Little Tikes Big Digger Sandbox

The smile on our tester’s face, pretty much says it all.  We love this new sandbox from Little Tikes. It comes with the excavator, the dump truck and tools–all ready for lots of pretend possibilities.  The ramp also adds to the fun! The removable cover is also a plus for keeping the sand clean and neighborhood animals out! You’ll note that it’s not super big–so it can fit on a deck as our testers are using it.

Behind the scenes at the Today Show

We arrived to find an extremely busy and crowded green room.  The boy band, The Wanted, was there getting ready. I was told that Colton from American Idol was also there. Rosie was upstairs getting ready for The Professionals segment. (Hey, I’m a former lawyer-doesn’t that count?)  And yes, there  was the 40 pound cat – that was unfortunately sharing the curtained off area where our toy testers were gathered. Only problem, I’m super allergic.  So I stayed clear of the cat– who was really, really big!

Our testers started arriving. We had many today including twins (I got to hold Grace throughout most of the segment), sisters, brothers and best friends…all testers for the toyportfolio.

Today's Ann Curry with some of toy testers before our segment.

We headed upstairs to the studio for a “tease”–the part where they say “and coming up”….and you see the guest.  We were waiting in the hallway outside of the studio when Ann Curry came by and was really wonderful with the kids.  I’m not sure they really took in all that she was saying to them–but it was great advice about being proud of who you are, standing tall.  After she left we played some games to make the time fly.  Remember how hard waiting was when you were 9?

When we got into the studio, the older kids got busy with the science kit we brought from Kiwicrate.com and the building sets we had from Lego, Magformers, and LaserPegs.

Savannah Guthrie and Grace take a look at the games we brought along!

Many of our older toddlers and preschoolers found the Little Tikes Garden Discovery Center very interesting–each climbed in at one point!  Leaving the babies on the outside.  One of the babies got away–and found her way under the science toys.  I looked down while Savannah was asking me a question and lo and behold there was baby Grace with a piece of paper in her mouth. I removed the paper and scooped her up– and thankfully she was happy doing the rest of the segment with us! It was the first time I did a segment with Savannah– two former lawyers having fun with toys!  She was great and handled the controlled chaos with good humor! I’m also happy I had on my relatively high Jimmy Choo shoes.

After the segment, there’s always a mad dash to get out of the studio quickly!  Here are two of our happy testers  right after we were done.

To read our reviews and ratings, visit, www.toyportfolio.com

Lego tester Dante and his mom Jill

Brianna really loved the wooden mower from Manhattan Toy.

Feeling like Spring

Razor USA's new Graffiti Action Scooter

The rain this morning made me hopeful that Spring can’t be that far away.  And for some reason…when I think Spring…I think scooters.  As I’m writing this I realize that many people probably don’t go directly to scooters…but hey, I play with toys.

I’m looking forward to testing the newest scooter from Razor USA…this one has a piece of chalk in the back. Wondering how it will work…without the chalk breaking. Last year they had a “spark” off the back end…something our testers enjoyed as a novelty.  Even though this has been given an edgy name, it’s called the Graffiti Action Scooter, this is a kinder and gentler scooter that  will probably appeal to a different audience.  Stay tuned.

Bubbles, Bubbles…

I probably love two categories of toys the best…bubbles and things that glow in the dark.  Good news for me, since toy fair was chock full of toys that promised to glow in the dark (sadly, many don’t really glow the way you think they should).

But today, the topic is bubbles.

A little back story.  A little more than twenty years ago when I decided that corporate litigation was not going to be my life’s work…I came up with two ideas. One, was a company called “Earth Bubbles”.  I sat at my desk at White & Case sketching designs for the globe-shaped container.  But I also knew that a product as classic as bubbles needed something unique to grab market share.  So I decided that colored bubbles would be amazing!  Armed with various forms of tints– I went outside with my nieces (happy to play in their brand- spanking new white sneakers and spring clothes)….and you can probably write the rest.

After completely staining everything, being in a far amount of trouble with my brother and sister-in-law…I convinced my mother, who had already written two books on the topic of play, toys and child development…to start another business with me…and that is how the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio came to be.

So, you can now understand my interest in the new Crayola Washable Colored Bubbles.  How did they do it?  I was a little wary of the extensive warning instructions about quality and staining.  (Of course, as someone who used to draft and review such warnings for a linoleum flooring company, I understand the conversation that probably went into this extensive list of disclaimers).

As much as I wanted to really love these colored bubbles, they just don’t do it.

