We had the first day of previews today at Hasbro. I left feeling happiest about the new Play All Day Elmo – over-sized and with a soft belly, he’s much more fun to hug than recent models that had hard bodies underneath the signature red fur. This Elmo promises to play eight different games with your preschooler. We saw a demo of the classic game Red Light, Green Light— Elmo prompts your child to move and then says Red Light! If your child stops, Elmo knows AND he also knows when your child is still moving. Magic! We hope the final product works as well as the demo!
Hasbro has a lot of Monopoly news this season. First they retired the iron play piece which feels right to me. I’ve never known anyone hollering to be the iron. So here’s the replacement…a cat. If you’re a cat person, I suppose, this will be a great addition. For me, I’ll stick with the doggie.
Also new for 2013, the Despicable Me 2 (click thru to watch the trailer-it’s really fun) version to coincide with the launch of the movie this July. Comes with off-the-chart cute minion pieces (they had to glue them down at toy fair so that they wouldn’t walk out of the showroom. In the good old days, they would have given us a sample, but I digress). Personally, I’d take any one of the minions over the cat! I like that both versions are classic Monopoly sets where a person, rather than a electronic device, is the banker.
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.
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.
Seems like we’re getting all of “spring showers” today! New York City is chilly and wet. Happy that our segment tomorrow on the Today Show will be indoors! We have so many great new toys to share and there will be lots of kids on the set with me. To get a sneak peek, read our article here on some of new favorite toys for spring 2012. The focus tomorrow will be on active toys for older babies and toddlers, construction toys (for both girls and boys), games and science toys!
While there is certainly room for novelty this time of year, it’s also important to bring home toys that have lasting play value. The toys that make the cut tend to be the classics–and often more open-ended. These toys place your child at the center of the play experience. So instead of dolls that do all the talking, dolls that say nothing will be enjoyed for a longer period of time because they will say whatever your child wants them to say! (The doll to the left is from Corolle Doll’s Calin line). We’ll be talking balls, blocks, trains, art supplies and games!
Take a toy inventory:
1. Does your child have a variety of playthings? Having a lot of one type of toy (whether it’s dolls or trucks) will often lead to a chorus of “I have nothing to play with.”
2. Gender Free- Is your child’s play experience only pink? only blue? We want boys to know how to be nurturing parents–so dolls are an important part of role playing “dad”. On the flip side, we want our daughters to excel in math– so blocks and construction toys should be part of their play world as well.
3. Art supplies – Encourage their creative side. With budgets being cut in many schools, kids have fewer opportunities for painting, using clay, and drawing. Whether it’s a juicy box of new Crayola crayons or an interesting set of watercolor pencils from Faber Castell or eeBoo– find a way to bring them back to the arts.
4. Games– One of the best ways to unplug your family is to play a game together. We have dozens of great suggestions on our list. Find a couple that become part of your family’s entertainment. I’m personally really a fan of Connect Four Launchers and Joanne’s favorite is almost anything with letters. She’s a beast at Upwords. (Never quite referred to my mother that way–but you know what I mean).
I can feel the anticipation for this weekend’s opening of Cars2 from Disney Pixar from our testers in the 3-7 age range. While we haven’t seen the movie yet, we have been busy for the last few weeks taking a look at many of the new Cars2 games and toys. Videos of all CARS 2 products are also on our youtube channel.
Our testers loved the new LEGO DUPLO sets…The pieces are chunky and satisfying and can be integrated into your existing sets of LEGO DUPLO.
We have also taken a look at all of the new games from HASBRO with the Cars 2 license – now attached to many classic board games.
Here’s what you need to know about each:
Cars 2 Connect 4 – In interest of full disclosure, I love Connect 4. It’s one of my favorite games for the 6 & up crowd. A beginning strategy game that kids really like (and their parents don’t mind playing). Sometimes the added license detracts from the game. A few years ago, there was a Sponge Bob Squarepants version that interfered with the utter elegance of this game (where you drop pieces into the grid with the goal of getting four in a row before your opponent). I would not recommend this game for pre-schoolers. Even for 6s, it’s a game that they need to play several times before they make that leap to being able to think several steps ahead.
In this new Cars 2 version, the game play still comes through. Rather than the classic game where the game pieces are red and yellow, you’ll need to place the decals on the play pieces. They become either Mater or Finn. The color scheme of Mater (brown against white) vs. Finn (blue) makes it easy to distinguish the pieces (a plus). If you don’t have a Connect 4, and your child is into Cars 2– this wouldn’t be a bad version to buy. In any case, we’d always recommend the classic Connect 4 as part of your game library.
Also very well done. Smartly identifying the younger audience for this movie, this version of Monopoly is closer to Monopoly Jr. — the money is much easier (only one dollar bills). Our testers loved the way you spin…which you do by moving McQueen around the track that circles the game board. Instead of Park Place and Boardwalk, the spaces are other characters from the movie. A well-designed licensed game that integrates the license into classic board game play. This game is appropriately marked 5 & up. Most younger kids will find the game play frustrating.
