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

 

Do kids really need toys to play with their APPS?

This is the 6 BILLION dollar question this year.  If toy makers have their way, the answer will be a resounding yes. In fact, it seems that many are betting the farm on it. With APP sales exceeding $6 billion in 2010  and estimated to reach $25 billion by 2015, you can’t really blame them for wanting a piece of this mega pie.

Mattel's new Appitivity Angry Birds

The big take away trend of TOY FAIR 2012, that officially  begins tomorrow at the Javits Center in New York City, is the arrival of digital “enhancing” toys. There’s even a whole new vocabulary: you’ll hear that your child needs toys that help “blend”  their reality and digital play experiences.  Clever new brand lines such as Apptivity (Mattel) or AppGear (WowWee) or AppMates (Disney).

Fisher-Price Laugh & Learn Apptivity Monkey

 

 

But at the end of the day, does your 18 month old baby really need a bear with an iPhone for a belly? Does your four year old who loves Hot Wheels really need to have a special car to race on the surface of your iPad? Does your child need a plastic fishing rod so that he or she can “virtually” fish with an attached smartphone?

I was pretty cranky this week as I started previewing this new category. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why and then yesterday, after having visited both Mattel and Hasbro’s showrooms, it became clearer to me. I wasn’t exactly cranky,  just a little bit sad. I love toys. I’m always excited to see what those clever toy makers are going to wow us with. What innovative uses of technology would we be able to share with our readers?  Unfortunately, this new category feels like the toy industry is desperately trying to remain relevant in a world where even the youngest children (who are not even talking yet), can navigate their parents smartphones and tablets.

The question for us always comes back to whether the technology enhances the play experience. In other words, do you need a toy to have the same or greater amount of pleasure when playing Fruit Ninjas or Angry Birds? Is the APP experience lacking or less than optimal if you don’t have these 3D action figures? Does having  an  iPhone APP at the center of your game board really make playing a round of  LIFE or Monopoly better?  As with most new categories we review, the ultimate answer will be made on a case by case basis.

Hasbro's New Version of LIFE with iPad

In the swirl of wow-look-what-we-can-do-now in toyland, it’s almost easy to miss the next important question.  Is this toy developmentally appropriate?  We know that handing off iPhones and iPads to very young children has become part of our culture. Parents often marvel at how well their kids navigate such experiences, and we all know that such a hand off can be particularly useful when you travel or on a tedious line at the grocery store.  (I can barely make it through the Whole Foods line without my phone.) But now ask yourself whether it’s beneficial to extend that time by adding toys to the experience. What other real world play experiences are being missed by adding more screen time? While the technology is far too new for studies that research the impact on small children, at this point we see no reason why this screen time will be vastly different from television, baby videos, or video games and their negative impact on children.  In other words, less will probably be more. And when you’re talking about very  young children, none may be even better. Not a popular suggestion we know.  As with most things, we have a sense that moderation is probably the most realistic goal.

One more thing. It also seems somewhat tone deaf to be suggesting in these difficult financial times that expensive technology must be acquired for playtime. I know we all have phones and according to the folks at Mattel, one in every five house holds owns an iPad – but still. From a consumer point of view, board games have always offered great value. Most games cost under $20. Now, that’s $20 plus the cost of your iPad or iPhone.

I feel much better now. And while I understand that toy companies want in on this booming business, I hope that all of those creative toy makers will remember that playing in the real world with wonderfully crafted playthings is still something to be valued.

 

Is your toddler addicted to your iPad & iPhone?

Today’s toddlers and preschoolers have a new addiction. Forget the boob tube and those pesky videos – now we’re talking about little fingers that are incredibly adept at navigating  APPS  on your pricey iPad and/or  iPhone.

What’s a toy maker to do? How can they compete with such amazing graphics?

Wasn’t it bad enough that video games have rob them of the tween market?

Here’s the industry response to date…

1. The “Can’t beat them, join them” approach.  It seems like everyone has an APP  for your child. Barbie, Leapfrog, Hot Wheels, Thinkfun….everywhere we went at Toy Fair…there was an APP we needed to “let our readers know about.” (Except of course for the dizzying number of embargo dates). And yes, we will have to start taking a closer look at all of these toy related APPs.  I haven’t gotten to play with it yet, but I do have to say that the Barbie Fashionista APP–looked really appealing (this coming from someone who really didn’t play with Barbies).

