In honor of Esther Williams…Barbie Splashes and Spins

Esther Williams passed away this month–but leaves us a wonderful legacy on film. I used to love watching her movies. If you’ve never seen one, take a look – they’re great fun. As a former All-American competitive swimmer and darling of MGM’s movies in the 40s, she made a bathing suit and swim cap look beautiful. imagesAs a kid, I always wondered how she could hold her breath for so long and always come up smiling with a full face of make-up.  Now I appreciate her strength, ability, and her healthy appearance. When Barbie Splash ‘n Spin from Mattel came in–it was hard not to think that this latest version of the iconic doll was inspired by Esther Williams down to the the kitschy spinning dolphins that circle Barbie’s waist.  For shopping details on the Barbie visit, www.toyportfolio.com.  Visit our youtube channel to watch the demo. 61iLh6m63+L._SL1357_

Hail to President Barbie

I was just reading posts about how most four year old girls are obsessed with being princesses. The Disney machine is back at work, pulling in another generation into the fairy tale of being swept away by love that conveniently also comes with a castle and jewels.  I’m all for pretend play…but this incredibly gender specific PINK scenario makes me pause.

So, here’s a sentence I never thought I would write…  Barbie has come to our rescue. That’s right, this morning, Mattel announced that Barbie will be running for president this year. Is she wearing huge hair and a Legally Blonde inspired Chanel suit, you betcha. But at least she’s running.

Barbie versions of William and Kate from their Wedding Day

Funny, that I’m actually in London this morning to write about the launch of the Barbie William and Kate dolls. The young couple (doll version that is) arrived in our New York City office a few weeks ago–but mums the word until April 4th. So here I am, only blocks away from the palace to preview the dolls!

Barbie’s Ken was a true trendsetter with the facial hair

While this morning’s news is about LEGO’s Peter (from their new Friends line) and his 5 o’clock shadow, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Barbie’s Ken (Mattel)  also went through his “I’m sexy and I don’t feel like shaving” period.

Did we learn nothing from Baby Einstein?

I was eager to read the front page New York Times piece on the use of digital technology in toyland by  Stephanie Clifford. In  Go Directly, Digtally to Jail? Classic Toys Learn New Tricks, Ms. Clifford reports on what we also saw as the major trend at toy fair.  It certainly felt like you weren’t in the running as a toy unless you had an APP counterpart. Classic brands including MonopolyHot Wheels and Barbie will not be left behind in the dust of APP hits like Angry Birds.

While the article gives a good overview of Toy Fair that ended on February 15th, it misses any inquiry as to the value of such toys for children. The only mention comes from a manufacturer who makes toys based on the internet hit, Moshi Monsters. We agree with Michael Acton Smith of Mind Candy who notes, “We don’t want a world where kids are just staring at a screen for their play constantly.”  The next question of course, is whether your child needs a plush or plastic representation of characters they enjoy on-line? Does such a real toy enhance their play experience or are they just a desperate play by the 21 billion dollar toy industry to stay in the game?  Other questions come to mind: Is the virtual game worth hours of your child’s time? Does your tech savvy four year old really need to drive a specially designed Hot Wheels on your iPad? How much time, if any,  should your 18 month old be on an electronic device?

Our concern is that such an article suggests to parents that this trend is the new toyland and designed for “technology-obsessed children.”  If you want to play the game of Life with your kids, you’ll now need an iPad at the center of the game board. While the piece does discuss the  income divide such expensive toys may produce, it misses any of the concerns raised by child development experts.

Unsettling for me, is that this type of reporting feels eerily like the early coverage of  baby videos (the Baby Einstein series being the biggest of them all).  The focus was on how popular they were becoming and how companies were making millions targeting this untapped market.  It was as if the press just accepted the marketing spin that these videos will make your child smarter. The take away for parents was that you better buy a full library of these DVDs if you wanted your child to get into college.  There was also a certain amount of fear built into these marketing messages.  Even those parents not sure of the their value, felt compelled to buy them just in case.  After all, who doesn’t want to give their baby every possible advantage. The videos, at under $20 a pop, were a very affordable  golden ticket to the ultimate of sentences: “My kid’s going to Harvard.”  Sadly, the coverage often lacked any  focus  on child development experts who were waving their arms to say that these videos were not beneficial.  No one wanted to hear that these very easy to pop-in videos could negatively impact young children.

