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.

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!

TODAY Show today…active and fun

Natalie and Stephanie discussing ride-on toysI headed up to the studio this morning with my intern Daniel — after putting toys together for us all semester, I thought it would be fun for him to see the studio and the end result of so many packages, emails and testing. I tried doing my hair this morning–and emerged from the building looking like a bad 1970s “before” picture.  Happily, the hair and make-up people at the show are so terrific, that I knew it was going to be ok.  I think they were even a little shocked by the sheer volume of hair.  Thanks to high def tv, I also think make up takes longer (not to mention that I’m a little older!) than it used to.  It really is amazing what professionals can do.  Everyone emerges from the hair and makeup area a better, more polished version of themselves.

This morning we had about ten kids.  One family has tested for us since their son was born five years ago.  They moved to Hong Kong in between and as I traveled up to the studio I realized that we had never met–so that was fun!  They now have two kids and I’m so happy they’re back from their adventure and can resume testing for us! Other kids were on with me about a year ago–so to see them now as full preschoolers was fun.  A new group joined us – I have to say this was the most well-behaved group of kids in the green room.  Their parents were really careful to hold off on the delicious donuts and cookies until after the segment. Smart move.

The challenge was to show toys and equipment for active play –indoors!  The YBIKES were a hit and disappeared when we went to talk about them–but I think they got camera time later on. The Kazam Balance Bike – also great was on the pedestal–and may have been blocked a little by the fire truck. You really couldn’t see how amazingly high the Sky Balls bounce in the air–or the 3D bubbles…but trust me – there are fun choices this season.

A very polite "excuse me" in the middle of the segment

Half way through the segment one of our testers very politely asked if she could go play in the playhouse…one of those great real live moments…priceless.

Natalie, Finley and Stephanie...at the end of the segment

Segment over, chocolate donut enjoyed on the car ride home…a good day!

Taking a look at the indoor Hopscotch Rug from Alex

To read the full article about the toys featured, visit www.toyportfolio.com.

Pick of the Day: Stack 'n Surprise Count 'n Build Snail Pail

41viaooCcKL._SL500_AA280_If you’re looking for a game that will be fun to play with your older baby (8 months) and younger toddler…bring home the new Stack’ n Surprise Count ‘n Build Snail Pail.  It’s just right for fill and spill games.  In the beginning you’ll be doing most of the stacking…but filling is a great deal of fun for sitting up babies.  The pieces are just the right size…and the clear container makes is fun to see where they go! For a full review, visit www.toyportfolio.com. This set won an Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Platinum Award.

Pick of the Day: Prime Time's Max Liquidator

The Max Liquidator from Prime Time Toys is great fun for the pool. Unlike many other water shooting type toys, the spray in this one is not as harsh–making it a safer choice.  It also looks more like a water toy -rather than a plastic assault gun. I personally love the kickboard that has the mechanism built in…allowing you to surprise your kids when they think you’re just just floating around.

Toy Safety: Small Parts in Toys Still a Concern

LEGO has been a consistent winner of our top Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Platinum Award each year–often with multiple winners.  This year will be no exception–except in one category.

When we were at Toy Fair in February we were really excited to see a renewed commitment to the DUPLO line–designed for kids 2 & up. There were Fire Stations,  Trucks, Zoos…all great fun and we knew our preschool testers would love giving them a try.

Each set has arrived and while they are wonderful for 3s & up, we are concerned about the size of some of the pieces in these sets for kids under three. While most of the pieces are big and chunky, we found one or two pieces that caused concern. Let us be clear, all of the pieces meet current government guidelines.  Each of the pieces in question (see images below) extend outside of the “choke tube” and therefore are completely legal.  We wondered though–why make these pieces so close?  The CPSC recommends that parents use a toilet paper roller as a home test…all of these pieces fail under this test.

So we asked the team at LEGO whether there was a design or developmental advantage to having two year olds handle such small pieces and why the pieces were so close to the edge. Here is their response:

Thanks for your question about the DUPLO Zoo* item and some of the accessories it includes.  As you know, all LEGO products are rigorously tested and meet or exceed all safety regulations in the more than 130 countries where the products are sold.  Because the safety of children is our primary concern, we also have our own safety and testing standards that we layer on top of the regulated requirements.