Barbie's Fashionista APP

2. “This is not your father’s iPad” – really. Toy makers are rolling out there own versions of iPad inspired tablets for your child.  LeapFrog and VTech will  go head to head with their platforms.  Are they cheaper? Yes.  Will your child be satisfied? Maybe.  As with any of these toys, they just don’t have the sizzle of the real thing (which is why toy companies are hedging their bets with approach #1.)  We will have to take a look at each of these products to review the content (remember that?) and whether the interface is pleasing.  I have a sense that if your toddler or preschooler is already schooled in your gadgets, this is going to be a hard transition.  On the other hand, if you start here–you may get to play with your gadget without the constant refrain of  “my turn!”

Vying for attention (all to be released later this year):

LeapFrog Explorer Tablet

LeapPad Explorer Tablet (LeapFrog)- Promises to come with a 5″ screen and leverages the library of games and content from this educational toy company.  It will also come with a built in camera. Suggested retail will be $99.99.

VTECH InnoPad

InnoPad (VTech) -Also features a 5″ touch screen, promises educational games, ebooks,  USB port, a headphone jack.  Suggested retail will be $79.99.

We’ll have to take a look. Sadly, both companies have moved away from partnerships with traditional publishers –leaving the ebook experience to the domain of mostly licensed materials. On this point alone, you may want to invest in a Color Nook–if you don’t want to go the bigger bucks on an iPad.  Technology only goes so far.  The CONTENT is still what should rule the day. We want our kids enjoy reading quality picture books no matter the format.  Disney Princesses and Scooby Doo are fun–but they shouldn’t replace children’s books as part of your child’s daily experience.

3. The “Ok, you can play,  but please don’t break it” approach. Handing  off  your  expensive toys to a toddler or preschooler is a balancing act between achieving calm (at the grocery store, at the restaurant, in the car, etc.) and the possible damage that came come to such gadgets from liquids (those pesky sippy cups) or a plain old “oops” moments. For those parents, Fisher-Price hopes to be of assistance with their new Laugh & Learn I Can Play Case that puts your smart phone into a bigger case with easy-to-grab handles. We look forward to trying this case–will little fingers find the case too intrusive? Of course your 3 year old will find this way too babyish.

Fisher-Price Laugh and Learn I Can Play Case

What did Cookie Monster say to Elmo?

Cookie Monster

We moved! Did you notice last year that there was no new Tickle Me Elmo? That’s because the Sesame Street license moved from Fisher-Price/Mattel to Hasbro, but not in time for Hasbro to roll out a new collection.  In the absence of an Elmo novelty doll, last year Fisher-Price introduced Dance Star Mickey. He made our Platinum List.  Our testers loved how he danced not to mention his ability to moonwalk!

This year, here’s what you’ll need to know:

1. It will be a battle of the Rock Star Mickey and Rock Star Elmo. We previewed both today.

Rock Star Mickey is pretty snazzy!  He moves, he sings, he dances…and he can even do a Rock Star split (guitar in hand).  Move over Mick Jagger!  He is also interactive…teaching kids how to rock on! The demonstrator would not play along when it got to the split.

Rock Star Elmo is cute, although he doesn’t move the way Mickey does. But I think fans of Elmo will be happy to see him back. In his favor, he plays the drums, a tambourine and he also sings into a mic (all come with Elmo).  There are also musical toys for your child that also magically sync with Elmo–so that your child can play a small guitar, a small keyboard or sing into a mic — and Elmo will be able to sing along.  Rock Star Elmo will retail for $69.99 (the add on toys are $19.99 each).

We look forward to testing both. Both are planned for fall 2011 release.

2. Cookie Monster.  Ok, I have to admit it…I LOVE Cookie Monster.  I don’t really know too many people that don’t put Cookie Monster into the favorites category.  This new interactive version, eats cookies.  They disappear into his mouth and then the cookies will reappear in his backpack.  He sometimes counts the cookies…that’s fun, but I have a sense just feeding him will be the big pay off.

