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?

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

 

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.

 

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

Five Perfect Toys for Toddlers

Finding toys for toddlers can be super challenging! They’ve outgrown their baby toys–but not quite ready yet for more complex toys geared to preschoolers.  The toys need to match their new found mobility and desire to do things again and again!

Here are just five of my favorites:

Little People Load ‘n Go Wagon (Fisher-Price)

Step 2 Basic Rhythms Piano (Step 2)

Playskool Clipo Creativity Table (Playskool)

Schylling Color Roller (Schylling)

Rollipop Toddler Starter and Advanced Sets (Edushape)

The full reviews are on our site, www.toyportfolio.com.

Baby Einstein Videos: Not a Ticket to Harvard

We’ve taken a lot of heat for not embracing baby videos.  When the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with their recommendation against videos for kids under the age of 2– we were delighted (and quite frankly it made it possible for us to continue excluding these videos from our television segments despite a lot of pressure). But we still knew that these videos have become a staple in most households with very young children.

So I was really happy to read  The New York Times article “No Einstein In Your Crib? Get a Refund” by Tamar Lewis that discusses the announcement that Baby Einstein has agreed to offer parents a refund of $15.99 for up to 4 videos bought during the last five years.  The settlement came after a threatened class action lawsuit alleging that the company made false claims that these videos were educational.  Kudos to Susan Linn, Director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, for taking on Disney (it bought the Baby Einstein Company in 2001).

While we were taping a segment about the best toys for babies, one of our favorite producers from the local WNBC came to our offices with her baby and one of her friends brought her baby as well so that we could get their kids on tape.  Our producer’s baby was completely engaged– at 9 months he was completely taking in the world around him.  He delighted when his mom would play with him.  He was thriving.  In contrast her friend’s baby, also 9 months old–was very muted.  His mother, an investment banker, was insisting that the Baby Einstein videos were doing wonders for her son.  She was a walking billboard for the Baby Einstein marketing strategy.  And no matter what my mother and I said to her about how babies benefit more from  “real life” interactions with real people, she would not be moved from her belief that these videos were preparing her baby for preschool, doing well in elementary school and beyond.

When the videos first came out I was taking a graduate class  in neurological development in children at NYU.  I thought maybe my mother and I were missing something. It’s important not to be closed minded so I brought in one of the best selling Baby Einstein videos for a screening.   The class and my professor were stunned and then there was just a lot of laughing.  When I told them that this was a multi-million dollar business, they were shocked. There was no research supporting that  showing random images and exposing kids to the four different languages at the same time delivered any magic educational bullet.

What Baby Einstein and others in the market  accomplished was to scare parents–that if they didn’t buy these videos their kids would be left behind.  The success of these videos spawned a multi-million dollar industry and I can’t tell you how many video makers in this category would try to get us to change our mind.

That investor banker mom also argued that her child knew and wanted the videos.  So we put one on and watched both babies.  It was true that when the music came on,  both raised their arms in excitement and then they became glued.  “See they love it!”   She’s right they recognized the music and responded happily. Anyone who has watched young children (or let’s face it, adults) in front of the tv, know that it’s easy to become dazed- it certainly doesn’t mean something educational is happening.  (In fact, young children will often watch something very scary on the tv without emotion or moving away because they can’t make the leap between reality and fantasy, they literally can’t make that break.)

When we suggested that awake  play time would be better spent getting down on the floor and engaging her son, she just shook her head. The video had won.

Of course the whole “smarter baby” push is not limited to videos.  During the same period that Baby Einstein came on the scene, most toy companies got on the same bandwagon- pushing toys that were going to make your baby smarter, faster.  This meant that almost every baby toy was covered with the “ABCs”.  One of my “you have to be kidding” moments at toy fair was being shown a Baby Einstein toy (licensed to Playskool) that encouraged babies to find the rhyme!  Yes, babies that aren’t even talking yet were to find the word and image that rhymed with bat.  What was even more alarming were the number of young editors from parenting magazines taking it all in–”wow” “that’s great”….

The whole “hurry-up baby syndrome” unfortunately gave parents the wrong information about what they should expect from their babies – not to mention that kids were being given toys that were well beyond them–teaching them nothing but frustration.  While we wrote about this trend in children’s media across the board in our annual books, it was hard to convince new parents that the nursery doesn’t need to be filled with school based skills. Children don’t make the leap to abstract thinking much before the age of three.  So if your child can sing the ABC song at two, it’s usually very cute and will delight the grandparents, but if you ask a two year old what does LMNOP mean…you’ll see, it’s not really too meaningful.  What is important is that babies and toddlers are engaged–we know that young children that are read to on a regular basis, will enter school with at least 300 more words than kids who don’t have that exposure to language.

