Today Show/ Toy Review Starts Tomorrow!

What an amazing two months we’ve had working with over 200 families in 24 states (with seven sets of twins) in order to conduct the first TODAY Show/ Toy Review. Tomorrow I’ll be on to share the results for babies, toddlers and preschoolers. A special thank you to all the families that participated and gave us their feedback on the toys they reviewed!  I hope you’ll tune! To read all the results, please visit

Wonderful Landmark Puzzles from Duo Press

We’re always on the look out for new puzzle makers. Duo Press has joined our short list of favorites! Their new 20 piece My San Francisco Puzzle and My New York Puzzle are both visually very pleasing, made on sturdy stock and are just right for the 3 & up crowd. Each puzzle comes in a well-designed box that will make storage easy and long-lasting. Read our reviews at www.toyportfolio.comIMG_3906.


Weapons are weapons – even if they’re Pink

imagesThe most troubling quote in today’s NYT’s article, “Today’s Girls Love Pink Bows as Playthings, but These Shoot” is “toys that stimulate aggression are healthy for children.” To suggest that literal props like weapons are something to be valued (regardless of what color they are) puts the conversation about the value of play experiences back a few decades.  Yes, kids have aggression and need outlets for expressing it, but making it part of their play diet with plastic weapons is not beneficial.  Most child development experts would suggest art supplies and puppets as appropriate outlets for expressing emotions.

We have nothing against archery – but here the game play (inspired by mega hit The Hunger Games) is targeting other children, not a bullseye. There is a disconnect between the teen/adult audience of the books and movies and the 7-year-olds  that are the intended consumers of these toys. While we happily support “girl power” when it comes to STEM toys that encourage girls to be all that they can be, this kind of role play perverts the concept of empowerment. Even in the universe from which these toys have come from, we doubt very much that Katniss would approve arming children her sister’s age with weapons.

Toy Fair Preview: STEM TOYS 2014

Last year the buzz was STEM toys with an emphasis on construction toys. Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Platinum Award-winning Goldie Blox even made its way to a Super Bowl commercial.

Now ThinkFun is launching ROBOT Turtles, a board game that promises to introduce young children (preschoolers) to programming. We haven’t played the game–but I love the idea of kids learning how to program rather than just spending so much time sucked into video games. ROBOT Turtles started on Kickstarter by inventor Dan Shapiro. The game is scheduled for release in June (retail $24.99).



Playful Socks and Mittens from Hooray Hoopla

socks from HoorayHooplaYou won’t find these animal-themed mittens or socks in the toy aisle, but they are wonderfully playful! We love the idea of kids having different animals on their feet that can speak to each other. We received a three pack of socks ($14.99) that included: Shark vs. Penguin, Lion vs. Tiger and T-Rex vs. Triceratops. There are also delicious booties for older babies and toddlers…Cat vs. Dog, Owl vs. Mouse, T-Rex vs. Triceratops. The booties are sooo soft – you’ll be jealous that they don’t come in your size!


The mittens (available in adult sizes), recently spotted on Anne Hathaway, are equally adorable. We wish they were lined with the same material as the booties. We received a pair with Frog vs. Fly. These do vsm-kids-frogfly-mittens-1come in adult sizes – proving that you don’t have to be a child to be super playful!

A fun company. Check out their website at

Calico Critters – A Classic that appeals to the iphone generation

Calico Critters were first launched in Japan way back in 1985. They arrived in North America  in 1993 and are currently distributed by International Playthings.  (They’re known in other countries as Sylvanian families). No matter the name, these small animal collections are enjoying a resurgence with the “iphone generation” of preschoolers and early school age kids.

Calico Critters Ice Cream Truck

Calico Critters Ice Cream Truck

Unless your heart is stone cold, you have to admit that Calico Critters are seriously cute. Even for a preschool generation that lives on fruit ninjas and can navigate youtube like pros, there’s something appealing to actually holding a Calico Critter in your hand.  Our testers also love that they come in families.  For kids that like to pretend in miniature (as opposed to whole body pretending) – Calico Critters will say whatever they want them to say.  There are no bells and whistles here – which is why they’re probably still so popular.

