Does anyone still need a teddy bear or baby doll?

The short answer is: of course they do.

So yesterday before our Today Show segment I went to say hi to the 20 plus kids that agreed to be “elves” in our toy test on the plaza. They were all really well behaved…and many totally tuned into their phones and ipads. If you have kids you know the drill and

Wobbly Carmel by Bunnies by the Bay

Wobbly Carmel by Bunnies by the Bay

even if you don’t…if you go out to a restaurant and look around…you see kids engaged with their screens. Makes you wonder about more traditional types of play and the toys that will engage this digital generation. While everyone is totally abuzz about today’s kids monopolizing their parents’ smartphones and tablets, the last generation was equally sucked into their handheld players. The notable difference is that while most kids did not get their first Gameboy until they hit the early school years, infants are now part of the swipe-generation.

From a developmental point of view, the answer to my question is a resounding yes. Especially for younger children, we know that they learn best from real life interactions. Language development comes from talking (not just swiping or zapping a fruit ninja). When kids play with their stuffed animals, dolls, castles, dollhouses and other pretend settings – they are at

Calin Naima by Corolle

Calin Naima by Corolle

the center of their play experience. Things happen at their command and as a result of their own imagination not something created or dictated by a toy designer.  Elmo and his friends are fine for novelty appeal…but they do not offer the same open-ended type of pretend play.

Mon Premier Calin by Corolle

Here’s what else you should know about yesterday. The teddy bears and dolls that we brought to the show (but sadly ran out of time to talk about) were loved by the kids. We planned on talking about the wonderful collection of multicultural Calin baby dolls from Corolle (there is also a boy in the collection), the delicious Teddy Bear and Dog from Bunnies by the Bay and the always popular Calico Critters from International Playthings.

Calico Critters by International Playthings

Calico Critters by International Playthings

These toys may seem old-fashioned or boring compared to their high-tech counterparts, but to kids all of these toys are new and able props to their pretend world. And we certainly need our kids to pretend, to dream, to imagine and not just watch a screen.

To read reviews about all  of these wonderful toys, please visit our site.

Play-Doh Sweets to Make…but not to eat.

I find it confusing to have toys for preschoolers where you make “food” but you can’t eat them – especially when they look so pretty. I get the whole pretend aspect of this toy and that many kids (including some of our testers) enjoy this product, but maybe because I was the kid that would have tasted it for sure,  it makes me wonder about the wisdom of such a toy. While I do have a soft spot for Play-Doh extruder accessories,  I generally prefer Play-Doh as an open-ended experience – after all, what’s better than making Play-Doh snakes?!

Play-Doh Sweet Shoppe from Hasbro

Play-Doh Sweet Shoppe from Hasbro

What do you think?

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.

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.

 

I’m in love with Flying Super Grover 2.0

Flying Super Grover 2.0 from Hasbro

The previews for Toy Fair 2012 ( that officially kicks off on February 12th) , which is a preview of the toys that will be available for the coming year, have begun.  Are you with me?

So far, we haven’t been too blown away with what we’ve seen, but I have already found my toy crush…his name is Flying Super Grover 2.0.

We have only seen a prototype of Flying Super Grover (he’ll be available from Hasbro in the fall).  So this isn’t an official review, but just look at him. The cap, the eyes peeking through, the splash of his yellow lightning bolt on his fury blue chest…and don’t even get me started on his pink nose.  He promises to make appropriate sound effects when he’s flown. He will know when he’s going up and down. He had me at “helloooo every bud-deeeeee!”   In any case, he clearly is going to give Elmo a run for his money.

Watch our video encounter with Grover.

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!

 

 

 

Super Fun Bowling Set from Step 2

One of the pins from Step 2's Pin Pals Bowling Set

The new Pin Pals Bowling Set from Step 2 may rank as the best toy bowling set we’ve ever tested. The reason? The clever wide-based design. The ten pins are a little bit wider than a normal toy bowling pin–making them that much easier for older toddlers and preschoolers to place into position by themselves.  With other sets, the pins often tip over when they’re being set up…where’s the fun in that?

Also because of their design, the pins can be stacked. This added a whole new dimension to setting the pins up in vertical arrangements!

One of testers at play!

Our tester stacking them up on his own

Our testers also love the funny faces on each of the pins.  If you’re of a certain age, some of the them will remind you of Mr. Bill from Saturday Night Live.

Watch our video.

behind the scenes at the Today Show

Stephanie practicing her bird calling technique

So I was preoccupied this morning with demonstrating the bird calling whistles for Backyard Safari. One requires filling it with water–it makes the BEST noise, but it does drip and if you don’t have the right amount of water in it–it just doesn’t do its thing. Ali took video of me practicing. Click here.

If you missed the segment this morning you can watch it by clicking here. I did the segment with Ann–we got through a lot of products…but I didn’t get to say everything I wanted to about all of them..so read the article and the reviews of the products featured  – it’s all on our website: www.toyportfolio.com.

 

Groovy Girl Fans…get ready!

Groovy Girl Kitchen....

...and plates

Manhattan Toy’s award-winning line of Groovy Girls has been expanding into other realms of pretend play. Last year they introduced costumes (on our Platinum List). We look forward to testing their first kitchen and dishes.