What you really need to know…

They’re not kidding when they say they are strictly an outdoor toy. The bubbles can stain a whole host of surfaces (basically anything inside your house is fair game).

Now for me that doesn’t really take them out of the running. Some things are messy and are still great fun outside.  But the bubbles here don’t really have that same “bubble-ish” lightness.

When you blow these bubbles, you get a lot of color. That’s satisfying,  but they don’t really float the same way. It’s kind of like the difference between floaters and sinkers when it comes to matzo balls. It feels as if the color weighs them down too much.  Sadly, this makes this product a disappointment.

Crayola Washable Colored Bubbles

You can take a look at our video.  We tried it again on a  wind filled day–but they still didn’t act like bubbles.  You’ll see in the video that the  bubbles stayed well-formed on the snow for a very long time and the color remained for days.  It did wash off the concrete step but the warning label indicates that you should stay clear of wood (a la your deck!).  I assume this also would mean to keep it away from outdoor furniture, stones, etc.

We were told at Crayola that it will come out clothes, but I wonder from my own experience how to get it off sneakers!

What draws grown-ups to toys?

For me it was clearly a combo of  hating practicing asbestos litigation and my mother having a really great time writing about toys and play.  I left her after a segment she did at the Today Show to go back to my office and thought–that just seems like a better way to spend the day.  I’m always curious how other people find their way to the toy industry. It is a business — and not all warm and fuzzy as you might think–but still it is different.

So I started a series called Meet the Toymakers.  This gave me an opportunity to find out how other people joined the ranks of toy industry insiders.  And since most people seem to have a desire to also be in toys, I thought it would be interesting to hear how other people fulfilled their dreams.

This week- we have an interview with Robert Pasin of Radio Flyer.  Unlike most of the people I’ve  interviewed, Robert is third generation in his family’s toy business. That’s hard core and brings it’s own set of challenges even when you are in charge of an established and iconic American brand.

I also interview Chris and Will Haughey of TEGU.  These brothers both left their Wall Street jobs to start TEGU.  Besides making a lovely product (wooden blocks with built in magnets) they are also finding a way for their business to give back to the people of Honduras by creating jobs.

Both interviews are posted on our website at www.toyportfolio.com

Did you see Harper?

Toy testers Henry and Harper playing with the Water Table

This morning at the Today Show was great fun. You can watch the segment by clicking here. I was worried that I only had two kids coming on the show with me. I usually have between eight and ten kids demonstrating our picks on the set.  I always like the energy of having kids there–their reactions  say volumes more than my talking about the details!  So this morning I had 3 year old Henry and 3 year old Harper.  Both were enjoying the water table on the set–sharing well and doing what kids do at water tables–they explored all the buckets (many with holes) and they got a little wet while they spilled and filled the center post of the toy.

Harper with me, being very quiet while Ann did the news on the otherside of the wall!

Right as the segment started, Harper wanted to see the bug things I was showing to Ann.  And from that moment on — it was really Harper’s segment.  I loved it.  She was really into seeing the bugs and I’m not sure it came through but she wanted everyone to know about a grasshopper she had seen recently.  She then decided to play a little bit with the water table–and then she needed to visit her Dad, the wonderful Art/Set Director for the show…she got a hug and then came back to the set.  Henry continued to play at the water table with his Dad even when Ann crashed the big Titan Airplane right into the table!  No tears–he just kept on playing!

Harper checking out the bugs and magnifiers

While we didn’t get to all of the products I had brought, it was a fun segment thanks to Ann and two really cute three year olds!

For all of the details about the products from this morning, visit www.toyportfolio.com.

Teeter Ball

When I saw this toy at Toy Fair, I was psyched. Little Tikes made a teeter toy years ago so I was happy to see it back in the line. I used to love teeter toys as a kid — it is a   toy that involved having a good friend. Someone that would not give you too rough a ride, calm it down if it was going too fast (clearly you can see that I had issues).  Rollercoasters were never my thing – a good teeter ball ride was as adventuresome as I got.  Lame, probably–but just how I’m wired.

I sent a sample of the new Teeter Ball to one of our go to tester families…they have two  boys, 6 and 3, and they like active play.  Last year they were big on water/sand toys–not afraid of water, dirt, mud, etc. either– my kind of family!