Here’s a link to our most recent reviews of their Border Collie FamilyIce Cream Truck, and Treehouse.




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.

TODAY Show Toy Test with winners

Today Show Toy Test "Elves" with Natalie Morales and Stephanie Oppenheim

Today Show Toy Test “Elves” with Natalie Morales and Stephanie Oppenheim

We had a blast yesterday at the Today Show. The show asked that we put many of our Platinum Award winners of 2013 to the test with “elves” on the plaza. With huge candy canes and the Rockefeller Christmas Tree in the background (not to mention the North Pole like temperature!), it was the perfect backdrop for this holiday tradition.P1010476To read about all the toys featured, click here. To see all of our award winners in all categories visit

To see the segment, click here.




5 Toy Safety Facts You Need to Know

As attention turns to the toy aisles this time of year,  there is an understandable concern for toy safety – especially when news reports focus on dangerous and toxic toy lists.  So the question remains, are toys safe?

1. Toys are Safer than they were prior to 2008. In reaction to the discovery of lead in a frighteningly large number of toys, the federal government passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. All phase-in aspects of the law have been enacted. Toys are now regulated for lead, antimony, arsenic, cadmium, mercury and other toxic metals. It also sets limits on a number of phthalates – they make toys softer, but have also been linked to serious health issues including reproductive defects.

2. Toys are not checked before they hit the shelves in toy stores. Nothing in the new law provides for government inspection prior to a toy being introduced into the market. The toy industry remains self-regulatory. While most toy makers and retailers take toy testing seriously,  it means that dangerous and toxic toys can still end up in your playroom.

3. If it smells like a duck, it’s probably a duck. The same is true with toys. If you open a toy and it smells bad, or it’s really loud, or it has small parts trust your instincts. Don’t assume it must be okay. You are your child’s personal consumer advocate.

4. A Toilet Paper Roll is Your First Line of Defense. Most families don’t have a “choke tube” that checks for small parts under the current regulations.  You can use a toilet paper tube – it’s slightly larger, but it’s a good benchmark for toys that should not be given to kids under 3 or kids that still mouth their toys. One of the trends that we are most concerned with (and is also noted in the Ohio PIRG Report) are small toy parts that just stick out of the choke tube so they’re legal but oh so close. [There is no developmental advantage to such small parts for young children and, in our opinion, pose an unnecessary chance for kids to either choke or gag.]

5. Leave the Noisy Toys at Grandma’s. Well this is one solution. Take the batteries out is another. Many toys come with volume controls, that’s a plus. Yet there remain toys each year that are just too loud and exceed the legal limit. Really alarming is that many of them are intended for very young children to put near their ears. How can you check? The good news, is that there are free APPs to measure sound levels. Here’s what you should look for. (This would actually make for a fun science experiment for older children). Toys that are intended to be hand-held as well as crib toys, table toys and floor toys should not produce continuous sounds that are greater than 85 dB from 25 centimeters (or appr. 10 inches away). Toys, like toy phones, intended to be placed near your child’s ear -  should not be more than 65 dB from 2.5 centimeters (appr. 1 inch).  If you’re wondering about toys that have blasts of sound the law sets the limit to 125 dB from 25 centimeters.

One more…and it’s a big one. Balloons, balloons, balloons…yes, they’re fun…but latex balloons pose a serious danger for children under the age of 8. Yes, we all grew up with them, but did you know that according to the CPSC, 47% of child fatalities from toys in 2010 were from balloons and small balls?  The problem is that a big happy balloon one moment can pop and the pieces can seal your child’s airway closed.

We recommend taking a look at the full Trouble in Toyland report from Ohio PIRG. We have not independently tested the toys in their report, but they underscore that there is more to be done to assure that toys are safer.