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!!

 

 

Hot Wheels Wall Trax Power Tower

Mattel's new Power Tower Wall Trax

You know we loved Hot Wheels Wall Trax line last year. It made our Platinum list. The line brilliantly combines 3M stripes to make one of my childhood dreams come true: putting Hot Wheels trax on the wall. A very cool use of a rather low-tech technology.  This year’s new entry is the Power Tower. It requires 2 D batteries to run the corkscrew tower that feeds the cars up to the top of the track. There’s also a car-chomping beast. We put our hands in the beast’s jaw…no harm done.  While this does more than most – it’s more about watching the car move than making something happen.  Of all the sets, not really our favorite.

 

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.

 

 

Now this is a serious HOT WHEELS Track

Mattel, marketing its Hot Wheels brand to “older boys”,  is pulling out all the stops this year. Take a look at the planned Hot Wheels track at the Indianapolis 500. (Someone is actually going to jump the 90 foot ramp).  I thought they were kidding at toy fair- but it turns out to be for real.

Having spent a good number of hours running Hot Wheels tracks down our staircase as a kid (technically they were my brother Tony’s track), I know there are many of us out there that can truly appreciate this stunt. The door will be ten stories high. Yikes. Of course my adult-self wonders what happens to the brand if someone gets injured. Is all pr good?

Cleverly, you’ll be able to buy a smaller version of this track for your door at home. The idea is to bring men back to the brand – so this type of real world event (with IZOD as a partner)  is meant not only to wow current Hot Wheel fans but to entice their dads as well.  I guess you’re supposed to play with your Hot Wheels  while wearing your Izod shirt.

With pre-event coverage already on espn.com, I’d say they’re on the right track. Sorry.

If you want to engage with Team Hot Wheels, you can follow them on their site or on Facebook (they already have over a quarter of a million fans).  I wonder what the average age is on this page.

 

 

 

Best Gender Free Gifts for Kids

I always thought my brother’s Hot Wheels sets were much more interesting than any doll my parents brought home to me  – which is probably why I have problems with the concept that play things should be gender based.  Construction sets like  LEGOs were also big on my list (although my mother will tell you that I was most fascinated with putting all the pieces back in the box).    My slight OCD tendencies aside, when we started the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio I was taken aback by the blatant gender specific marketing to boys and girls.  In big toy companies the divisions are actually divided by sex. Had this generation of marketers and toy makers missed the fight for women’s rights? gender equality?  Are we really ready to say that a five year old has a innate desire to play with only certain toys?  It still bothers me.  So each year we look for toys that are gender free.  Why do building bricks need to be pink for girls?  If we want our sons to grow up to be great partners, husbands and fathers–shouldn’t they also role play with such basic family staples as kitchens, strollers and baby dolls?  If these issues bother you as well, take a look at our list for some gender free suggestions.

Click here to read our list.

This morning on the Today Show

It takes a village--right before we went on

I got there at 7:30 even though our segment isn’t until 9:38. There are a few teases that happen before the actual segment, but I like to be there so there’s plenty of time for hair and make-up! This morning was a great day to be in the Green Room.  I assumed that George Clooney and Hillary Swank would be in the upstairs Green Room–but much to the delight of the entire room they were both downstairs. When you hear George speak about humanitarian issues, you just get that he’s more than a great actor. He’s smart and uses his platform and celebrity in a way that should inspire all celebrities.  It’s just real.  Ok, so that’s my take on the thoughts and works of George Clooney …and now I can also say that the man is just incredibly handsome.   To top off the George Clooney experience–he was then hugged by Hillary Swank.  Stunning!  I don’t know either of these people, but they are polite and friendly to everyone that comes through the green room and the hallway.  Sam Rockwell was there as well to promote Conviction (Swank also stars)For trailer, click here. (I’m sure he was nice too–just didn’t get to see him but for a second).  It was a busy Green Room!

Cosmo's Bachelors getting ready to go on

Oh and I almost forget the Cosmo Bachelors! My niece (and assistant extraordinaire) Ali pointed out that they were there last year when we launched our list.  They all look so young to me!