Cars 2 Guess Who?
I’ve never been a huge fan of Guess Who? Here the game play is guessing by process of elimination which character from the movie your opponent has picked. I would say that if you have a super fan of the movie, they will love having all of the characters on the top of the board. It would also be a good travel toy for the car. Not sure I’d make the commitment to taking this one on a plane ride. I don’t think it will have that kind of lasting play value. Instead of playing by picking out hair color, here you’re asking “Is your car blue?” It is a game that calls for visual discrimination…it just never grabbed me as overly exciting.
Cars 2 Memory Game
If you have a 3 or 4 year old in the hunt for a Cars 2 game, this is best choice. If you’ve ever played a memory game with a preschooler or early school aged child, you know they have the ability to crush most adults at this type of game. They’re really great at the short-term memory. I’m not sure why adults tend to lose at these games…are we distracted? Already on the decline in this department? In any case, this is a particularly clever version of memory that incorporates the theme of Cars 2 into the game play. Once you make a “match”, the cars are placed into the grandstands to watch. Kudos to the design crew at Hasbro for coming up with this added dimension. There is also a score board where you are “racing” up to the finish line. Your play piece is a car. Now our testers thought that the cars should have had working wheels… but it’s still a nice aspect of the game.
Cars 2 Operation is pretty much what you’d expect. Instead of the classic big guy, it’s the character Mater. The board features bed bugs…a sign of the times.
Cars 2 Sorry! Sliders
This one takes a while to put together but once you have the track assembled it’s pretty large. The game play involves “sliding” your piece around the track five times, but watch out your opponents can sometimes slide you backwards. This Candyland aspect (even worse because it’s being done to you) makes this a potentially “heated” game. Marked for kids 6 & up — but I suspect many of these games will be purchased for younger players. I’d really stay away from this one for 4s and 5s – the slide backwards will likely produce tears. (Unless they are playing with a parent.) The other problem with this game from my point of view is that the pieces do not fit back in the box unless you take them apart again. If you’re the parent in charge of such tasks you know how annoying this can be…why no make the box that 1/2 inch taller and wider so that the pieces can fit in without taking them apart!
Car 2 Trouble
If you liked playing Pop-o-matic Trouble as a kid, you’ll enjoy this version. The character Mater is in the middle and you “pop” in the center of his vehicle. I thought it would make a car sound when you popped…like last year’s R2D2 Star Wars Version (my all time favorite). It was noisy (and more expensive) …so this one is less high tech. The game play remains the same.
And as Forrest Gump would say…that is all I have to say about Cars2 games.
So I have to say that I didn’t realize I was in the Green Room with the stars of the Boston Bruins when we first arrived. They had a separate camera crew shadowing them as well–so in fairness I was trying to stay out of the way. It’s a very small room. I’m pretty up-to-speed with most sports…just not hockey, sorry.
It wasn’t until I was coming up the stairs from getting my hair and make-up done and saw the Stanley Cup (it’s kind of hard to miss)…that I got it. When I went back to the Green Room and asked my son Adam if he knew they had been in the same room with the Bruins…I realized almost immediately that I had set myself up for one of those “really, Mom?” looks.
While we were waiting outside the Green Room (to avoid the above-mentioned Bruins and crew), Ann Curry was great to stop, give me a hug. I will miss doing segments with her but so happy that she is now co-anchor! People always ask me if she is as nice as she appears on tv. I think the answer is really more so. She has that special gift of connecting with people and has done such an important job to spotlight the less fortunate all over the globe.
This is the first segment I did with Tamron Hall. I love Tamron…I watch her all the time on MSNBC. I think she was a little daunted by the ten kids running around the set–but we got through the segment without incident! To read the article about the toys featured, visit our site, www.toyportfolio.com.
You can also watch the segment below.
The new Pin Pals Bowling Set from Step 2 may rank as the best toy bowling set we’ve ever tested. The reason? The clever wide-based design. The ten pins are a little bit wider than a normal toy bowling pin–making them that much easier for older toddlers and preschoolers to place into position by themselves. With other sets, the pins often tip over when they’re being set up…where’s the fun in that?
Also because of their design, the pins can be stacked. This added a whole new dimension to setting the pins up in vertical arrangements!
Our testers also love the funny faces on each of the pins. If you’re of a certain age, some of the them will remind you of Mr. Bill from Saturday Night Live.
So I was preoccupied this morning with demonstrating the bird calling whistles for Backyard Safari. One requires filling it with water–it makes the BEST noise, but it does drip and if you don’t have the right amount of water in it–it just doesn’t do its thing. Ali took video of me practicing. Click here.
If you missed the segment this morning you can watch it by clicking here. I did the segment with Ann–we got through a lot of products…but I didn’t get to say everything I wanted to about all of them..so read the article and the reviews of the products featured – it’s all on our website: www.toyportfolio.com.