We are relieved that the value of these videos has been debunked. Contrary to the brilliantly seductive marketing machine around these videos, parents now know that  their baby is not going to become fluent in four languages by watching the same video over and over again.  In fact, what the research has shown is that  screen time usually just gives kids an appetite for even more screen time. Our organization took a very unpopular position – we have never recommended videos for children under the age of 2. We were delighted when the American Academy of Pediatrics took the same position.

Barbie joins Mattel's new Apptivity Line

It’s really too early to tell how this new world of “blended” and “integrated” toy/digital experience will impact children, especially the very young. As these new toys start arriving for testing, we will have to look at them on a case by case basis. What is the content? Yes, your toddler can navigate a iPad like a pro, but how important is it? What other types of play are being discarded? One of our testing parents recently told me that when she took her kids to an indoor play center, the room was populated by kids sitting and playing with smartphones and tablets. There was serious bargaining going on to get the kids to unplug and play.

What we do know is that other types of screen time (whether it’s television, DVDs, video games)  can negatively impact children. We have a sense that these even smaller screens – that are ever so appealing to young and old -  will have similar issues.

As we wrote about earlier this month (Do kids really need toys to play with their APPs),  we worry about reducing playtime to smaller and smaller play areas. Yes, handing off your phone to your three year old will usually buy some  peace and quiet, but there also needs to be opportunities for kids to use their whole bodies to pretend. They should have art materials for expressing their creativity.  And by art materials – we mean the kind where you get your hands dirty. Playing with blocks helps develop math and visual discrimination skills.  And while we saw an APP for attaching to your child’s trampoline (no joking)…there is no APP that replaces physical activity for developing big muscles and coordination.  Finally, we also know that  very young children  learn best through interactive  experiences with other real people. Language development soars when babies and toddlers are engaged with other people talking, reading and singing with to them.

We welcome Ms. Clifford’s focus on this issue, but hope that going forward that the scope of inquiry will also address the value of this type of play.

 

 

Classic Toys tomorrow on the Today Show: Take a Toy Inventory

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).

Hot Toys on Today Show – Behind the Scenes

This morning we headed back up to the studio to take another shot at talking about Hot Toys of the season. The segment had been bumped on Tuesday.  This time we got into the right car. On Tuesday we had gotten into a car that was headed to the airport -which should have been a signal to us that the rest of the morning was probably not going to go smoothly.

With Joanne (the best biz partner and mother!) outside the studio

We arrive at the Today Show. All was unusually quiet in the green room.   The Duggars had been there on Tuesday–making for a very crowded room!  This time Robert Pattinson was upstairs

Robert Pattinson visits Today Show

…we never got to see him but he certainly draws a crowd outside the studio. I always wonder about the fans that wait overnight to catch a glimpse.  I thought it was fitting that we were there with Mattel’s Monster High Dolls that are really part of the Twilightization of America. Our tween testers, many of whom have not read the books or seen the movies really still love these dolls.

Mattel's Monster High Doll Collection

At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about them. They’re so over the top–but I’ve come around. Their focus is on character traits of each monster and how they navigate high school.  It’s less about their body image. I also like that there are boys in the line, and that Mattel participated in an anti-bullying campaign this year with the collection.   I certainly wouldn’t characterize them as beautiful dolls–but they do have a sense of humor that appeals to the 7 & up crowd.

Getting to know Let's Rock Elmo

Many of the kids who were scheduled to be on the segment on Tuesday came back today. We were very grateful to their parents!  We were also joined by some other families who quickly got into the swing of the segment.   I’d always rather do a segment with kids there–it just adds more energy and I think it’s useful to see kids actually playing with the toys we’re talking about.

Right before the segment

For complete reviews of the toys we showed on the segment, visit www.toyportfolio.com. You can also watch the segment on the Today Show by clicking here.

Natalie Morales, Stephanie Oppenheim and toy testers at the Today Show

One of our favorite testing families!

Elmo, The Duggars, and Lisa VanderPump- oh my!

