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?

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


Women in Toys honors Joanne Oppenheim with Lifetime Achievement Award

I’m thrilled to share the terrific news that my amazing mother (and business partner) was honored last night with a Lifetime Achievement Award from Women in Toys.  Joanne was recognized for being a true trendsetter in how we talk about the value of play and the importance of providing our kids with quality playthings.  As always I’m so immensely proud to be her daughter.  On a professional level, there is no better partner.

Last night should have been that moment when you are surrounded by your peers in your industry and soak in that your work matters and has been appreciated.  Sadly, my dad was hospitalized last night.  It was one of those moments when life just throws you a curve ball.

My mom was so touched by the honor and thanks all of the members of the organization.

Bubbles, Bubbles…

I probably love two categories of toys the best…bubbles and things that glow in the dark.  Good news for me, since toy fair was chock full of toys that promised to glow in the dark (sadly, many don’t really glow the way you think they should).

But today, the topic is bubbles.

A little back story.  A little more than twenty years ago when I decided that corporate litigation was not going to be my life’s work…I came up with two ideas. One, was a company called “Earth Bubbles”.  I sat at my desk at White & Case sketching designs for the globe-shaped container.  But I also knew that a product as classic as bubbles needed something unique to grab market share.  So I decided that colored bubbles would be amazing!  Armed with various forms of tints– I went outside with my nieces (happy to play in their brand- spanking new white sneakers and spring clothes)….and you can probably write the rest.

After completely staining everything, being in a far amount of trouble with my brother and sister-in-law…I convinced my mother, who had already written two books on the topic of play, toys and child development…to start another business with me…and that is how the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio came to be.

So, you can now understand my interest in the new Crayola Washable Colored Bubbles.  How did they do it?  I was a little wary of the extensive warning instructions about quality and staining.  (Of course, as someone who used to draft and review such warnings for a linoleum flooring company, I understand the conversation that probably went into this extensive list of disclaimers).

As much as I wanted to really love these colored bubbles, they just don’t do it.

What you really need to know…

They’re not kidding when they say they are strictly an outdoor toy. The bubbles can stain a whole host of surfaces (basically anything inside your house is fair game).

Now for me that doesn’t really take them out of the running. Some things are messy and are still great fun outside.  But the bubbles here don’t really have that same “bubble-ish” lightness.

When you blow these bubbles, you get a lot of color. That’s satisfying,  but they don’t really float the same way. It’s kind of like the difference between floaters and sinkers when it comes to matzo balls. It feels as if the color weighs them down too much.  Sadly, this makes this product a disappointment.

Crayola Washable Colored Bubbles

You can take a look at our video.  We tried it again on a  wind filled day–but they still didn’t act like bubbles.  You’ll see in the video that the  bubbles stayed well-formed on the snow for a very long time and the color remained for days.  It did wash off the concrete step but the warning label indicates that you should stay clear of wood (a la your deck!).  I assume this also would mean to keep it away from outdoor furniture, stones, etc.

We were told at Crayola that it will come out clothes, but I wonder from my own experience how to get it off sneakers!

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

Dolls that Wet (and Poop)

Over the years, this category has always been one that fascinates parents – often when they are in the throws of potty training.  We had one testing family that was our go- to potty doll testers.  Even dolls that I knew probably weren’t going to work out–they really wanted to test.  One of the early potty dolls involved food and water…that you guessed it, had to come out.  So the doll also came with disposable diapers.  The only problem was that the food often got stuck and it was super difficult to get the doll to poop. Thankfully no doll enema included.   Even Elmo got into the act with Potty Time Elmo…he was really polite about the whole experience and reinforced the idea that accidents happen.  He made sound effects to simulate the experience…no actual diapers to change here.  He made our Platinum List one year.  As the mother of two boys, I was also particularly fond of Corolle’s Paul doll, an anatomically correct boy  doll that pees (no pooping here).

So this is all to say that we are always interested in new dolls in this category.  Yesterday we received a huge box of toys that we hadn’t seen yet (amazing since it just feels like we’ve seen every toy)…but we hadn’t tested this particular bunch.  The one that caught our eye was Fisher-Price’s new Wipey Dipey from their Little Mommy line.

