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.

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).

What draws grown-ups to toys?

For me it was clearly a combo of  hating practicing asbestos litigation and my mother having a really great time writing about toys and play.  I left her after a segment she did at the Today Show to go back to my office and thought–that just seems like a better way to spend the day.  I’m always curious how other people find their way to the toy industry. It is a business — and not all warm and fuzzy as you might think–but still it is different.

So I started a series called Meet the Toymakers.  This gave me an opportunity to find out how other people joined the ranks of toy industry insiders.  And since most people seem to have a desire to also be in toys, I thought it would be interesting to hear how other people fulfilled their dreams.

This week- we have an interview with Robert Pasin of Radio Flyer.  Unlike most of the people I’ve  interviewed, Robert is third generation in his family’s toy business. That’s hard core and brings it’s own set of challenges even when you are in charge of an established and iconic American brand.

I also interview Chris and Will Haughey of TEGU.  These brothers both left their Wall Street jobs to start TEGU.  Besides making a lovely product (wooden blocks with built in magnets) they are also finding a way for their business to give back to the people of Honduras by creating jobs.

Both interviews are posted on our website at www.toyportfolio.com

toyportfolio.com’s Top Green Toys for 2010

We’ve just posted our list of top green toys.  It’s a fun mix of beautifully crafted wooden toys from companies like Plan Toys,  Wonderworld, Citiblocs, Tegu and Schylling. As well as some plastic toys from recycled materials (Green Toys) and even a nod to a plastic lamp that you crank rather than load with batteries.   We even have two solar powered devices that will appeal to tween and teens.

What we passed on: scratchy organic dolls, dolls that got credit for being organic but were very muted, and in our opinion a little sad looking. We also passed on many solar activity kits that just didn’t work. Nothing like having a solar panel that just doesn’t feel like powering anything.

At the end of the day, I find any labels like Green or Educational to be only part of the story.  If the toy isn’t fun and engaging, it doesn’t matter what great list it should be on. Probably too many negatives there–but you get the point.  It doesn’t make the cut with us unless it’s also something that engages our testers.

Watch your creations being built at TEGU

One of my new favorite construction sets comes from TEGU.  These are beautifully crafted wooden magnetic blocks. If I were going to buy a toy that I know everyone would play with if I put it out on the coffee table for the holidays–it would be these blocks.  (Except of course if you have very small kids in the house).

Starting today, you can challenge their builder to build something specific. Right now I’m watching them put together a Chilean Miner! Take a look and tweet in your own requests at TEGU.com

Read our review.

Pick of the Day: Plan Toys Planimals

If you have a child into blocks and mini-pretend settings, be sure to check out Plan Toys new line of wooden Planimals. They are beautifully crafted and just right for adding more dimension to your child’s pretend play.  There are three sets (Australia, Africa and Polar).  Read our complete reviews by clicking here for Australia, Africa, and Polar.

Pick of the Day: CitiBlocs Hot and Cool Colors

Citibloc Hot Colors

Last year CitiBlocs rolled out with basic sets of naturally colored wooden slate pieces- no Star Wars themes here or intricate step-by-step instructions– just wonderfully open-ended building supplies to create whatever is on your child’s mind on any particular day.  Citiblocs got a lot of credit in our book for delivering a quality product at a much lower price than their more pricey competitors and they were rewarded by shelf space in major stores and a boat load of awards (including ours).

New for this year, they have brought out new colored sets–Cool Colors (blues and greens) and Hot Colors (pinks and yellows).

CitiBlocs Cool Colors

Each color has two sizes. They have the same open-ended concept but with an infusion of color.  Many of the wood toys we’ve reviewed this year have been poorly executed–chipped paint or rough edges have been more the norm—so we were especially happy to find that these new Citibloc sets have a high quality level. The colors are saturated into the wood– rather than painted on- so there isn’t the same chipped-paint issue here.

This type of open set is really best suited for older 4s and up.  It takes more fine motor skills and dexterity than regular wooden unit blocks. I love the idea of putting these in a basket in the family room and letting everyone dabble while they’re talking, watching tv and hanging out together.  Citiblocs is a great parent/child project–and you’ll find yourself taking a turn even after the kids go to sleep.

For hardcore LEGO builders, the open-endedness of these sets may be frustrating and overwhelming at first.  There are suggested builds that come with the sets (but not step-by-step instructions)–that may make them settle in and feel more comfortable.

Five Fantastic Construction Toys

Construction toys should be part of every* child’s toy experience.   You’ll find that kids develop preferences to building materials–go with it.  Our advice is always to start with smaller sets –building your child’s confidence about what they can do rather than frustrating them with a bigger set.

Here are five of our favorites. Click on the toy name to read our full review from    www.toyportfolio.com

Lego Star Wars Collection Lego Systems

Plan Toys Build n Spin (Plan Toys)

Wedgits Pink & Purple Activity Tote (ImagAbility)

Lego Racers (Lego Systems)

Citiblocs (Citiblocs)

*Here’s my daily plug about bringing home building sets to girls…it’s important for their math skills down the road.  We want them to excel in math and engineering…it starts with building with construction toys.

Best Green Toy of the Week: Citiblocs (Addictive on the coffee table)

Sometimes we get toys that are marketed to kids and yet we find that almost every grown-up that comes near them  just starts playing with them.  Since playing is good at any age, I feel it’s very important to write about these types of products.  You may remember that the magnetic building sets that burst onto the market several years ago had that appeal – making them a great choice to just have  on the coffee table for some open-ended play time for anyone so inclined. Research also indicates that type of activity for adults is great for keeping those brain neurons firing.

This year’s winner in this category is Citiblocs by Citiblocs.  At first you might think a box of equally- sized precision cut wooden pieces wouldn’t be that enthralling – at any age…but once you get building, it’s just fun to see how many different variations you can make.  The pieces are very smooth and are made of Radiata Pine from certified renewable forests in New Zealand – making them not only fun, but onto our Green Toy list as well.

Each set comes with ideas for building…they are marked 3 & up, we’d say more like 5 & up and & up and & up!

One of our tester moms (an architect) — LOVED this product.  Somehow we knew she would.

Pick of the Day: Chickyboom from Blue Orange Games

Chickyboom from Blue Orange Games is a fun balancing game that appealed to our school age testers (and their parents). Most balancing toys like this ask players to add pieces – here you take away chicks, bales of hay and wagon wheels…they all have different weights and will affect the balance of the perch. Points are assigned for each of the play pieces–the players with the greatest point value (when the rail finally falls over) wins.  Easy to learn –and fun to play. The company says that each round takes about 1o minutes.  Our parent testers gave this one a thumbs up.  We’re giving this one an Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Seal Award. A solid gender free choice for kids 4 & up.