fair. Everywhere we went, the marketing spin was the same. This toy has an APP, this APP sensation now has a real world toy to go with it, the APP is free with the purchase of the toy, the APP makes the toy appealing to a new generation of kids, your child’s smartphone fits in the belly of this toy, you can steer your car with this app….you get the idea.

If you have kids, you know why the toy industry is nervous. Go out to the playground, stand on-line at the grocery store, or look around the restaurant — you’ll see that everyone is plugged into their smartphones or tablets.  Everyone. You’ll see a toddler hand off a sippy cup for a chance to hold a smartphone.

In a year with no run away “hot” toy, the digital takeover of toyland feels even closer. So what’s a toy maker to do? Should parents spend more of their child’s play dollars downloading APPS?

Our suggestion- use the technology in ways that are age appropriate and enhance the play experience. For example, SilverLit’s latest RC Carrera is fun to operate with your smartphone via an APP you download. It’s not only sexy, but it works.  The same could be said of Ravensburger’s Augmented Reality Puzzles where after you’ve put together the 1,000 piece puzzle (a great parent/child project), the APP allows you to bring to life different aspects of the puzzle.  My favorite is the Safari version – the animals on the puzzle start to run on your device.  Our testers also loved the Barbie Fashionista Ultimate Closet– which is really the 21st century version of paper dolls.

Several APP toys go the other way. For example, you can now buy a boardgame version of Words with Friends. You may of heard of this game before, it’s called Scrabble.  And while many Scrabble fans may find this all very silly, it’s likely that the Words with Friends  boardgame will become the new Scrabble and your grandchildren will say, Scrabble? what’s that?  It happens. Hasbro is smartly hedging its bets by offering both. There are also Fruit Ninjas and Angry Bird “action figures”  (from Mattel) that interact with the APP.  The marketing spin on these toys: they enhance the digital experience. Our testers take — “like a happy meal toy” one parent noted- a nice add on, but not essential.

Ultimately we also did not find the APP enhanced version of Monopoly appealing once we got over the “look at that” moment. First, it takes a game (that usually costs under $20) to a whole new level: it now requires an expensive smartphone or tablet at the center of the quintessential American board game. This new dimension, while “very current” also felt very 1%-ish to us.  Equally important, the banker is no longer your child. The banking now takes place on the device. For us, that takes away one of the best aspects of the game. We also questioned the specially designed (no scratch bottoms) Hot Wheels cars for the new Hot Wheels APP from Mattel . When I asked what would happen when your 3 year old uses one of their regular (very scratchy) Hot Wheels on the tablet, the answer that there would be a learning curve and parent supervision is important seemed less than satisfying.

There were lots of point and shoot games and APP related monsters battling each other out. The game play and/or the graphics weren’t our thing before and adding an APP did not change our view.

APPs and very young children.  Handing off a smartphone or tablet to a young child is usually pretty amazing. They generally stop fussing as they swish their fingers to make things happen. All pretty magical…but not the most important type of play for young children.

This is where our message tends to get unpopular. Screen time is screen time. Whether it’s TV or dvds – it’s not the way very young children learn best. The fact that kids often quiet down doesn’t mean that it’s beneficial to their development. We took the same position against videos for children under two and it wasn’t until very recently that the “educational” value of such viewing has been universally debunked.  We’re not suggesting that your toddler never be allowed to have screen time– just know that the time should be limited and it happens at the expense of more valuable play experiences.  And just like it’s hard to break away from your own electronic favorite games, this type of play is addictive for kids.

The biggest problem we see is that when babies and toddlers  are “plugged in”, no one is talking. Research has shown that very young children learn best from real life experiences. While there hasn’t been enough time to produce research on the APP revolution in the nursery, we are confident that while the technology may have advanced, that the needs of  children remain the same. Talking, singing, laughing, exchanging ideas – in the real world is how babies develop language best.  And while all those DVDs promised to teach your child five languages -  not one multilingual  child was ever produced as evidence of such a claim.

APPS and Older Children. APPS can be used with children in ways that are fun, engaging and educational. Richard Davies of ABC Radio pointed out that kids can play games on-line with grandparents in different cities and that some of the art programs employ amazing graphics. Both are true. A well-selected group of APPs whether they’re games, books or art programs are fun for parents to explore with their kids.  LeapPad2 Explorer was a hit with both our kid and parent testers. The parents liked the  library of games that could be selected to  fit their child’s developmental level.

So to answer my question. The toy industry can and must stay relevant. Kids need a rich variety of playthings that engage them and their imaginations. It’s not old fashion to buy puppets, dolls, blocks, art supplies…it’s key to raising the next generation of thinkers, writers, inventors and yes, even some future APP developers.

