Toys for Future Shipping Magnates or Fedex Executives

IMG_0026Not sure we really talked about Playmobil’s Cargo setting sufficiently. The plane is super big and the cargo ship is amazing, but it’s the actual shipping containers and crane that deliver the complete  experience. The sets are not inexpensive, but they really do combine to make a wonderful pretend setting.    For more details on the specific sets, visit

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!!



They’re back….LEGO Mindstorms EV3

LEGO Mindstorms EV3

LEGO Mindstorms EV3

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.

GoldieBlox’s Debra Sterling on a Mission

images-2Sometimes 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 with Debra Sterling of GoldieBlox.

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


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!

Spring showers bring…Spring Toys!

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!