Did we learn nothing from Baby Einstein?

I was eager to read the front page New York Times piece on the use of digital technology in toyland by  Stephanie Clifford. In  Go Directly, Digtally to Jail? Classic Toys Learn New Tricks, Ms. Clifford reports on what we also saw as the major trend at toy fair.  It certainly felt like you weren’t in the running as a toy unless you had an APP counterpart. Classic brands including MonopolyHot Wheels and Barbie will not be left behind in the dust of APP hits like Angry Birds.

While the article gives a good overview of Toy Fair that ended on February 15th, it misses any inquiry as to the value of such toys for children. The only mention comes from a manufacturer who makes toys based on the internet hit, Moshi Monsters. We agree with Michael Acton Smith of Mind Candy who notes, “We don’t want a world where kids are just staring at a screen for their play constantly.”  The next question of course, is whether your child needs a plush or plastic representation of characters they enjoy on-line? Does such a real toy enhance their play experience or are they just a desperate play by the 21 billion dollar toy industry to stay in the game?  Other questions come to mind: Is the virtual game worth hours of your child’s time? Does your tech savvy four year old really need to drive a specially designed Hot Wheels on your iPad? How much time, if any,  should your 18 month old be on an electronic device?

Our concern is that such an article suggests to parents that this trend is the new toyland and designed for “technology-obsessed children.”  If you want to play the game of Life with your kids, you’ll now need an iPad at the center of the game board. While the piece does discuss the  income divide such expensive toys may produce, it misses any of the concerns raised by child development experts.

Unsettling for me, is that this type of reporting feels eerily like the early coverage of  baby videos (the Baby Einstein series being the biggest of them all).  The focus was on how popular they were becoming and how companies were making millions targeting this untapped market.  It was as if the press just accepted the marketing spin that these videos will make your child smarter. The take away for parents was that you better buy a full library of these DVDs if you wanted your child to get into college.  There was also a certain amount of fear built into these marketing messages.  Even those parents not sure of the their value, felt compelled to buy them just in case.  After all, who doesn’t want to give their baby every possible advantage. The videos, at under $20 a pop, were a very affordable  golden ticket to the ultimate of sentences: “My kid’s going to Harvard.”  Sadly, the coverage often lacked any  focus  on child development experts who were waving their arms to say that these videos were not beneficial.  No one wanted to hear that these very easy to pop-in videos could negatively impact young children.

We are relieved that the value of these videos has been debunked. Contrary to the brilliantly seductive marketing machine around these videos, parents now know that  their baby is not going to become fluent in four languages by watching the same video over and over again.  In fact, what the research has shown is that  screen time usually just gives kids an appetite for even more screen time. Our organization took a very unpopular position – we have never recommended videos for children under the age of 2. We were delighted when the American Academy of Pediatrics took the same position.

Barbie joins Mattel's new Apptivity Line

It’s really too early to tell how this new world of “blended” and “integrated” toy/digital experience will impact children, especially the very young. As these new toys start arriving for testing, we will have to look at them on a case by case basis. What is the content? Yes, your toddler can navigate a iPad like a pro, but how important is it? What other types of play are being discarded? One of our testing parents recently told me that when she took her kids to an indoor play center, the room was populated by kids sitting and playing with smartphones and tablets. There was serious bargaining going on to get the kids to unplug and play.

What we do know is that other types of screen time (whether it’s television, DVDs, video games)  can negatively impact children. We have a sense that these even smaller screens – that are ever so appealing to young and old -  will have similar issues.

As we wrote about earlier this month (Do kids really need toys to play with their APPs),  we worry about reducing playtime to smaller and smaller play areas. Yes, handing off your phone to your three year old will usually buy some  peace and quiet, but there also needs to be opportunities for kids to use their whole bodies to pretend. They should have art materials for expressing their creativity.  And by art materials – we mean the kind where you get your hands dirty. Playing with blocks helps develop math and visual discrimination skills.  And while we saw an APP for attaching to your child’s trampoline (no joking)…there is no APP that replaces physical activity for developing big muscles and coordination.  Finally, we also know that  very young children  learn best through interactive  experiences with other real people. Language development soars when babies and toddlers are engaged with other people talking, reading and singing with to them.