For a complete list of this year’s outstanding toys, please visit our website at www.toyportfolio.com






Today Show: Behind the Scenes

This morning we kicked off our 2012 toyportfolio.com Award List on the Today Show.  To read about the products featured today, visit toyportfolio.com. Because the segment was geared to older kids, the green room (recently spiffed up) was quieter than our usual segment with babies and toddlers. Above Gabriella uses some of the eeBoo art supplies featured in the segment.

Three school friends also hanging out in the green room.

Sophie, Dehlina and Kena – can you say “girl power”!!










Before our segment, the girls went to the studio. They got to see all the people involved in making the show happen.  It really takes a village!

Quietly watching as Savannah, Natalie and Al talk before our segment.

Here’s a glimpse of what happens right before we go on.

All the kids are getting ready to play on air.

Talking with Al. Always fun!

After the segment with Al and the girls.

To watch the segment visit, Toys that Teach.

toyportfolio.com announces 2012 Best Toys on Today Show

I’ll be on the Today Show tomorrow morning, October 2nd, in the 9 o’clock hour to launch the toyportfolio.com’s 2012 list of best toys. Tomorrow’s focus will be on educational toys…but the entire list will appear on toyportfolio.com.

Always exciting to share another year’s results!   We will announce not only our Platinum Awards, but our Gold Seal, Blue Chip and SNAP (Special Needs Adaptable Product) Awards as well.

Surprises of the year:

1. Pink Bricks. We never thought we’d recommend anything as gender specific as pink bricks…but our testers made us really consider our position. If the only way to get certain girls to build is with pink bricks, then do it. The benefits of building (fine motor skills, spatial and visual skills, math skills, following directions)  outweigh any gender stereotypes.

2. Apps in toyland – Most apps toys did not capture the attention of our testers. With some notable exceptions, our testers really just like their apps. Our parent testers also did not see the need to bring an ipad into the realm of boardgames. We agree. This may change with time, but our families liked that board game time was separate and apart from screen time.

3. Pirates and Princesses. Two traditional themes for pretend play are in full force this holiday season.

4. Move Over Elmo.  Grover 2.0 is poised to take over as the novelty doll of the year. Furby, you remember him, is also lurking and looking for a come back.





Educational Toys: boring?

I’ll be on the Today Show  next Tuesday, October 2nd, to kick off the  toyportfolio.com Awards for 2012. We have a very full list this year with great choices for every age and every budget.

Our first focus of the season: Best Educational Toys.

The school year is in full swing and you may already be aware of where your kids are having trouble.

Our  mission:  Find games and toys that your children will enjoy…while at the same time reinforce skills they’ll need in school. If the product is boring, they do not make our list. After all, if a product is touted as being soooo good for you but no one wants to play it, what’s the point?

Tips to Keep in Mind:

Playful Math.  Playing with numbers goes a long way to making kids feel comfortable with math.  We found games that deliver big time without making anyone break out in a sweat.

I Can’t Do That! Learning how to work through frustration is also an important key of becoming a great student. When kids work on a construction set or craft kit with step-by-step instructions, it gives them a “fun” way to build on this all important skill. The trick is to find projects that are not too overwhelming.  Our advice: start small, build their sense of confidence. Bringing home the BIG kit may seem like you’re being the best parent, but it’s not necessarily the way to start.

Reading, Reading, Everywhere – We know that reading at the end of day with your kids is terrific, but don’t stop there. You can also “read” together when you play games or work on a kit together. Rather than speed through all the instructions, give your new reader the opportunity to read the next step. It may take some extra time, but it’s worth it.

Cooperation – Learning how to work in a group is also an important school skill (and life skill).  There are many new games on our list that promote cooperative play.  While we had some parents resist these games at first, their kids loved them!  (Maybe we should send some of these games to Congress.)

So tune in on Tuesday!

Loving the Carnival Glitter Glue!

eeBoo Carnival Glitter Glue

Next to glow-in-the-dark toys, glitter glue is on my personal top hit parade of great playthings. There’s just something so satisfying about glitter glue.  We just got in the new line of Carnival Glitter Glue from eeBoo.  Each of the 4 tubes look like peppermint sticks with two tones. At $5 a pop, this is a fun activity craft that won’t break the bank.

For reviews/ratings of Carnival Glitter Glue, visit us at www.toyportfolio.com

My glitter glue masterpiece.

Print Making– an introduction from Eye Can Art

We are fans of the Eye Can Art line. They are well-thought out and executed craft kits that introduce kids to different art experiences. The latest…Sketch Foam Art Print Kit provides a great way to experience print making.  For reviews of this and other award-winning craft kits, visit www.toyportfolio.com.  You can see our video on our youtube channel.

Sample of what you can create