We always make effort to have play imitate life, so the size of the suitcase is proportionate to the DUPLO figure.  We would not include an accessory that could potentially cause harm to a child or that does not pass the CPSC standard for small parts and age grading as regulated by the official choke tube test.  The accessory does not fit completely into the choke tube and use and abuse testing reveals that it also does not break into small parts that will fit completely in the tube.  While we understand the “home” test potential of the toilet paper tube, it is not a regulated means by which to measure safety as it has no bottom to mimic a real-life scenario.

*Since we asked this question about the DUPLO Zoo, we have received several other set that raise similar issues for us.

While we appreciate that the idea of scale is important–we’d side on the up-scaling or eliminating these items for this age range.  The working light piece on the top of the  truck (one of the coolest aspects of the garbage truck–and also in the fire station set) could have been attached to a bigger piece, the fireman’s ax could be attached to his  hand, the same with the pitchfork…you get the idea. The flower and the fish…just look so inviting.

All of these products would have been Platinum Award contenders if not for these small pieces.  We do recommend them for preschoolers–but unfortunately we don’t feel comfortable with the existing age label.  If you buy one of these sets and you have a child under three or a child who still mouths his toys…remove those pieces that concern you and you’ll be left with a engaging product.

We hope LEGO will remodel these “close” pieces.  Last year, after our concern over STEP 2′s hot dogs (that came with some of their kitchens)…the hot dogs were redesigned…so that the  hot dog is now encased  in a bun–making it a much wider and safer prop for play.

Below are some of the pieces, in our opinion, that are unnecessarily too close for comfort.  Again–completely within the law, but we see no reason for them to be this size.

legolightlegoshovellegosuitcaselegoflowerlegoaxlegofish

Pick of the Day: Little Tikes Drive, Chip & Putt Golf Trainer

Golf anyone? Little Tikes Drive, Chip & Putt Golf Trainer is the latest in the golf toys for the preschool set.  One of our testers with two kids (2 and 4) reported that both kids enjoyed the toy–obviously the 4 year old had better control of the clubs.  She said that both had fun hitting the ball on the arm–and that the toy was sturdy enough to take all the swinging!  I love that she also used the box as another golf opportunity–by cutting a small hole in the box, the boys then took turns trying to hit the ball in.  Of course anytime you have clubs in the mix, adult supervision is a must if there is more than one child at play.

Toyportfolio.com featured on BusinessWeek Weekend TV

2e7c661a89bc34d4bb456e0dab2992dd7170172cHere’s a link to the piece we did with BusinessWeek TV’s anchor Jill Bennett about the best toys under $25.  Read It! Play It! with Babies and Toddlers.

New Toy Safety Standard Announced

So we’re  delighted to announce that we reached a safety standard for this holiday season with a large number of toy companies (both large and small). We’ve been working on this issue since the end of last year’s holiday season.

As you may recall our Platinum Award winners last year were tested with two independent labs.  The final list included products that were determined to be lead free. We thought we could continue this policy but soon discovered  that there can be trace amounts of lead.  As a result, toy companies would not sign our safety verification form.  We then moved to the American Academy of Pediatrics definition of trace amounts at 40 ppm.   Several companies signed off at this level but not the majority. We spoke to many  quality assurance managers — they all said basically the same thing–that there could be contamination in the toy making process that could easily bring a toy above the 40 ppm.  At this point, we felt as if we were back where we started. Do we not review products? How would that work when it excluded many of the major toy companies.

After several weeks–we got a consensus.   We now require companies to verify the following:

products do not exceed 100ppm  for surface coated lead

products do not exceed 200ppm for substrate lead

product meets California’s law on phthalates

This is really a stop gap measure until the federal legislation kicks in (assuming the President signs the bill). We can not independently verify by testing the products we receive- but we have gotten companies to sign our form!

The federal legislation is chockful of good things from our point of view: mandatory third party testing, standards for testing; fines for non-compliance and more resources and oversight for the CPSC. What you may not know is that the lead levels for the bill are phased in–600ppm within 180 days of enactment; 300ppm within one year of enactment and 100ppm in three years.

So we were really pleased that we got so many companies to agree to the lower levels for this holiday season. As much as we’d love to claim victory–the pressure comes from a greater source in the free market system…the retailers responding to the demands of their consumers.

So now we can get back to looking at toys in terms of their play value.

As I write this, the cartons of new products are arriving-there are the new potty doll contenders, new wooden trains, new baby toys… It feels like the North Pole – fun, but not to worry, we’re working very hard!