GoldieBlox’s Debra Sterling on a Mission

images-2Sometimes it feels like the toy industry has been overrun by less than highbrow ideas. For example, this year we received trash toys (where the play pattern is to collect simulated trash cans), fart producers (more on that later) and simulated animal dung. Which is why when I heard that a female Stanford engineering graduate started a toy company with the mission to encourage girls  to consider engineering and other math related careers,  I got very excited.  Read my interview at  toyportfolio.com with Debra Sterling of GoldieBlox.

toyportfolio.com: Explosion in Building Sets for Girls

LEGO-Friends-Olivias-Workshop

LEGO Friends Olivia’s Workshop

Last year LEGO discovered an untapped market…building sets for girls. While there was a great deal of controversy over such a gender specific category, girls across the country (and our testers) gave the LEGO FRIENDS line a huge thumbs up.  Girls that had not been enticed to try  existing “boy” sets, were embracing these new sets and asking for more. The themes: stables, vet, cafe, a house and my favorite, the inventor’s workshop. Our preference for gender-free toys still remains, but the benefit of having girls build (even if it means with pink bricks) far outweighs these concerns since we know that construction sets help develop important skills (math, visual perception, spatial relations). We want to encourage girls to consider engineering and architecture – this is where it begins.

Building sets for girls means big business. Most telling are the NPD Group statistics that while the overall US toy market suffered an overall downward slide of .6%, the construction category was up 20%.  Of course, success invites competition and 2013 is stacking up for a building war showdown.

Barbie's Fashion Boutique from Mega Bloks

Barbie’s Fashion Boutique from Mega Bloks

Mattel has licensed the Barbie brand to Mega Bloks for her own line of Barbie related builds. Sets include more Barbiesque construction, e.g., a Fashion Boutique and a Mansion. Today Mattel announced that Barbie has put her mansion on the market for $25 million dollars. If they were really clever, they’d have girls compete to “design” the next new house. We haven’t tried these kits yet with our testers. The success of LEGO as a brand has always been in the instructions and building experience – something most companies don’t spend enough time developing.

Also a new contender in the market is Lite Brix from Cra-Z-Art.  An interesting new line of construction sets (with both boy and girl themes) that have LED-powered bricks along with translucent bricks.  To be honest, this is a childhood dream come true. I always wanted my LEGO sets to light up.  We’ll be taking a careful look at these new kits as well.

LIte Brix Candy Lites (store) targeted as part of the girls line from Cra-Z-art

Lite Brix Candy Lites (store) targeted to girls from Cra-Z-art.

In my ideal world, boys and girls would not have separate toy aisles but that’s a bigger issue.

toyportfolio.com: James Bond would love these spy toys

There have been spy toys in the past, but this season’s batch will make you think that Q has quit his gig for MI5 and set up shop in toyland. With high-powered real audio and visual capturing capabilities, these “toys” pose real privacy issues. But just looking in terms of technology and design…they’re pretty amazing. (Of course, these are all prototypes and we have not tested any of them with kids yet.)

Spin Master has taken control of the Spy Gear line from Wild Planet and given it a real “spy like” make over.  We were intrigued by the Laser Defense Network ($19.99). Here you set up the devices to create a red beam of light.  If someone breaks the red line by passing through, an alarm will sound. Their Spike Mic Launcher includes an audio mic dart that you can shoot off onto a wall and grab 30 minutes of sound. (We don’t recommend projectile toys as a rule but we thought the design/function were worth a mention). The Panosphere 360 Spy Cam really got our attention.

Spin Master's Panosphere 360 Spy Camera

Spin Master’s Panosphere 360 Spy Camera

The small probe like device (close to the size of a tennis ball) can be rolled into any room and then allows you to capture video (and sound) with a full panoramic 360 degree view.  The software platform will enable users to access different perspectives each time they look at a video.  Amazing if it works.

Spy Net Let Detector from Jakks Pacific

Spy Net Let Detector from Jakks Pacific

Now once you’ve captured your spy…you’ll want to test whether the information he’s giving you is reliable.  To assist with your interrogation, you may want to consider Jakks Pacific’s new Spy Net Lie Detector.  (At first I thought this was the name of the evil company  in the Terminator movies–but that’s Sky Net). The three biometric sensors scan your body for temperature and brain activity – all meant to help determine the veracity of a statement. There is a free downloadable APP (of course there is) to help with the questions.