We had so many kids this morning!

Two of my favorite testers (sister Kena & Dehlina) with their Dollie & Me dolls

Matthew and his mom Jessica

Lots of little boys running around the lower concourse before it was time to go up to the studio.  Some of our kids have been on the show before “when they were truly babies” as opposed to just active three and four year olds.

Harper, who did a good part of the my last segment with me, was joined by her little brother  Hannes today!  Alex (pictured with Al and me) was a pro on all things technical and did a great job demonstrating the Tron Zero Gravity RC.  A special thank you to Victor (Matthew’s Dad) for taking all the pictures during the segment!) and to James from Spinmaster –for expertly flying the Air Hogs RC Video Camera Helicopter (something that I would never try in a studio full of high-wattage lighting!).  All in all a good day!

Afterwards: Al Roker, Stephanie Oppenheim and toy tester Alex!

Hannes enjoying the Radio Flyer after we were done

Say it 3X fast: Criss Cross Crash Track

Hot Wheels Criss Cross Crash Track

Hot Wheels are always fun.  This year the big track of the season is the relaunch of a classic…the Hot Wheels Criss Cross Crash Track (Mattel).  This closed, clover leaf track is an opportunity to crash your favorite Hot Wheels. Watch our video from Toy Fair.  Now if you’re really old school, you’ll remember that the fun of Hot Wheels was making your track as long as possible…down the staircase was always the best.  There were a few loops – but making your own system was the point.  Closed tracks are a novelty – since there isn’t much to do besides watch the cars go.  This track is a little better in this department since you are always feeding the system with new cars.  Stay tuned.  We’ll have a complete review at www.toyportfolio.com once we receive a set

Hot Wheels Super Jump Raceway

The inital reaction to the kids that gave this raceway a test spin  was “this is going to be awesome” “I’m sure this is going to be Platinum”.   It is the latest in the one trick pony racing toys from Hot Wheels–closed tracks with a mechanism that sends cars speeding along.  My experience with these sets is that they are novelty toys–once you see the cars speeding along again and again…most kids are done with them in short order.  While some of them work really well and are fun…I grew up with more open ended Hot Wheels track sets…much like wooden train sets, they were open-ended puzzles that invited creativity through trial and error.  The goal in our house was always to make a really long track that would include the stair case.

As much as our testers were initially hyped, the excitement turned to frustration. The car (it comes with one…but will work with any Hot Wheel car) would not stay on the track.  I was also concerned that the pleasingly graphic cardboard city scape would not hold up. The instructions suggest you tape the cardboard together..but if you have to pack up the toy…you have to pull off the tape–that doesn’t usually end well. So sadly, we’ll have to pass on this one.

If you’re looking for a fun Hot Wheels set, we highly recommend the new Color Shifters Blaster set – featuring the color changing of the cars depending on what water (hot or cold) they are dipped in or sprayed with…either way LOTS of fun.

Best Outdoor Toys

I really love that we’re heading into summer with longer days – which means more time to be outside with our kids. Here are some of our new favorites for the season…we’ll be continuing to update this list in the coming weeks.

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Nature Station Playhouse (Step 2)  I love this little playhouse that is designed for older toddlers and preschoolers – maybe because it looks like Pooh, Tigger and Piglet should be there too. Kids enjoy having small spaces that are designed just for them. This playhouse has a working periscope (really fun), a sink, a working shutter,  and a fenced in area so if you’re invited in- there’s a bigger space for adults. This product is pricey at $249.99 but will be used for a long stretch. (This playhouse  is marked 3 & up  due to all the extra things that come with it–but the structure itself will be enjoyed by younger children. There are larger play sets from Step 2 that have more height–our recommendation is take your kids along when you’re shopping for this type of equipment. If you decide to bring this product  home to older toddlers, put the goodies away until they’re older.)

Sandbox Vehicles Eco Trucks from Sprig Toys were a hit with our testers.  These are very lightweight – making them easy for kids to use and to take along to the park or backyard sand box. Made from recycled materials. Our favorite is the Dump Truck.