We welcome Ms. Clifford’s focus on this issue, but hope that going forward that the scope of inquiry will also address the value of this type of play.

 

 

The Countdown to Disney Pixar’s Cars 2!

I can feel the anticipation for this weekend’s opening of Cars2 from Disney Pixar from our testers in the 3-7 age range. While we haven’t seen the movie yet, we have been busy for the last few weeks taking a look at many of the new Cars2 games and toys.   Videos of all CARS 2 products are also on our youtube channel.

Our testers loved the new LEGO DUPLO sets…The pieces are chunky and satisfying and can be integrated into your existing sets of LEGO DUPLO.

LEGO DUPLO Cars 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We have also taken a look at all of the new games from HASBRO with the Cars 2 license – now attached to many classic board games.

Here’s what you need to know about each:

Cars 2 Connect 4 – In interest of full disclosure, I love Connect 4.  It’s one of my favorite games for the 6 & up crowd.  A beginning strategy game that kids really like (and their parents don’t mind playing). Sometimes the added license detracts from the game. A few years ago, there was a Sponge Bob Squarepants version that interfered with the utter elegance of this game (where you drop pieces into the grid with the goal of getting four in a row before your opponent). I would not recommend this game for pre-schoolers.  Even for 6s, it’s a game that they need to play several times before they make that leap to being able to think several steps ahead.

Cars2 Connect Four

In this new Cars 2 version, the game play still comes through. Rather than the classic game where the game pieces are red and yellow, you’ll need to place the decals on the play pieces. They become either Mater or Finn. The color scheme of Mater (brown against white) vs. Finn (blue) makes it easy to distinguish the pieces (a plus).  If you don’t have a Connect 4,  and your child is into Cars 2– this wouldn’t be a bad version to buy. In any case, we’d always recommend the classic Connect 4 as part of your game library.

Cars2 Monopoly

Cars 2 Monopoly

Also very well done.  Smartly identifying the younger audience for this movie, this version of Monopoly is closer to Monopoly Jr. — the money is much easier (only one dollar bills).  Our testers loved the way you spin…which you do by moving McQueen around the track that circles  the game board. Instead of Park Place and Boardwalk, the spaces are other characters from the movie.  A well-designed licensed game that integrates the license into classic board game play. This game is appropriately marked 5 & up.  Most younger kids will find the game play frustrating.

 

Cars 2 Guess Who?

Cars 2 Guess Who?

I’ve never been a huge fan of Guess Who? Here the game play is guessing by process of elimination which character from the movie your opponent has picked. I would say that if you have a super fan of the movie, they will love having all of the characters on the top of the board. It would also be a good travel toy for the car. Not sure I’d make the commitment to taking this one on a plane ride. I don’t think it will have that kind of lasting play value.  Instead of playing by picking out hair color, here you’re asking “Is your car blue?”  It is a game that calls for visual discrimination…it just never grabbed me as overly exciting.

 

Cars 2 Memory Game

Cars 2 Memory Game

If you have a 3 or 4 year old in the hunt for a Cars 2 game, this is best choice. If you’ve ever played a memory game with a preschooler or early school aged child, you know they have the ability to crush most adults at this type of game.  They’re really great at the short-term memory. I’m not sure why adults tend to lose at these games…are we distracted? Already on the decline in this department?  In any case, this is a particularly clever version of memory that incorporates the theme of Cars 2 into the game play. Once you make a “match”, the cars are placed into the grandstands to watch.  Kudos to the design crew at Hasbro for coming up with this added dimension.  There is also a score board where you are “racing” up to the finish line. Your play piece is a car.  Now our testers thought that the cars should have had working wheels… but it’s still a nice aspect of the game.