We will be testing these toys and posting our reviews to toyportfolio.com.

 

Lost Moments in Technology

A guest posting by toyportfolio.com’s co-founder Joanne Oppenheim

At dinner in an upscale restaurant the other night, we were seated beside a family with two small boys. One, I guessed, was half past two and the other four at most. One sat with Mommy the other sat opposite with Dad. The two boys never looked up nor did the family talk about anything. Mom was eating dessert and dad was drinking his coffee. The boys were completely engrossed with their parents’ smart phones. The younger boy seemed to be doing nothing but moving his finger from right to left. After a time he lifted the phone to hand it to mom but she didn’t notice until the phone fell on the floor as both mother and child gasped. The child put his hands over his face in horror and when he was scolded looked totally mournful. He slowly formed the words, sorry mommy…and looked away.

Cell Lock-Up by EB Brands - designed so you can lock up your family's phones. Would you use it?

Cell Lock-Up by EB Brands – designed so you can lock up your family’s phones. Would you use it?

Fortunately the screen did not crack. But I thought at that moment of a case we recently reviewed that is made to protect just such events, but would be far too babyish for this family.  But I couldn’t help thinking how glad I am that I missed parenting in this brave new age.  Now maybe the precocious child was playing with an app designed as so many are for toddlers. My guess is he was doing nothing more than making things happen by moving photos on the screen. Whatever he or his brother were doing, their interactions at the dinner table had nothing to do with each other until something went wrong.

Fisher-Price Laugh and Learn Apptivity Case is designed to keep your smartphone safe (and the tears away).

Fisher-Price Laugh and Learn Apptivity Case is designed to keep your smartphone safe (and the tears away).

Though I can no longer imagine a world without my own smart phone, computer and other devices, I have to admit I am glad they did not exist when I was raising my own children or eating out with grandchildren.  When I think of that little family that barely talked to each other,  I can imagine a time not far off when these same parents will be telling their kids to put their cells away and scolding them to “be present” during the limited time when the whole family is together.

Years ago it was mostly poor families that did not have a dinner hour when the family sat together and talked about the day. Often children from such homes came to their early school years with less language than those who came from homes where families shared more than food at the dinner hour and even read books aloud to children who could read.

Affluence has given us a new deprived class of kids.  As always, the problem is not in the technology…but how we use it.

Let us know how you deal with technology in your family? Is there a “no phone” rule at your dinner table?

Top Ten Dumb Toys of 2012

As the toy season for 2012 comes to an end, we always like to share the toys that made us pause throughout the year…IMG_7626

1. Scum Drum Garbage Game. The game play here is to collect all the garbage. We couldn’t make this up if we tried. Pieces promise to “tumble through the sewer pipe!”

 

 

 

2.Scatter Brainz – Sticky brain-like darts. The game play is to collect them all. Play pieces include: Coma Toes, Stinkin’ Rich, Darting Death, Nano-Neurotic.IMG_7620 (Also good luck explaining neurotic to your 8 year old.)

 

 

 

 

3. Play-Doh Sweet Shoppe.  A candy-making machine, but you can’t eat the candy. Seems like a cruel joke.IMG_6613

 

 

 

 

 

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4. Little Mommy Doll with simulated poop in the potty. Some things should be left to your child’s imagination.

 

 

 

 

5. Create a Monster. Move over Dr. Frankenstein, fans of Monster High can now buy body parts and make their own creations. IMG_7609

 

 

 

 

 

6. Crazy Cubes. You’re buying cubes…not to build with, just to have. In fairness, they have marbles in them. IMG_7825

 

 

 

 

 

 

7. Zombie Burbz Avenue. A new APP/Toy concept. We had hoped new technology would bring something more lively than Zombies. IMG_7826

 

 

 

 

 

8.KISS a la K’NEX. A wholesome gift.IMG_7827

 

 

 

 

 

 

9. My Little Pony Princess Pony Bride. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any pinker or ponier. IMG_6848Winner of our rococo plastic toy award.

 

 

 

 

 

10. Mutant Ninja Turtle Secret Sewer Lair Playset.  A very big plastic sewer for your Ninja Turtles.IMG_7155 Part of an apparent trend, see (1) above.

 

 

 

 

 

and…the Breastfeeding Doll. Not new, but still pretty dumb and still getting lots of press. Kids don’t need literal props for everything.86cb30befd6849378823b4cb2e7aa7bc-fcba1ead7bf546f2aa234818895a2a89-0

 

 

 

 

For toys worth your child’s time, take a look at our list of 2012 Platinum, Gold, Blue Chip and SNAP (Special Needs Adaptable Product Awards) at www.toyportfolio.com.