So I’m delighted with the news and the refunds–just sad that it took so long.  And for what it’s worth my older son probably learned more about his ABC’s  from  Wheel of Fortune.  “Give me an N!”

Behind the Scenes at the TODAY SHOW

The whole gang during the segment

The whole gang during the segment

I actually love doing segments with lots of kids. I think it adds to the energy of the piece – but I do have to say last night I had this momentary thought “eight babies!, really?!…what were you thinking!”

The kids had a  long wait until it was time to go into the studio–and one thing I’ve learned over the years, never show kids toys long before they go on air – especially when you’re talking about babies and toddlers. To expect them to be engaged with toys for more than 10 minutes in any given setting, just isn’t reasonable in real life, much less in a tv studio with so many people, lights and cameras around. So we had some other related toys for them to play with in their separate “green room”…but at a certain point, they all started moving about the lower concourse — to say this particular group of kids were cute, is an understatement.  The kids were all in what I call that “cupcake” stage where they are just full of pure joy.  (At least at that moment!)

Once we got to the set, I was happy.  The kids and their parents were engaged with all the toys we had selected.  (You can hear them throughout!)  Doing segments with Natalie is also fun because she’s  in the middle of this zone with her two sons…so she gets it.

This is a picture of Matthew (4 months old)…enjoying  hanging out on the Infantino Twist & Fold mat. Picture 10

And here’s a pic with Natalie after the segment is over….To watch the segment, click here.

Natalie Morales and Stephanie Oppenheim

Natalie Morales and Stephanie Oppenheim

Toy Wars and George Costanza's shrinkage factor

Even though most of us haven’t even contemplated buying our Halloween candy yet (ok, I’ve contemplated but I haven’t bought any yet), the major box retailers want you to think holiday toy shopping TODAY!  Walmart has expanded its offer of  toys for $10 to 100 items…KB Toys saw that and raised it to 200, and Target is  trying to match prices.  There’s free shipping to be had…and if you’re really sharp, you can find certain Barbie dolls for as little as $5.

So what’s a toy consumer to think?

1. Toy prices are getting a much needed adjustment. All of that toy safety testing costs a lot –and if you’ve bought a toy recently you’ll know that the added expense has been passed on to consumers.  While we don’t rate toys based on price, we have had sticker shock here as we’ve watched the prices just continue to climb for the past two years. So from this point of view toy wars are good, very good.

2. Less Inventory. If there’s something your child wants for the holidays, buy it early.  Tight inventories is another way retailers have protected themselves this year.

3. Shrinkage…

One of the trends we’ve watched this season is shrinkage…which always makes me thing of Seinfeld’s infamous shrinkage episode with George in the Hamptons.

Toy makers are making many of the same type of toys they used to…but smaller…much smaller…and much less expensive.

For example, last year we featured Playskool’s $300 Kota My Triceratops Dinosaur. This high tech dino-wonder was big enough for your child to sit on! Rec_kota

This year, the same manufacturer is offering Kota & Pals  Stompers – TriceratopsRec_tristompHe walks on my desk. Watch the video. He’s very cute and he actually walks (something the big guy can’t do)…but still, this is what the price wars mean.

So does this mean you should buy only $10 toys this holiday season?

There are in fact lots of toys for $10 and under that are really great. We have many award winners that fit the bill, but buying lots of “stuff” seems like a mistake in the long run. Keep in mind that 60% of our toy dollars are spent this time of year…so bringing home toys that will have lasting play value makes more sense in terms of having toys your kids will play with after the holidays are over.

Open-ended toys and supplies are a better bet. I love novelty toys as much as the next guy…and there are some on our list this year.  The holidays are about making dreams come true, but if you’re looking to make your dollar stretch…buying more open-ended toys is the way to go.  Art supplies, games (that are played again and again), blocks, pretend props (toy kitchens, dollhouses), and toys for active play (ride-ons, sporting equipment)…all will be enjoyed  for a long time and played with differently as your child grows.

Pool your resources. If there’s a toy that your child really wants that costs a little more, have your family chip in. Much more fun to get the present you wanted, then lots of little token gifts from aunts and uncles.

The olden days. There was a time when we didn’t go to the toy store with a shopping cart.  We got fewer toys…not necessarily a bad thing.

Get Your Screwdriver Ready. One way to keep prices down…toy makers leave more for parents to do. Many toys don’t even come with the pre-drilled holes.  If you’re handy with a power drill/screwdriver, you’ll be fine. If you’re not, we warned you.

Make it count. We started the toyportfolio with the tag..we test all the toys so that “you don’t waste your money or your child’s time.”  So  no matter what your budget, we’ve tried to take the mystery of finding a great toy.   So take a look at our Platinum List!