Cars 2 Operation is pretty much what you’d expect. Instead of the classic big guy, it’s the character Mater. The board features bed bugs…a sign of the times.

Cars 2 Sorry! Sliders

Cars2 Sorry! Sliders

This one takes a while to put together but once you have the track assembled it’s pretty large. The game play involves “sliding” your piece around the track five times, but watch out your opponents can sometimes slide you backwards. This Candyland aspect (even worse because it’s being done to you) makes this a potentially “heated” game.  Marked for kids 6 & up — but I suspect many of these games will be purchased for younger players. I’d really stay away from this one for 4s and 5s – the slide backwards will likely produce tears.  (Unless they are playing with a parent.) The other problem with this game from my point of view is that the pieces do not fit back in the box unless you take them apart again. If you’re the parent in charge of such tasks you know how annoying this can be…why no make the box that 1/2 inch taller and wider so that the pieces can fit in without taking them apart!

Car 2 Trouble

Car2 Pop-o-matic Trouble

If you liked playing Pop-o-matic Trouble as a kid, you’ll enjoy this version.  The character Mater is in the middle and you “pop” in the center of his vehicle.  I thought it would make a car sound when you popped…like last year’s R2D2 Star Wars Version (my all time favorite).  It was noisy (and more expensive) …so this one is less high tech. The game play remains the same.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And as Forrest Gump would say…that is all I have to say about Cars2 games.

A rose by any other name…

Old Names, But New Games. One of the trends for the fall is familiar names (Monopoly, Scrabble, Twister, etc.) being used with all new game play.

U Build Monopoly

The new U-Build Monopoly (Parker Brothers $19.99) looks like an interesting concept, you build the board – allowing you to control how long your game will take. But the traditional game board is completely gone.

Scrabble Flash Cubes

Scrabble Flash Cubes (Hasbro $29.99), one of the coolest games we saw at Toy Fair, has electronic cubes that you use to build words, again no board, no little tiles…no double or triple word points. If you’re a purist about Twister and love the smell and feel of that mat, you may feel sad about Twister Hoopla (Hasbro $19.99) -where your body becomes the mat. We’ll have to see how these test with kids and their parents.  All Available Fall 2010.

Brand new. We did find some new innovative games. Konexi (ZimZala Games $24.99) brings the fun of Jenga and word play together. Here you stack letters to create words-but watch out you don’t want the letters to come falling down. We loved the design and feel of this game – can’t wait to test with kids.

Konexi by ZimZala Games

We suggested that they could make one of games younger so that the age range of 10 plus could come down considerably.  Available Fall 2010.

An anti-technology theme. Appealing to parents that would like the playroom to be more “real” – we found even more organic and recycled products than last year.  A new approach  – classic toys that now require no batteries – saving money, another bonus.   We all grew up with Spin Art – one of my all time personal favorites!   Innovative for this year, Crayola will roll out  Crayola Color Twister Spin Art (Crayola $14.99) which uses an air pump to make the platform spin.  Watch our video.

Crayola Color Twister Spin Art

We only got to to see the prototype–but look forward to testing the real toy later this season. Available July 2010.

LEGO RACER with Air Pump

The same “air” technology is now being used to propel certain LEGO RACERS ($12.99/ Available now).

Pure Whimsy.

Sing-a-ma-jigs

Sing-a-ma-jigs (Mattel $12.99 each) may turn out to be one of the hottest toys of the season if the real things work as well as the prototypes.  Be sure to watch my video. Each of the dolls will chatter, sing and even harmonize together. To me they look like claymation characters come to life. We look forward to testing these as soon as they are ready.  First collection available May 2010/ more to come for the holidays.

Hexbug Nanos. You either loves these little bugs that come in test tubes…or they’ll  creep you out. I love them. Rolling out right now are habitats that you can put them in.  Our testers enjoyed the portability of these little bugs that go like crazy!  The bugs are each $9.99, the habitat starter set is $19.99. 