While the boys enjoyed the toy, their dad gave the toy low marks when it came to putting it together.  While he said you didn’t need a power drill, he had one and used it where screws were required.  The most challenging part was “attaching the yellow ring and the inflatable purple ball.”  He warned that this could pose a problem for people not comfortable putting things together.  I’m certainly in that category.  While I know that lots of people do have power drills and are far more handy than I am with putting things together, I really question from a consumer point of view why such effort and skill should be necessary for a toy.   I appreciate the cost-cutting opportunity that  at-home assembly provides, but I can’t imagine that such assembly engenders a great deal of good will.  For $69 it seems to me the toy should either come good to go or without a huge amount of effort.

Our family also noted that the toy did not hold the boys interest for long stretches of time. I think that’s true of most teeter toys–they’re the type of toy you run to on the playground…take a turn and then go onto the next activity.

So be forewarned, almost all of the big plastic toys we have received this year required a power drill and a certain comfort zone in reading complicated directions (and making inferences from the picture on the box).

I was happy to read that the older brother waited for his little brother to get back on his seat when he fell off …that’s a very good sign that while the toy may not be a home run, these boys already have a lovely relationship.

Our testers trying out Little Tikes new Teeter Ball

Backyard Discovery Jungle Gym Gets High Marks

Over the years we’ve testing many outdoor play systems.  They have become so expensive that you really want to be sure you’re making a wise investment.  This season we asked one of our testing families to try a set from Backyard Discovery — a mid-priced brand of wooden sets that is widely available.  They tried the Highlander – it comes with a 10′ wave slide, a rock wall, ladder, two belt swings, a two person glider, a picnic table and a four level fort with a covered porch.

What they loved:

The three levels to climb. (This trend for super high climbers makes us a little nervous. It certainly demands constant adult supervision).

The accessories.  The telescope, the steering wheel– all fun for pretend play!

Stability.  This is super important when kids are swinging high and on the glider.

Rock Wall. The kids really enjoyed this aspect of the set.

Slide. The wave slide is super sleek and slippery–our testers liked that it was super high.

Hardware. Heavy and looks like it will hold up well.

Swings and Glider.  A big hit…how high can you go?

Downside:

Swings and glider are a bit close for our parent testers’ taste.  Our mom suggested that another three inches between the swings would make crashes less likely (yikes).

The rock wall is awkwardly close to one side of the picnic table underneath–making it almost inaccessible for even a small child to get into the bench on that side.

Overall–this family gave the set high marks.  They noted that it took a professional installer 13 hours to put the whole thing together.

Safety First– please note that all backyard equipment needs to have safety material under and around it to help avoid serious injury if your child falls off the equipment.  For a complete list of the CPSC’s playground safety recommendations, click here.  Playground experts recommend that you have at least 12 inches of wood chips, mulch, sand or pea gravel or safety tested rubber mats.  While this adds to the expense of your backyard playground, remember that 200,000 kids end up in the ER due to playground injuries…so buy the wood chips!

A room of their own…Step 2′s Naturally Playful Countryside Cottage

Step 2 Naturally Playful Countryside Cottage

Toddlers and preschoolers love having spaces that are scaled for them! It’s cozy and has such grown up features as a doorbell, a phone and a kitchen. If you’re shopping for such a cottage (that you can use indoors or out)–take a look at the new Step 2′s Naturally Playful Countryside Cottage. What I love about these types of spaces is how kids play with them differently as they grow.  For twos , the act of going in and out of the cottage is a huge part of the play- it’s much more about exploring the space and enjoying their new mobility–and ability to go move about a space independently.  Older toddlers and preschoolers – armed with more language and ability to pretend–will enjoy spinning their own stories about what they’re cooking, who they’re talking to on the phone, etc.

Our family toy tester pointed out two drawbacks. The photo on the box shows the cottage with flowers in the window box. The product does not come with flowers and there is no drainage hole in the window box for real flowers.  My recommendation – you can add a drainage hole if you’re going to use this outside–or use potted plants. The other comment was that there was no place to sit inside.  While this cottage does not come with a bench or chair, our tester noted that there was space for a child-size chair inside.  The cottage went together well (while the directions say a drill is optional–our tester felt the use of a drill made it much easier.)

One of our testers hard at work!

One more thing about chalk…

Crayola Spira-Chalk Blaster

Crayola has a new Spira-Chalk BlasterYou can watch our video demonstration. It comes with five chunky pieces of sidewalk chalk and two spinner rings–that fit into the launcher. We loved the fact that the launcher does not require batteries and that it really does create a spiral design on the sidewalk. With the exception of one of our testers, we got positive feedback on this product.  (One tester found the release mechanism difficult to work–we think she got a dud.)   We wish that it came with two launchers so that two kids could use it as the same time…but for $15.99–it’s still a good add-on if sidewalk chalk is big in your neighborhood.