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






Today Show: Behind the Scenes

This morning we kicked off our 2012 Award List on the Today Show.  To read about the products featured today, visit Because the segment was geared to older kids, the green room (recently spiffed up) was quieter than our usual segment with babies and toddlers. Above Gabriella uses some of the eeBoo art supplies featured in the segment.

Three school friends also hanging out in the green room.

Sophie, Dehlina and Kena – can you say “girl power”!!










Before our segment, the girls went to the studio. They got to see all the people involved in making the show happen.  It really takes a village!

Quietly watching as Savannah, Natalie and Al talk before our segment.

Here’s a glimpse of what happens right before we go on.

All the kids are getting ready to play on air.

Talking with Al. Always fun!

After the segment with Al and the girls.

To watch the segment visit, Toys that Teach. 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’s 2012 list of best toys. Tomorrow’s focus will be on educational toys…but the entire list will appear on

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 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!

Loving the Carnival Glitter Glue!

eeBoo Carnival Glitter Glue

Next to glow-in-the-dark toys, glitter glue is on my personal top hit parade of great playthings. There’s just something so satisfying about glitter glue.  We just got in the new line of Carnival Glitter Glue from eeBoo.  Each of the 4 tubes look like peppermint sticks with two tones. At $5 a pop, this is a fun activity craft that won’t break the bank.

For reviews/ratings of Carnival Glitter Glue, visit us at

My glitter glue masterpiece.

Print Making– an introduction from Eye Can Art

We are fans of the Eye Can Art line. They are well-thought out and executed craft kits that introduce kids to different art experiences. The latest…Sketch Foam Art Print Kit provides a great way to experience print making.  For reviews of this and other award-winning craft kits, visit  You can see our video on our youtube channel.

Sample of what you can create

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  I’ll be on the Today Show on June 13th.

Polly Pockets Wild and Wacky Hotel


A Polly Pocket in the middle of ping pong match at the Spin 'N Surprise Hotel




Fans of Polly Pockets (Mattel) will love this new Spin ‘N Surprise Hotel.  Our favorite part is the elevator that spins the Polly Pockets as the travel up and down the three story structure.  It’s just silly- in a good way. The two top floors also have a FLIP side–giving the dolls twice as many settings to play. Our testers loved the ping pong table, the big slide into a pool (that you can fill with water), and the Polly Pocket shoes that make it possible for them to stand up.  We also like that there’s lots of action but no batteries required. A plus!

Hot Wheels Wall Trax Power Tower

Mattel's new Power Tower Wall Trax

You know we loved Hot Wheels Wall Trax line last year. It made our Platinum list. The line brilliantly combines 3M stripes to make one of my childhood dreams come true: putting Hot Wheels trax on the wall. A very cool use of a rather low-tech technology.  This year’s new entry is the Power Tower. It requires 2 D batteries to run the corkscrew tower that feeds the cars up to the top of the track. There’s also a car-chomping beast. We put our hands in the beast’s jaw…no harm done.  While this does more than most – it’s more about watching the car move than making something happen.  Of all the sets, not really our favorite.


Little Tikes Big Digger Sandbox

The smile on our tester’s face, pretty much says it all.  We love this new sandbox from Little Tikes. It comes with the excavator, the dump truck and tools–all ready for lots of pretend possibilities.  The ramp also adds to the fun! The removable cover is also a plus for keeping the sand clean and neighborhood animals out! You’ll note that it’s not super big–so it can fit on a deck as our testers are using it.