Hexbug Nanos in their Habitat

They are to me the tech answer to Zhu Zhu Hamsters. If you’re shopping for that hard to buy for tween, these will be an interesting novelty. Available Now.

May the Force be with you. As a complete Star Wars fan, it makes me so happy that there is a whole new generation falling in love with the saga– thanks to the Clone Wars cartoon.  For my LEGO builders, the Star Wars sets are always the number one request.

LEGO TIE Defender

LEGO has responded with many new models including the TIE Defender ($49.99). This is the Empire’s most advanced fighter, it comes with 304 pieces and includes two action figures. Available Now.

Star Wars Millenium Falcon

We also can’t wait to test, the Star Wars R/C Millennium Falcon (Hasbro $49.99/ Available Fall 2010) – watch our video; the Star Wars AT-AT (Hasbro $99.99/Available August 2010)- a pretty impressive play setting for your own battles against the Empire.

Star Wars AT-AT

It’s more than 2′ tall and 28″  long, comes with LED lights, sounds and phrases from the movie; the Star Wars General Grievous Lightsaber (Hasbro $34.99/Available August 2010) is fun to spin–with double lightsabers that come apart. The lights and sound effects will appeal to Star Wars fans young and old.  Watch our video.

All of these toys will be tested and full reviews will appear on www.toyportfolio.com

Related videos:

Our video of Sing-a-ma-jigs

Our video of General Grevious Lightsaber

Our video of the Crayola Color Twist Spin Art

Our video of the Star Wars Millenium Falcon

toyportfolio: Toy Trends 2010

With the pre-toy fair events behind us, we start the hunt for the best toys of 2010 tomorrow in earnest. Thousands of exhibitors, both large and small, present their new toys at the International Toy Fair in NYC. When I started covering toy fair, the big guys were all at the Toy Building at 23rd Street and Broadway.  We would try to schedule our appointments so that we could walk our way down the building. The elevators – always a scary event were full of buyers, toy makers and reps…and when I first started, they all seemed to smoke. It was really gross.  Of course, this was also the era of showbiz at toy fair. There were life size women that became Malibu Barbie…complete with pink shag rugs, moving stages and spotlights. If Hasbro was introducing a new pirates toy, you could count on  pirates carrying on a sword fight in the showroom.  There was plenty of sizzle!  Now it’s just a trade show–all of the actors are gone. The toy building is being converted into condos. Even Matchbox has stopped giving out special toy fair editions (very sad). In any case…here’s what we see as the emerging trends.

Retro is In

Strawberry Shortcake, Alfie, Monopoly, Life, Twister–are all major players at toy fair this season. Monopoly now comes with a board you build yourself or here’s  a break through, a round play board (see below) as part of Monopoly Revolution. Pretty revolutionary–it takes two million dollars to pass go!  The new versions of Twister no longer have that wonderfully smelly plastic mat.  Many of these versions look like fun.  And let’s face it with the Twister brand, you’re probably more likely to try it than if it had a whole new name!

Life Celebrates its 50th Anniversary!

Monopoly Revolution

Licenses Prevail

If there’s a successful franchise, you’ll see it everywhere. Ironman is back  full force and Star Wars has captured the hearts of a whole new generation thanks to the Clone Wars. But we wonder whether Weebles really needed to incorporate the Hulk and Spiderman?

Weebles now with the Hulk and Spiderman

Battle of the Battling

There will be a battle for your child’s battle dollars between Spinmaster’s Bakugan and Hasbro’s Beyblade. This will be determined by the nearest 8 and 9 year old near you!

Hasbro's Beyblade

Zhu Zhu Pets are Challenged- Last year’s run away hit is being challenged by Hasbro who wants part of that rodent action and is introducing a competing line of motion activated pets called Furry Frenzies.