Watch our video of both at http://www.youtube.com/user/toyportfolio.

Dolls that Wet (and Poop)

Over the years, this category has always been one that fascinates parents – often when they are in the throws of potty training.  We had one testing family that was our go- to potty doll testers.  Even dolls that I knew probably weren’t going to work out–they really wanted to test.  One of the early potty dolls involved food and water…that you guessed it, had to come out.  So the doll also came with disposable diapers.  The only problem was that the food often got stuck and it was super difficult to get the doll to poop. Thankfully no doll enema included.   Even Elmo got into the act with Potty Time Elmo…he was really polite about the whole experience and reinforced the idea that accidents happen.  He made sound effects to simulate the experience…no actual diapers to change here.  He made our Platinum List one year.  As the mother of two boys, I was also particularly fond of Corolle’s Paul doll, an anatomically correct boy  doll that pees (no pooping here).

So this is all to say that we are always interested in new dolls in this category.  Yesterday we received a huge box of toys that we hadn’t seen yet (amazing since it just feels like we’ve seen every toy)…but we hadn’t tested this particular bunch.  The one that caught our eye was Fisher-Price’s new Wipey Dipey from their Little Mommy line.

Fisher-Price's Little Mommy Wipey Dipey Doll

We usually like these novelty dolls and this one really made us curious.  The box reads:  “pee-pee and poo-poo disappear with a wipe!”  Ok, not that unusual…but here’s the new twist. The diaper lights up with a light indicating that your dolly has made one or two…and then you wipe it away.   No messy diapers (it comes with one plastic diaper that is not removable) and a wipe. You give Wipey Dipey her bottle and then she lets you know that she needs to be changed. She either tells you or makes an uncomfortable sound. In otherwords, this drink and wet doll…really doesn’t do either except in a high-tech manner.

Pros and Cons.

She’s a hard plastic doll…so she’s not soft and huggable. We also found some of her phrases difficult to understand. One could say she’s a mumbler…her supporters would also probably point out that she’s a baby doll.   The novelty aspect of this doll is pretty unique and will appeal to small children that love the “let’s see what she made now” aspect of the doll play.  My only real problem is that when you wipe the poo poo as they call it…you’re wiping in the wrong direction.  I’m really amazed that I just constructed that sentence…but it is really an issue especially when you’re trying to teach kids how to properly wipe at this stage. On the other hand, nothing gets stuck in this doll and there is no water to clean up either.  If you’re of the camp that likes to see the water come out of the doll, Wipey Dipey is probably going to disappoint you.  On the other hand, if you are not big on messy dolls/toys in general…this high-tech no mess approach to potty training may just be what you’ve been looking for.  Only if the real experience could be so mess free!

Watch our video.

Stephanie behind the scenes at the TODAY Show

Stephanie Oppenheim, Al Roker and Natalie Morales

This morning’s segment was about the toyportfolio.com’s BEST HIGH TECH TOYS for 2010, the complete list of products is on our site.   If you missed the segment from this morning you can watch it by clicking here.

This morning Joanne and I  were in the upstairs green room. Usually we have so many kids with us that we are in the larger downstairs green room.  As much as upstairs is very dignified, there’s usually a lot more action downstairs. I was down there for hair and make up. Rascal Flatts was getting ready.  I got to see Peter Krause out of the corner of one eye while getting mascara put on. Love his  show Parenthood!

The set seemed strange without my usual ten or twelve kids milling about but since I had a lot of high tech toys we decided to go without kids in the studio. We turned on all the bugs and many of the Hexbug Nanos jumped from their Battle Bridge and ended up on the floor. We had a fun collection of games, bugs, spiders,  a motion activated snake, Crayola Color Studio, and an assortment of video cameras include Barbie Video Girl that seemed to really disturb Al!  I see his point about the placement of Barbie’s camera (on a necklace–on her chest) but our kid testers really liked using this high tech version of Barbie.