This morning my mother and I headed uptown to do a segment on the Today Show about the season’s hot toys. Let’s Rock Elmo is one of the toys we’re going to talk about. My overriding concern going uptown was the massive zit on my face.  Don’t you think at a certain age that you should get a pass on acne?  My hitting the Halloween candy hard last week probably didn’t help the situation…but still, I do believe that there should be a time limit on the whole adult acne thing.

The good news is that the AMAZING makeup artist Christine waved her magic brushes over my face (in other words spackle was used) and the zit was gone. Seriously–it’s pretty magical. My hair is done–all is good. The kids started arriving for the segment.

The Duggars graciously agreed to let two of their daughters join us. The Duggars were on the Today Show to announce that they were expecting baby #20!  Michelle Duggar and I had a  conversation about our respective cravings during pregnancy. I wondered if they changed over time.  I take my hat off to her–I can’t imagine twenty trips down that road.  She has a very calm core– also necessary to run a household with that many kids!

Our segment was bumped so we were scheduled to post-tape. So we had the kids in the studio, turning the toys on…but then it was decided  to have us back live on Thursday instead-so off we go.

So before we left, I went to the ladies room. And then Lisa VanderPump joined me as I was waiting my turn. She was very friendly.

I’ll own up to it, I am a RHWBH watcher. I don’t want to – but then I can’t stop myself.  It’s the sheer genius of Bravo programming. That’s probably a whole other blog posting. Anyway, I marveled at the seriously high Brian Atwood leopard print pumps she was wearing.  I’ve tried them on (not in the leopard print) –and while I think I look pretty silly in them, they looked great on her.  They make my Jimmy Choo’s look like they’re from the children’s department. For the record, most of these shoes are not in keeping with my feminist roots or my desire not to be crippled, but I also do enjoy being taller. So maybe I’m more a height-ist than a feminist.  I just always wonder whether  anyone finds these shoes comfortable?  In any case, Lisa looked terrific and was on the show to discuss her new book about entertaining.

We then went to visit the wonderful Richard Davies at ABC Radio to talk toys!

So even though I didn’t get to discuss the hot toys of the season on the Today Show yet, it was still a fun day.  The nexus of Michelle Duggar and Lisa Vanderpump–now that’s pretty intense. Tune in Thursday morning in the 9 o’clock hour to see our segment!

 

 

 

Hot Toys for 2011: Watch our segment on TODAY

Tomorrow morning I’ll be sharing some of our award winners that are what the media calls “hot toys.” These toys are often the ones your kids see again and again on tv commercials.  Hot toys tend to be more about novelty than anything else, and while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with some novelty, it shouldn’t be the only type of toy your child receives for the holiday.  A playroom full of novelty toys will invariably result in a chorus of  “I have nothing to play with” before the Christmas tree is removed from your house.

That said, we always look at the toys that we know will get a great deal of hype. Do they work as well as they do on the commercials?  I remember one year a doll that was supposed to flip and flip — but only really did one flip and that was with a great deal of assistance. Not exactly what the commercial promised. The toys on our “hot” list are products that our toy testers really enjoyed.

Hot toys can take on a life of their own during the holiday season. Many lists are generated by toy retailers – this tends to be more about marketing than full reviews about the toys themselves.  Hot toys provide the perfect “toy story” and is often the first question we’re asked this time of year, “so what’s the hot toy of the season?”

This type of toy frenzy doesn’t always mean the toy is right for your child. Furby, for example, got so much buzz from a Wired Magazine piece even before it hit a single toy store in this country.  And while it was the toy to get, it certainly wasn’t the ideal toy for toddlers who would have been a little frightened by the gremlin-like nature of the toy.  Grown-up collectors can also fan the fire of a toy- this can also lead to ridiculous prices on-line.

While no one toy seems to have taken on the mantel of the “it” toy of the season, there are several that are getting lots of buzz – from the latest Elmo (he now wants to be a rock star) to amazing Star Wars LEGO builds or a remote control flying Shark. If any of these toys are on your child’s wish list, our suggestion is to buy them early. As was the case last year, inventories are not particularly deep.

For full reviews of those we recommend, please visit our website at www.toyportfolio.com.

And be sure to check out our full list of Platinum, Gold, Blue Chip and SNAP (Special Needs Adaptable Product) Award winners.