Fisher-Price's Little Mommy Wipey Dipey Doll

We usually like these novelty dolls and this one really made us curious.  The box reads:  “pee-pee and poo-poo disappear with a wipe!”  Ok, not that unusual…but here’s the new twist. The diaper lights up with a light indicating that your dolly has made one or two…and then you wipe it away.   No messy diapers (it comes with one plastic diaper that is not removable) and a wipe. You give Wipey Dipey her bottle and then she lets you know that she needs to be changed. She either tells you or makes an uncomfortable sound. In otherwords, this drink and wet doll…really doesn’t do either except in a high-tech manner.

Pros and Cons.

She’s a hard plastic doll…so she’s not soft and huggable. We also found some of her phrases difficult to understand. One could say she’s a mumbler…her supporters would also probably point out that she’s a baby doll.   The novelty aspect of this doll is pretty unique and will appeal to small children that love the “let’s see what she made now” aspect of the doll play.  My only real problem is that when you wipe the poo poo as they call it…you’re wiping in the wrong direction.  I’m really amazed that I just constructed that sentence…but it is really an issue especially when you’re trying to teach kids how to properly wipe at this stage. On the other hand, nothing gets stuck in this doll and there is no water to clean up either.  If you’re of the camp that likes to see the water come out of the doll, Wipey Dipey is probably going to disappoint you.  On the other hand, if you are not big on messy dolls/toys in general…this high-tech no mess approach to potty training may just be what you’ve been looking for.  Only if the real experience could be so mess free!

Watch our video.

Pick of the Day: General Greivous Spinning Electronic Lightsaber

My high school didn’t have a marching band and I was a debate geek anyway…but I still always marveled at those baton throwers when I would watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.  All this combined with my love of Star Wars probably explains my fascination with this new spinning light saber.

Watch my mother’s demo while we were waiting for an interview at ABC RADIO. She’s pretty good!

Read our complete review of this product at toyportfolio.com.

ELMO…feeling a little left out

In seasons past, ELMO is the toy we get all the calls for -someone in desperate need for the latest version of the original Tickle Me Elmo Doll.  We have particular fondness for the original – Joanne brought Elmo on the TODAY Show – Bryant Gumbel loved it–and played with it for the entire show.

This season, ELMO is being completely ignored.  A smaller, perhaps cuter critter has grabbed the imagination of children and media outlets everywhere -even though ELMO  tells jokes this year as well as any Borscht Belt comedian. Oh and yes,  he’s  still throwing kisses…it could break your heart.  Watch our video.

A long day playing with toys…

As we all enjoy summer, there are so many people working on the 2009 Holiday Season.  As toy reviewers, we are in that group–and when we used to do the annual book, we were always a year ahead. Our annual book was always designed for the next year—so at any given point in time, I had great confusion as to which year we were actually in. I told my kids that if I ended up in a ER someplace and was being given an exam that included naming the date…please don’t have them be alarmed if I was off a bit. (Morbid…a little I guess.)

I have to say our new web-based system (new and improved website coming for fall)…has improved our general spirits here considerably.  For the 15 years we did the book, we had to be done writing by July 4th- no joke or we wouldn’t make the printer deadline.   The next week would be filled with the copy-editor’s notes and then a round of inserts for toys that arrived just in time.  We reserved space and copy for things we thought would be terrific…and then adjust them accordingly before we went to print.  The last book we did never saw the light of day due to the lead issues.  Painful that we did all of that work – it was a good edition.

The web has allowed us to write longer reviews and to be less concerned about hard and fast dates.

The lack of such an extreme deadline has also meant that my mother and I no longer have our annual June fight–where we’d start arguing over some book or some toy…that of course had nothing to do with any specific product but just the tension of getting a book out with so many details that had to be fact-checked.  Our working relationship has been one of the treasured experiences of my adult life. We still laugh when a really ridiculous product comes across our desk–and we still marvel at a toy that seems to get it just right.

Checking our list…

Hard to believe that we are thinking about our holiday award list…but this is when we start looking at our tentative lists…looking at the feedback, checking our list..you get the idea.  When we first started we had twenty toys on our top list–now it’s close to 50 with all the ties. It has more to do with us not wanting to fight it out anymore. We have both relaxed a bit…but only a bit. Today, as I was going through all the press materials to make sure that we weren’t missing anything–my mother was reviewing children’s books. Hearing her running commentary is always really entertaining—it’s peppered with “this is charming” to “you have to be kidding, you have to read this!”

We have so many water toys that need testing…but it hasn’t been warm enough here to ask anyone to get wet!  This whole “let’s pretend we live in Seattle thing” is getting a little tired.