New DUPLO sets: Horse Stables and Preschool Building Set

We just got two new DUPLO sets which are lovely for preschoolers. There is the new Horse Stable that comes with two horses, a stable you build, two vehicles (one is a horse trailer), two play figures.  There’s a lot of opportunities here for pretend play and a great introduction to building. This should be a parent/child toy to begin with as you put the set together and talk about the horses and what they need (hay, walking, taking a ride, etc.)

The other set is a basic building set called LEGO DUPLO Learning that includes big pieces that also have numbers on them.  Again a great chance to talk about numbers, colors  and other concepts right on target for preschoolers.  How high can you stack the pieces, how many can you fit on the vehicle?

Here’s the continuing problem we have with these otherwise great sets.  The age range is marked 2 & up and while all of the pieces fit current federal guidelines for small parts–many of the pieces are very, very close.  And if you use a toilet paper roll as the CPSC suggests consumers use if they do not have a choke tube, many of the pieces go straight through.  We discussed this issue last year and LEGO stands by their age range, see my earlier post and LEGO’s response.

Our point remains…since there is no educational or developmental advantage to  giving toddlers such small pieces–and the downside is so much greater, why take a chance?

So while we would highly recommend these sets for 3 & up, sadly we can not give them an award with the current age labels on the box.  And we will continue to lobby that LEGO either up the age label  to 3 & up or up the size of the pieces so that they are a better choice for 2′s.  Last year we were delighted when  Step 2 up sized their toy hot dogs for much the same reason. We hope LEGO will do the same.

Toy Safety: Small Parts in Toys Still a Concern

LEGO has been a consistent winner of our top Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Platinum Award each year–often with multiple winners.  This year will be no exception–except in one category.

When we were at Toy Fair in February we were really excited to see a renewed commitment to the DUPLO line–designed for kids 2 & up. There were Fire Stations,  Trucks, Zoos…all great fun and we knew our preschool testers would love giving them a try.

Each set has arrived and while they are wonderful for 3s & up, we are concerned about the size of some of the pieces in these sets for kids under three. While most of the pieces are big and chunky, we found one or two pieces that caused concern. Let us be clear, all of the pieces meet current government guidelines.  Each of the pieces in question (see images below) extend outside of the “choke tube” and therefore are completely legal.  We wondered though–why make these pieces so close?  The CPSC recommends that parents use a toilet paper roller as a home test…all of these pieces fail under this test.

So we asked the team at LEGO whether there was a design or developmental advantage to having two year olds handle such small pieces and why the pieces were so close to the edge. Here is their response:

Thanks for your question about the DUPLO Zoo* item and some of the accessories it includes.  As you know, all LEGO products are rigorously tested and meet or exceed all safety regulations in the more than 130 countries where the products are sold.  Because the safety of children is our primary concern, we also have our own safety and testing standards that we layer on top of the regulated requirements.

We always make effort to have play imitate life, so the size of the suitcase is proportionate to the DUPLO figure.  We would not include an accessory that could potentially cause harm to a child or that does not pass the CPSC standard for small parts and age grading as regulated by the official choke tube test.  The accessory does not fit completely into the choke tube and use and abuse testing reveals that it also does not break into small parts that will fit completely in the tube.  While we understand the “home” test potential of the toilet paper tube, it is not a regulated means by which to measure safety as it has no bottom to mimic a real-life scenario.

*Since we asked this question about the DUPLO Zoo, we have received several other set that raise similar issues for us.

While we appreciate that the idea of scale is important–we’d side on the up-scaling or eliminating these items for this age range.  The working light piece on the top of the  truck (one of the coolest aspects of the garbage truck–and also in the fire station set) could have been attached to a bigger piece, the fireman’s ax could be attached to his  hand, the same with the pitchfork…you get the idea. The flower and the fish…just look so inviting.

All of these products would have been Platinum Award contenders if not for these small pieces.  We do recommend them for preschoolers–but unfortunately we don’t feel comfortable with the existing age label.  If you buy one of these sets and you have a child under three or a child who still mouths his toys…remove those pieces that concern you and you’ll be left with a engaging product.

We hope LEGO will remodel these “close” pieces.  Last year, after our concern over STEP 2′s hot dogs (that came with some of their kitchens)…the hot dogs were redesigned…so that the  hot dog is now encased  in a bun–making it a much wider and safer prop for play.

Below are some of the pieces, in our opinion, that are unnecessarily too close for comfort.  Again–completely within the law, but we see no reason for them to be this size.

legolightlegoshovellegosuitcaselegoflowerlegoaxlegofish

Need to sit down? Check out the Elia Mini Chair

2chairsAt toy fair this year there was a booth that caught my attention…while most booths are chockful of game/ dolls/toys/electronics/candy…this booth had a chair.  I was at the very end of toy fair–I’m pretty “toyed” out by then, but I stopped.