Dump Truck (Green Toys)  The new line of green trucks from Green Toys are heavier than the Sprig trucks. They feel more like a traditional plastic toy truck- with the upside here being that they are also made from recycled materials.   Handsomely designed – they got high marks from our testers.

Hot Wheels Color Shifters Blaster (Mattel) I’ve already blogged about this toy and I think I’m a little sad that I gave our sample away!  My mother doesn’t agree with my over the top enthusiasm for this play set–but I really think this is one of the best toys going.  I’m suggesting that it’s even better if you play with it outside–because truth be told-it does get alittle wet if you’re really playing with it full tilt.  The cars react to cold and hot water–and will turn a different color when put into either temperature (I KNOW!)  Best yet, it comes with a squirt bottle so you can change the cars by squirting them.  If you don’t want to buy the whole set–I’d suggest buying one of the cars–you can use any squirt bottle to have the same experience.  If you want to be the super cool grown up, bring this toy home to any three year old you know. I do think the car that turns from blue to yellow is much more dramatic than some of the other color changes (yellow/orange).

Sports

Drive, Chip and Putt Golf Trainer (Little Tikes) There are two different”ts’ to hit the golf ball from…making this a little different from your average plastic golf set.  Our testers really enjoyed the sport of this game and the sturdy design made it a solid choice for the 2-4 crowd.

d431ae4ea2e0258e5b58795242af18f9 Monster Badminton Set (International Playthings)  This set will be ready next month but I had to show it to you now.  These over-sized rackets and birdies are just what our family needed. They are fun for little kids–but truth be told, if you’re not the most athletic person–this is a set for you!  You’d be hard pressed to miss this birdie!  It does not come with a net–our toy testers just liked playing with it alone.

Scooters

Maxi Scooter (Kickboard USA) Maybe because I’m not the most coordinated person, I loved the idea of this scooter.  It comes with three wheels and a wider platform for added stability but still  looks cool.  As I hoped, our new scooter testers had no trouble with this scooter and really enjoyed it. It comes with two handles–a traditional T-handle and a joystick.  We recommend the traditional handle as a starting point. It’s designed for kids 6-10.  The company now also makes a Mini Kick Scooter (smaller in scale for younger kids 2-5)…also with three wheels.  Helmets are a must!

Razor Spark Scooter (Razor) The granddaddy of scooters just got a very neat feature. When you break, it sparks out the back. Our testers thought this was pretty cool–although if you’re the one doing the braking, it is hard to see the spark–but your friends will!

Outdoor Treats

Freeze Pop Factory (Little Kids)  According to the company, more than 7 billion freeze pops are sold each year (makes you think we should all go into the freeze pop business!) ….in any case, this do-it-yourself kit is really fun. Comes with those pop sleeves (which magically close up and don’t leak) and plastic molds for making bigger pops.  You can experiment with making your own family recipes and limit the amount of sugar your kids use. Every grown-up I’ve mentioned this kit  to has asked the same question, “Could you make grown up freeze pop for a party?” and then they say…don’t say that out loud….but it’s true. Just don’t get them mixed up. It comes with 36 sleeves for making the pops…and the good news is that you can also order more ($4.95 for 50 including shipping) from the company’s site or by calling (800) 545-5437.

Pick of the Day: Hot Wheels Color Blaster

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If you have ever loved playing with Hot Wheels and/or you know a child that loves Hot Wheels, you have to go buy this toy! I’ve put off testing  the Hot Wheels Color Blaster–in part because I didn’t want to be disappointed.  I’m happy to report that this toy  is as much fun as it promised to be when we saw it at toy fair.   You fill the containers with some ice water and then one with warm water — it has a built in track but that’s the least of it.  The really fun part is spraying the “warm” car with the spray bottle filled with ice water.  The car CHANGES color just as it said it would.  You then dunk the car back in the warm water and you’re good to go!  It’s that’s fast and magical.  Of course it’s really very wet when you get done and there’s a likelihood that the spray bottle will be used on other things (like siblings)…but still so cool!   You can buy more cars–frankly I would do that right away…one car just isn’t enough. (We are awaiting the safety verification form for this one.)

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