Does anyone still need a teddy bear or baby doll?

The short answer is: of course they do.

So yesterday before our Today Show segment I went to say hi to the 20 plus kids that agreed to be “elves” in our toy test on the plaza. They were all really well behaved…and many totally tuned into their phones and ipads. If you have kids you know the drill and

Wobbly Carmel by Bunnies by the Bay

Wobbly Carmel by Bunnies by the Bay

even if you don’t…if you go out to a restaurant and look around…you see kids engaged with their screens. Makes you wonder about more traditional types of play and the toys that will engage this digital generation. While everyone is totally abuzz about today’s kids monopolizing their parents’ smartphones and tablets, the last generation was equally sucked into their handheld players. The notable difference is that while most kids did not get their first Gameboy until they hit the early school years, infants are now part of the swipe-generation.

From a developmental point of view, the answer to my question is a resounding yes. Especially for younger children, we know that they learn best from real life interactions. Language development comes from talking (not just swiping or zapping a fruit ninja). When kids play with their stuffed animals, dolls, castles, dollhouses and other pretend settings – they are at

Calin Naima by Corolle

Calin Naima by Corolle

the center of their play experience. Things happen at their command and as a result of their own imagination not something created or dictated by a toy designer.  Elmo and his friends are fine for novelty appeal…but they do not offer the same open-ended type of pretend play.

Mon Premier Calin by Corolle

Here’s what else you should know about yesterday. The teddy bears and dolls that we brought to the show (but sadly ran out of time to talk about) were loved by the kids. We planned on talking about the wonderful collection of multicultural Calin baby dolls from Corolle (there is also a boy in the collection), the delicious Teddy Bear and Dog from Bunnies by the Bay and the always popular Calico Critters from International Playthings.

Calico Critters by International Playthings

Calico Critters by International Playthings

These toys may seem old-fashioned or boring compared to their high-tech counterparts, but to kids all of these toys are new and able props to their pretend world. And we certainly need our kids to pretend, to dream, to imagine and not just watch a screen.

To read reviews about all  of these wonderful toys, please visit our site.

TODAY Show Toy Test with winners

Today Show Toy Test "Elves" with Natalie Morales and Stephanie Oppenheim

Today Show Toy Test “Elves” with Natalie Morales and Stephanie Oppenheim

We had a blast yesterday at the Today Show. The show asked that we put many of our Platinum Award winners of 2013 to the test with “elves” on the plaza. With huge candy canes and the Rockefeller Christmas Tree in the background (not to mention the North Pole like temperature!), it was the perfect backdrop for this holiday tradition.P1010476To read about all the toys featured, click here. To see all of our award winners in all categories visit

To see the segment, click here.




Fairies Meet Disco

Kit comes with three lights to decorate.

Kit comes with three lights to decorate.

I’m a sucker for toys that work in the dark which is why I was super excited to try  Creativity for Kids new Color Changing Flower Lights. The kit comes with three plastic globes that have three different light settings. One is a disco ball effect that seems perfect for the fairies in your realm.  Read our full review at Watch our video

Behind the scenes at The Today Show

At the Today Show talking toys with Willie Geist and Steve Harvey

At the Today Show talking toys with Willie Geist and Steve Harvey

Last night I had odd dreams that were both a combination of Downton Abbey (I still feel so upset about the season’s ending)  and worrying that some of the prototypes (especially the last flying toy) wouldn’t work. By three in the morning I had Maggie Smith commenting on the series of spy toys we had on. Not the best night’s sleep.

Right before the segment with the Hot Wheel Car Maker

Right before the segment with the Hot Wheel Car Maker

This morning seemed very, very quiet. Maybe because it was soooo cold outside–it just seemed more laid back than usual. Since we were showing prototypes, there were no kids scheduled to be on the segment with me. That also made the green room less lively.  (Everyone did perk up when the Jeopardy teen champ came in.)  My mom, fresh back from her adventure through South America, was with me–which is always great. There was a guest there speaking about a 21 day cleanse. The whole idea made me hungry.

The segment was fun. You can watch it here. Willie Geist is fantastic and as a Dad with two young children, he’s totally in the toy zone. Steve Harvey was guest co-hosting today and was a total sport–trying out the Spy Net Lie Detector Toy from Jakks Pacific and flying one of the Atmospheres from Spin Master. Special thanks to Cara from LEGO and Rachel from Spin Master for coming in to make sure that they’re prototypes worked on camera. All the toys we showed today are featured on my blog posts from last week.

Love this picture because Steve is still playing with the toy!!

Love this picture because Steve is still playing with the toy!! James Bond would love these spy toys

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.

Spin Master's Panosphere 360 Spy Camera

Spin Master’s Panosphere 360 Spy Camera

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.

Spy Net Let Detector from Jakks Pacific

Spy Net Let Detector from Jakks Pacific

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


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. 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

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 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’s 2012 list of best toys. Tomorrow’s focus will be on educational toys…but the entire list will appear on

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 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

My glitter glue masterpiece.