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.

toyportfolio.com: Trends in Toyland for 2013

2013 has been a much better year in toyland.  We’re finally emerging from the effects of the economic downturn of the last several years when the industry played it safe in terms of what they were willing to bring to market. Many of our favorite toys were downsized to get to a magic price point (which keeps rising by the way). And, If there was a toy that was doing well before the recession, chances are there would be countless iterations of the same toy or concept. As a reviewer, this was more than depressing.

This year we were greeted by a new generation of toy inventors.  This new band of smart (many from MIT and Stanford) merry toy makers are seeking to change the industry and how we engage kids in play. This makes us extremely happy.   Not everything will work or be a big hit, but it shows a renewed interest and brain trust that can only benefit our kids in the long run. We’re also delighted with the explosion of new construction toys – everything from robotics, marble mazes (both wood and plastic), sets geared to engaging girls, to toys that you build and then demolish. Games and crafts continue to be a strong category and remains a great way to get everyone to disconnect from their technology for 30 minutes.

Tomorrow I’ll be on the Today Show to share just a few of our award winners. Trust me it’s so hard to talk only about 8 products when we have so many favorites!

As always, we thank our network of family testers all over the country. Without their feedback our list wouldn’t be the same. We love hearing from kids and their folks about what works and equally important- what doesn’t deliver.

As we now enter holiday toy season, we’ll be posting lots of videos and features about products we think you should know about.

So be sure to visit our website www.toyportfolio.com for daily features.

 

 

 

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!!

 

 

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

 

toyportfolio.com announces 2012 Best Toys on Today Show

I’ll be on the Today Show tomorrow morning, October 2nd, in the 9 o’clock hour to launch the toyportfolio.com’s 2012 list of best toys. Tomorrow’s focus will be on educational toys…but the entire list will appear on toyportfolio.com.

Always exciting to share another year’s results!   We will announce not only our Platinum Awards, but our Gold Seal, Blue Chip and SNAP (Special Needs Adaptable Product) Awards as well.

Surprises of the year:

1. Pink Bricks. We never thought we’d recommend anything as gender specific as pink bricks…but our testers made us really consider our position. If the only way to get certain girls to build is with pink bricks, then do it. The benefits of building (fine motor skills, spatial and visual skills, math skills, following directions)  outweigh any gender stereotypes.

2. Apps in toyland – Most apps toys did not capture the attention of our testers. With some notable exceptions, our testers really just like their apps. Our parent testers also did not see the need to bring an ipad into the realm of boardgames. We agree. This may change with time, but our families liked that board game time was separate and apart from screen time.

3. Pirates and Princesses. Two traditional themes for pretend play are in full force this holiday season.

4. Move Over Elmo.  Grover 2.0 is poised to take over as the novelty doll of the year. Furby, you remember him, is also lurking and looking for a come back.

 

 

 

 

Educational Toys: boring?

I’ll be on the Today Show  next Tuesday, October 2nd, to kick off the  toyportfolio.com Awards for 2012. We have a very full list this year with great choices for every age and every budget.

Our first focus of the season: Best Educational Toys.

The school year is in full swing and you may already be aware of where your kids are having trouble.

Our  mission:  Find games and toys that your children will enjoy…while at the same time reinforce skills they’ll need in school. If the product is boring, they do not make our list. After all, if a product is touted as being soooo good for you but no one wants to play it, what’s the point?

Tips to Keep in Mind:

Playful Math.  Playing with numbers goes a long way to making kids feel comfortable with math.  We found games that deliver big time without making anyone break out in a sweat.

I Can’t Do That! Learning how to work through frustration is also an important key of becoming a great student. When kids work on a construction set or craft kit with step-by-step instructions, it gives them a “fun” way to build on this all important skill. The trick is to find projects that are not too overwhelming.  Our advice: start small, build their sense of confidence. Bringing home the BIG kit may seem like you’re being the best parent, but it’s not necessarily the way to start.

Reading, Reading, Everywhere – We know that reading at the end of day with your kids is terrific, but don’t stop there. You can also “read” together when you play games or work on a kit together. Rather than speed through all the instructions, give your new reader the opportunity to read the next step. It may take some extra time, but it’s worth it.

Cooperation – Learning how to work in a group is also an important school skill (and life skill).  There are many new games on our list that promote cooperative play.  While we had some parents resist these games at first, their kids loved them!  (Maybe we should send some of these games to Congress.)

So tune in on Tuesday!

Olympics…what are your memories?

For most of us, the Olympics are a positive introduction to the world. Sure, as a kid you may hear about places in the news–but it’s rarely a happy story.  In contrast, the Olympics are generally  a feel good event that celebrates our global community. For the days of the games, we hear human interest stories from all over the world.  To me this is the best of reality tv– watching dedicated young men and women compete.  For many, qualifying for the games is their prize.

 

Growing up, geography was always made fun in our family. We played the game of geography to make car rides go by faster.  A definite rite of passage was getting your own atlas so that you could mark your “travel” lines.  My Dad remains big on gathering those lines!  I slept under a world map. I had pen pals in India and Sri Lanka. Even in a pre-internet world, my parents made an effort to pull us in to a bigger world view.

Like most families, we watched the games together. And while we were enjoying the events, we were also asked questions that prompted some “look it up” time.  For example, when Nadia took the world by storm with her perfect 10, the question was: can you find Romania on the map?

Each Olympics has its own story and flavor.  Please take a look at our article on how to engage your kids at www.toyportfolio.com.  I’ll be on the Today Show on June 13th.

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.

Spring showers bring…Spring Toys!

Seems like we’re getting all of “spring showers” today! New York City is chilly and wet.  Happy that our segment tomorrow on the Today Show will be indoors!  We have so many great new toys to share and there will be lots of kids on the set with me.  To get a sneak peek, read our article here on some of new favorite toys for spring 2012.  The focus tomorrow will be on active toys for older babies and toddlers, construction toys (for both girls and boys), games and science toys!

Classic Toys tomorrow on the Today Show: Take a Toy Inventory

While there is certainly room for novelty this time of year, it’s also important to bring home toys that have lasting play value. The toys that make the cut tend to be the classics–and often more open-ended. These toys place your child at the center of the play experience. So instead of dolls that do all the talking, dolls that say nothing will be enjoyed for a longer period of time because they will say whatever your child wants them to say!  (The doll to the left is from Corolle Doll’s Calin line). We’ll be talking balls,  blocks, trains, art supplies and games!

Take a toy inventory:

1. Does your child have a variety of playthings? Having a lot of one type of toy (whether it’s dolls or trucks) will often lead to a chorus of “I have nothing to play with.”

2. Gender Free- Is your child’s play experience only pink? only blue?  We want boys to know how to be nurturing parents–so dolls are an important part of role playing “dad”.  On the flip side, we want our daughters to excel in math– so blocks and construction toys should be part of their play world as well.

3. Art supplies - Encourage their creative side. With budgets being cut in many schools, kids have fewer opportunities for painting, using clay, and drawing. Whether it’s a juicy box of new Crayola crayons or an interesting set of watercolor pencils from Faber Castell or eeBoo– find a way to bring them back to the arts.

4. Games- One of the best ways to unplug your family is to play a game together. We have dozens of great suggestions on our list. Find a couple that become part of your family’s entertainment.  I’m personally really a fan of Connect Four Launchers and Joanne’s favorite is almost anything with letters. She’s a beast at Upwords.  (Never quite referred to my mother that way–but you know what I mean).