Al taking a look at Barbie Video Camera

At the end we did a demo of the hot new KINECT for XBOX 360 from Microsoft.  I was planning on wearing a dress but I was told last night that the sensors might not read my legs in a dress.  There’s nothing like having to pick out an outfit where you know the camera is going to shoot you from behind (every woman’s dream).  So I decided to go Matrix-y – all in black with the highest heeled boots I own!  For the live tease Whitney (from Microsoft PR team) did a demo with me–she did great!  And thankfully Tim (my tech hero this morning) was making sure that the KINECT game was up and running.  Hard to play a game and talk about it as you’re playing I’ve discovered.

Al Roker and Stephanie Oppenheim playing KINECT

Usually after I do one of these segments I remember all the things I didn’t say.  This morning the list includes:  I didn’t mention that you need alot of space to play KINECT so it’s not great for really tiny apartments or dorm rooms.  You need to be about 8 feet back and you also need room to move side to side (or run the risk of really hitting your opponent!).  Als0 – most of the games that have come out for the holiday season are family and action oriented.  So if you’re more of a point/shoot XBOX 360 fan, there aren’t titles for you yet…but suspect they’ll be on their way.  I love playing Rallyball – it’s like Dodgeball but no one gets hurt!  While it’s true that you don’t need to use a controller to play KINECT you will need to know how to use one to set it up initially…(in otherwords, if you’re not comfortable with controllers…you’ll want to get someone who know what they’re doing).  The last thing I forgot to mention is that KINECT has facial recognition so that if you make your own Avatar and you turn it on–it will recognize you. How cool is that?  Also there is voice recognition as well (also pretty Jetson like if you ask me!).  That said…there is a learning curve for selecting games that can seem slow which seems kind of odd since the whole concept is so cutting edge.  Ok…now I’ve said it all!

My continuing fascination with singamajigs

Sing-a-ma-jigs

I love these dolls. The harmonizing is fun. Here’s another video where we demonstrate that they each sing a different song. For a full review visit our site, www.toyportfolio.com. I’ll try to stop writing about them…but when the new batch arrives – I may have to post some more.

Dance Star Mickey – and Donny Osmond (and Michael Jackson)

Dance Star Mickey

Now that Fisher-Price no longer has Elmo, the big push for this season in the novelty doll category will be Dance Star Mickey. He made our Platinum Toy Award List– hey, he’s Mickey, he’s pure novelty and he dances.  We just got a press release indicating that his rollout commercial will be tonight during ABC’s Dancing with the Stars.  Makes sense and to bring more things into cultural sync, he will be in the commercial with Donny Osmond.  The fact that Mickey does Michael Jackson’s moon walk also seems right since if you grew up in the late 60s, you probably watched both the Jacksons and Osmonds at some point (both had their own cartoons).

Watch our video of Mickey from Toy Fair.

Watch our video from our office.

Read our review.

Toy Safety…again

Last night I was talking about the new toy season – thinking about getting to share another year’s worth of testing.  I know we don’t make any of these toys, but we do take pride in our list of award winners.  It takes a lot of work to get to those select toys that do what they say they’re going to do–AND they’re fun, well made, and going to enhance your child’s play experience.  While there are definite points of the year when I ponder what I do for a living, at the end of the day my mother and I really love finding great products. Our network of family testers take their work seriously and we love the feedback we get from the play trenches!

So you can imagine my dismay this morning. I was barely awake when I saw a reporter on tv with a new set of toys being recalled.  I thought (hoped) that I was still asleep. But no, it was real and even more alarming one of our scheduled award winners was on the list.   All of my happy thoughts about kicking off a new season without the upset of recalls was gone.  Fisher-Price voluntarily recalled 10+ million plus toys and equipment for kids.

The issue this year is not lead or pvc — but small parts.  Now if you’ve read my blog you know this has been an on going worry for us.  In this case the issue is small parts potentially breaking off and posing a choking hazard–but we have been observing small parts that are meant to be there.  Small parts that just stick out of the official choke tube but fall in a toilet roll center (the at-home test recommended by the CPSC).

As always we encourage parents to trust their instincts. If something looks too small or is too loud or is too rough (we had lots of splinter issues this year as well)….take the toy back.  If you have kids that mouth their toys, keep a toilet roll near by.  Put away questionable pieces for the time being.