Optimal Building Conditions? The LEGO solution

The NYT’s article Has Lego Sold Out?seems to start from a hazy memory of the authors’ own Lego building experiences. Yes, there have and continue to be LEGO buckets for open-ended building, but the company’s mainstay for the last two decades has been themed, instruction-based sets. What has changed are the themes.

LEGO made a decision that their own castles and space sets were not enough to keep media-savvy children coming to the construction aisle. They took their engineering talents to the world of Harry Potter, Star Wars and most recently, The Lord of the Rings. As someone who has reviewed and covered Lego Systems since the early 90s, I remember feeling sad when the announcement was made that LEGO would enter the world of licensed properties. In the end, it was a move that probably saved the company from the fate of way too many toy companies — but it did not change the building experience.  The key to a good licensed product, is to look beneath the license. Our testers continue to love building these sets and the instructions that come with each set are without equal in the industry.

While we also are avid proponents of open-ended play, we know that school-aged children learn a great deal from following step-by-step directions – not the least of which is the ability to stay with a task. In a culture where everything is instantaneous, this alone is worth the price of the toy. To discount this experience because of a license or a set of directions, ignores the significant benefit of engaging kids in fun activities that do not involve electronics. (Of our school-aged testers, LEGO sets remain the number one request by our families that review products for us.)

It’s also not true that building a model from instructions means the toy is void of imaginative play potential. Our LEGO testers not only use their models for pretend play (some even have epic battles between their Star Wars and LOTR characters) — but they use their LEGO pieces for builds of their own.  LEGO’s own City and Creators lines are popular with our testers.

As most toy companies continue to scramble to find a way to remain relevant in the age of APPs – LEGO has uniquely found a way to retain their appeal to children.  Have they sold out?  If they did, it happened decades ago. But from our point of view, they have adapted to their audience without giving up their core building experience that is both fun and educational.

Three Biggest Toy Buying Mistakes

This holiday…try not to fall into these traps
Big Box Theory – Big isn’t necessarily better. Especially with building sets, if you have a beginning builder – start small. The idea is for them to enjoy the project, not watch an adult do it.
I Remember When Gifts.Yes, I’m sure you loved play an epic game of Risk or Monopoly…but chances are you were more than five years old. The same is true of your beloved Chemistry Set.  Toys should be age appropriate for right now not only for safety reasons, but because you want kids to build their sense of confidence through play. Toys that require your child to grow into them can lead to frustration.

Only Novelty.   Buying only novelty toys or all of the same type of toy will likely result in an early chorus of “I’ve got nothing to play with!”  Be sure to bring home a variety of playthings that will be enjoyed all year long. With 60% of toy dollars spent this time of year, it’s important to bring home toys that have staying power.

Visit our site at www.toyportfolio.com for reviews of this year’s Platinum and Gold Winners. We also review toys for kids with special needs.  They receive our SNAP Award.

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

 

Where do you hide your toys?

According to Walmart’s new survey of parents and kids:

Parents are in the dark when it comes to knowing whether or not their kids find their gifts ahead of Christmas. Nearly twice as many kids as their parents say they found their gifts before the big morning (23 percent vs. 14 percent). The top hiding place? The closet.”

I remember as a kid that I was crushed when I discovered all of our holiday presents in a shower (that no one used). Pretty much game over on the whole fantasy aspect of the season.  On the other hand, our Easter candy was always in the trunk of the car. I used to think it was odd that the Easter bunny had a key to our car, but as my brothers will attest, I believed almost anything.  Later I thought the location of the candy had something to do with the fact that we were Jewish. But in the end my mother told me, it kept her from eating the chocolate ahead of time!

The same survey reported that nagging your parents does work. That kind of makes me sad.

 

 

 

 

 

Can the toy industry stay relevant?

We have been testing toys for this holiday season since last February when the new toys were “launched” at Toy Fair. Everywhere we went, the marketing spin was the same. This toy has an APP, this APP sensation now has a real world toy to go with it, the APP is free with the purchase of the toy, the APP makes the toy appealing to a new generation of kids, your child’s smartphone fits in the belly of this toy, you can steer your car with this app….you get the idea.

