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!!

 

 

Educational Toys: boring?

I’ll be on the Today Show  next Tuesday, October 2nd, to kick off the  toyportfolio.com 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!

New APP/TOY promises to be like Call of Duty in the Real World!

APPTAG - New Laser Toy that works with APP

We don’t recommend point and shoot anything, real or virtual. But the idea that you could now have Call of Duty in the real world (with virtual play) made us pause.

This pitch came from a new company that will launch a new product called APPTAG. This new version of Laser Tag allows you to play via a download. Promoted as the “first real-world first-person shooter gun/game combo (it works with a free App so users can play immediately), will sell for $39.99 (single unit) and $74.99 (two-pack) starting in June (available online and in stores nationwide).”

The company sets their product apart:  “What makes AppTag different from other laser blasters is that it uses high frequency sound to communicate between the blaster and the mobile device.  This eliminates the need for Wi-Fi or Bluetooth - both of which are expensive to implement in toys, heavily consume batteries and are painful for kids to setup.”

Now here’s the best part according to the company: “Even better, AppTag also has an open SDK and its developer, Jon Atherton, expects some fantastic games from the development community in 2012!  NOTE:  the SDK is being made available for free to all App developers.  Imagine over 1,000 people all playing together across an entire city, or 10-20 friends battling it out in a park!  AppTag will allow for Real World First Person Shooter Games…it’s like Call of Duty in the real world!”

The company is raising funds on kickstarter. You can watch their video here.

Now if you think this is just some small start up, you should know that Laser Tag from Hasbro has also been upgraded this year with a new APP version. We weren’t allowed to take pictures at Toy Fair of the new version.

The APPTAG group has already received $31,120 – which exceeded their goal of $30,000.

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

Pretend Play to the extreme: Breast Feeding Doll

Last month, I told you about the Breast Milk Doll coming to America.  Having spent the last few weeks looking at dozens and dozens of new toys (this is when the motherlode of toys arrive for review), I’ve spent some time thinking about this uber literal pretend doll.

It’s interesting that that doll has gotten so much press (I’ll be part of segment on the Weekend Today Show tomorrow morning).  Anytime you have something to do with breasts, people pay attention. Especially when the global news is really too depressing. A good toy story makes for great copy.  Throw in the breasts and you have a media darling. Much like Furby, this doll has gotten lots of publicity even before the first doll has hit the shelf.  (With Furby, there was an article about it’s technology in WIRED magazine that set off the buzz– months before it was available at retail).  For the purposes of full disclosure, I have not received a doll for review. So my comments are based on the concept and the press release about the doll’s functionality.

So, if the Breast Milk Doll is hot, does this mean your child needs one?

Not really. This type of literal prop underestimates your child’s own ability to pretend. In fact, over the years we have found that less is more. We had a tester that left another technology-laden doll behind at a play date. When her Mom offered to turn around to go get the doll, our toy tester said “it’s alright, she talks too much!”

Pretend play allows your child to take on more grown up roles. In fact, if you listen to your child play “mommy” or “daddy”, you’re likely to  hear a great deal of your own language in the mix. This type of role playing allows them to work issues out in a safe setting.

Having a “smart” doll that directs the play by telling your child when it needs to be fed or have it’s diaper changed may be interesting from a technology point of view, but it misses the boat on the value of pretend play.

My mother first labeled many of these toys as  “bossy”.  During the last decade we have seen everything from toy vanity tables that tell you “put the lipstick back” to toy trucks that tell you when and how to fix a flat tire.

All of these toys remove your child from the center of their own play experience.  Watching and following directions turns the experience of pretending on its head.  So while these types of dolls may get a great deal of hype – they rob your child of the opportunity to spin their own stories.  They place your child in the role of observer or obedient doer – with little room for them using and expanding their own language skills (the doll does most of the talking) or using their imagination (the doll is in control of the agenda).  When Fisher-Price first came out with action heroes that had pre-programmed missions, one of our testers gave them back and told us “I can make up better stories!”

Specific issues about the Breast Milk Doll….

Breast feeding is a natural part of raising a baby, but you really don’t need a pair of electronic flower-shaped nipples to pretend that you are feeding your baby doll.  Most kids are perfectly capable of pretending without the bells and whistles.

The flower-shaped nipples are on a halter you put on to feed the Breast Milk Doll.  I just keep thinking that there will be a lot of little boys who will be most surprised by the real shape of nipples when the time comes.  And if we really want to be uber realistic, shouldn’t  this baby occasionally bite Mom?

We really don’t need a doll for every aspect of human development. While we recommend some dolls that giggle and even those that come with potty seats…these dolls focus more on  what the baby does.  The Breast Milk Doll is more about the mom.  We had a similar problem with the Pregnancy Doll Mattel introduced several years ago–where you zipped open your belly (the baby was in a pouch that kids could wear)  to reveal your baby.  Troubling on a whole other level.

What’s next?  Barbie gets her “friend” – complete with pretend miniature tampons and a bottle of midol?

 

 

Sing-a-ma-jigs go Symbiotic

The new Sing-a-ma-jigs from Fisher-Price

I loved Sing-a-ma-jigs when I first saw them last year at Toy Fair. To me they look like claymation characters with their little round mouths and big eyes.

Wallace and Gromit

I love that they are able to sing (and even harmonize) together.  This year– the new versions come with a little mini-me attached the larger doll. They sing together. The upside, you don’t need to buy two dolls to have them harmonize.  I’m not sure I love the mini-me aspect.  The smaller doll cannot be removed and somehow the smaller animal looks slighter meaner than the bigger doe-eyed larger being. Kind of reminds me of the character Masterblaster from Mad Max.

To watch a video of the new dolls, click here.

For video of past videos, click here.

Masterblaster from Mad Max