The cardboard chair from eliafun.com had a very modern appeal.  It comes undecorated (left) with big bold stickers (a la Marimekko)…that also looked like fun (and something a parent wouldn’t mind having around).  Our testers really enjoyed working on the chair….the directions were easy to follow and one of our testers was delighted that the chair is reversible giving her more options about decorating!  She and her mom are thinking about decoupage.  Their site has lots of creative ideas for decorating. The chair holds up to 200 lbs. – impressive.  Michael Gross, the President (and an architect/engineer), also points out that the chair is completely recyclable. Michael’s background is evident in the construction and design of the chair.  We’ve seen many cardboard products in the past – many with extensive pre-printing on them – making them more like 3D coloring books.  What I really liked about this chair besides the design–was the open-endedness of the project.   The chair retails for $34.99.  The site also indicates that a table is in the works.  eliaminichair1

How to drive your mother crazy…

I just tried the new Construction Claw from Matchbox. Part of the Construction Adventures line..this big yellow construction toy can be used for picking up pretend construction materials (action figures, blocks, your sister’s Barbie)….Anyway, it’s really, really loud…so I was sure when I showed it to my mother she would make a disapproving face.  Instead…she just started laughing.  You see, you just never know!  If you’re not big on noisy toys, this isn’t for you…but your five year old will love it.

Great Tip for LEGO Builders

I’ve been testing LEGOs since we started reviewing toys.  And while I wasn’t big on too many toys as a kid, I did love my LEGOs.

One of our testers just told me that her son sorts out all the pieces by color first before he starts to build.  Maybe many of you already do this–but after decades of playing with LEGOs…it was a lightbulb moment for me.  So I thought I would pass it on.

It comes under the same heading of things you might not think of….I had a similar lightbulb moment when I realized that if you actually look at a ball when you’re trying to hit it, the chances of actually making contact rise dramatically.  Now if you’re a jock by nature, you are probably laughing…but for me this was HUGE.  I wish I had come to this realization when I was a kid.  So I mention it to all the coaches/gym teachers I come in contact with because I don’t think most people would even think it’s an option not to look.  Perhaps because I was always sure that I was going to get hit by the ball, I naturally closed my eyes…or later in life looked at my opponents while trying to hit the tennis ball.  So if this helps anyone…my good deed is done.

Pick of the Day: Sprig Toys Eco-Trucks

51ildpwlsfl_sl500_aa280_Looking for a great lightweight truck to take to the sandbox–or just enjoy in your house?  Take a look at Sprig Toys new Eco-Trucks ($14.95).  We’ve been big fans of this truly green company that makes it toys from repurposed milk jugs and saw dust!  There are three trucks in the new in line:  a loader, a dump truck and an exacavator.  While we were concerned that some folks may find them too lightweight, our testers across the board thought the weight was a plus–making the toys easier for their kids to tote about.

"Let the Force be With you!" – LEGO Star War's 10th Anniversary

8019-0000-xx-12-1I haven’t been blogging much today because I’ve been busy requesting new toys to test!  There’s alot of excitement with our Lego builders for the new sets based on Star Wars.  With the roll out of the Clone Wars, there’s a new generation of SW fans–much to my delight!  So we have many a young Jedi getting ready to test the new sets as they roll out throught the season.

Pick of the Day: Connectagons

725215h A wonderfully pleasing construction set you’ll want to put them on your coffee table (and play with the set yourself). The set comes in a wooden box and includes 240 wooden discs (1-3/4″ in diameter) that each have eight notches on them–making them a really fun open-ended construction set to use. The circles come in a variety of colors–they’re just fun to hold and build with. They came late, but we’re adding Connectagons to our Platinum Award winners for 2009. At $24.98, it’s also a good value. Offered exclusively by HearthSong.

Gender Specific Building Sets: Calling all Girls!

51v06ftdzel_sl500_aa280_In the past you know we haven’t been too enthusiastic about gender specific building sets. In a perfect world girls and boys would be given gender free sets to explore and play with right from the start. Unfortunately, there is still a gender divide in construction toys. That said, we really like the new Pinklets- The Fairy Garden by Supertstructs (Waba Fun $39.95). Somehow the fairy theme is not as troubling as the construction sets of the 90s that focused on building malls and nurseries. I know I’ve written about this before but it is a subject close to my heart. The research indicates that kids that work with blocks and construction sets develop so many valuable skills: fine motor, problem solving, spatial relationships, visual discrimination, ability to work in sequence…you get the idea.

The moral: It is really important that boys and girls have opportunities to use both open-ended construction sets as well as model building where they are asked to follow directions. So if a pink building set makes this type of play more engaging for your child–go for it.