If you have kids, you know why the toy industry is nervous. Go out to the playground, stand on-line at the grocery store, or look around the restaurant — you’ll see that everyone is plugged into their smartphones or tablets.  Everyone. You’ll see a toddler hand off a sippy cup for a chance to hold a smartphone.

In a year with no run away “hot” toy, the digital takeover of toyland feels even closer. So what’s a toy maker to do? Should parents spend more of their child’s play dollars downloading APPS?

Our suggestion- use the technology in ways that are age appropriate and enhance the play experience. For example, SilverLit’s latest RC Carrera is fun to operate with your smartphone via an APP you download. It’s not only sexy, but it works.  The same could be said of Ravensburger’s Augmented Reality Puzzles where after you’ve put together the 1,000 piece puzzle (a great parent/child project), the APP allows you to bring to life different aspects of the puzzle.  My favorite is the Safari version – the animals on the puzzle start to run on your device.  Our testers also loved the Barbie Fashionista Ultimate Closet– which is really the 21st century version of paper dolls.

Several APP toys go the other way. For example, you can now buy a boardgame version of Words with Friends. You may of heard of this game before, it’s called Scrabble.  And while many Scrabble fans may find this all very silly, it’s likely that the Words with Friends  boardgame will become the new Scrabble and your grandchildren will say, Scrabble? what’s that?  It happens. Hasbro is smartly hedging its bets by offering both. There are also Fruit Ninjas and Angry Bird “action figures”  (from Mattel) that interact with the APP.  The marketing spin on these toys: they enhance the digital experience. Our testers take — “like a happy meal toy” one parent noted- a nice add on, but not essential.

Ultimately we also did not find the APP enhanced version of Monopoly appealing once we got over the “look at that” moment. First, it takes a game (that usually costs under $20) to a whole new level: it now requires an expensive smartphone or tablet at the center of the quintessential American board game. This new dimension, while “very current” also felt very 1%-ish to us.  Equally important, the banker is no longer your child. The banking now takes place on the device. For us, that takes away one of the best aspects of the game. We also questioned the specially designed (no scratch bottoms) Hot Wheels cars for the new Hot Wheels APP from Mattel . When I asked what would happen when your 3 year old uses one of their regular (very scratchy) Hot Wheels on the tablet, the answer that there would be a learning curve and parent supervision is important seemed less than satisfying.

There were lots of point and shoot games and APP related monsters battling each other out. The game play and/or the graphics weren’t our thing before and adding an APP did not change our view.

APPs and very young children.  Handing off a smartphone or tablet to a young child is usually pretty amazing. They generally stop fussing as they swish their fingers to make things happen. All pretty magical…but not the most important type of play for young children.

This is where our message tends to get unpopular. Screen time is screen time. Whether it’s TV or dvds – it’s not the way very young children learn best. The fact that kids often quiet down doesn’t mean that it’s beneficial to their development. We took the same position against videos for children under two and it wasn’t until very recently that the “educational” value of such viewing has been universally debunked.  We’re not suggesting that your toddler never be allowed to have screen time– just know that the time should be limited and it happens at the expense of more valuable play experiences.  And just like it’s hard to break away from your own electronic favorite games, this type of play is addictive for kids.

The biggest problem we see is that when babies and toddlers  are “plugged in”, no one is talking. Research has shown that very young children learn best from real life experiences. While there hasn’t been enough time to produce research on the APP revolution in the nursery, we are confident that while the technology may have advanced, that the needs of  children remain the same. Talking, singing, laughing, exchanging ideas – in the real world is how babies develop language best.  And while all those DVDs promised to teach your child five languages –  not one multilingual  child was ever produced as evidence of such a claim.

APPS and Older Children. APPS can be used with children in ways that are fun, engaging and educational. Richard Davies of ABC Radio pointed out that kids can play games on-line with grandparents in different cities and that some of the art programs employ amazing graphics. Both are true. A well-selected group of APPs whether they’re games, books or art programs are fun for parents to explore with their kids.  LeapPad2 Explorer was a hit with both our kid and parent testers. The parents liked the  library of games that could be selected to  fit their child’s developmental level.

So to answer my question. The toy industry can and must stay relevant. Kids need a rich variety of playthings that engage them and their imaginations. It’s not old fashion to buy puppets, dolls, blocks, art supplies…it’s key to raising the next generation of thinkers, writers, inventors and yes, even some future APP developers.

For a complete list of this year’s outstanding toys, please visit our website at www.toyportfolio.com