Furry Frenzy to Compete with Zhu Zhu Pets

Sushi and Microwavable Easy Bake food

Food is big in toyland. Last year we got at least a dozen different food related kits including a motion activated birthday cake (Leapfrog). This year the trend continues with Sushi Ottomans (sushistyle.com) and perhaps one of the biggest sign of the times, Easy Bake Kits for the microwave. It’s as if maybe enough kids mentioned in a focus group that they could make the same food in 2 minutes in their microwave!

Retro Dolls

Barbie is all about looking back at her past careers and Strawberry Shortcake, now 30 is a little big taller!

Barbie Student Teacher 1964

What's It All About Alfie?

If you get the movie reference, then chances are you probably remember the original learning toy, Alfie. For a generation that grew up with the Robot on Lost in Space, it was a pretty cool concept for a  toy. Hasbro is reintroducing Alfie at this year’s International Toy Fair in New York, and his reappearance I’m afraid pretty much sums up the feeling of an industry that faces a shrinking audience, a global recession and, oh yes, and still recovering from a little pr problem over safety issues.

I don’t know why but as soon as I saw Alfie, I kept thinking of the Godfather quote “go to the mattresses”… In addition to Alfie, there were lots of other familiar faces at both Hasbro and Mattel. Strawberry Shortcake, now a sophisticated 30 years old, has been up-sized, and is positioned to appeal to moms who played with the original. Monopoly, Battleship, Twister, Sorry, Life have all been reworked (often cleverly–sometimes tortured) into new variations–once again to appeal to that sentimental place in our toy-buying hearts.

If technology worked last year, chances are you’ll see it again with a slightly new look. Talking trucks, motion-activated rodents, RC cars that flip, virtual pets…they’re all back.

So while this may not be a breakthrough year of innovation (do you blame anyone for not betting the farm this past year on something untried?) — you will find lots of solid choices that may give you a strong sense of deja vu.

Monopoly: Old School

I grew up playing Monopoly with my brothers. Truth be told my involvement in any given round was pretty brief.  They were both older, I would trade away all the good properties…and I would be out of the game in what always seemed like minutes. To make matters worse, they had a rule that the loser always had to put the game away–so when they were done, I was left to put the pieces away.  When I got older and could play with my friends, my math anxiety would usually kick in and I would never want to be the banker…but still there was some math to be done. I was a big fan of collection the railroads.  When I first met my husband, I tried playing Monopoly with him. I quickly discovered he learned Monopoly from the same school as my brothers!

So when I had my kids, I determined to create  a kinder and gentler Monopoly environment.  We would be thoughtful and supportive….ok, so that lasted for about ten minutes. I quickly found that my kids loved the wheeling and dealing that their father and uncles enjoyed.  The games were always loud…often ending in some tears (and a family meeting about feelings and good sportsmanship).  I always wonder if other people play Monopoly quietly–or if that’s just our family. We’re pretty noisy in general.

If I look back on my Monopoly experiences, it’s a wonder really why I feel fondly about the game – but I do.

So when they roll out new versions, I’m always game.  Unfortunately, I haven’t really loved many of the “improvements”.  The last few years have brought an electronic scorer–taking away the wonderful math experience of paying for properties. Whether you could always do the calculations in your head (like my friend Lisa)…or needed a little paper…this was part of the game.

This year we got Championship Edition Monopoly…it comes with a trophy –and a nameplate that can be changed as the names change.  Now I don’t know about you–but in any of the houses I grew up in, this is just asking for a dispute. Even if your kids can share the title, I also really don’t like the score pad where you tally up the value of your properties. I much prefer looking at what you have and adding it up…the score pad complicates the whole experience.

For 2010, Hasbro is rolling out two new versions. One is Monopoly Revolution Edition ($34.99, available for fall 2010) – You’ll see that the game board is now round and looks ever so Apple-like. The round electronic game unit keeps track of where you are on the board and promises to have song clips including “Celebration” by Kool & the Gang and “Drive My Car” by The Beatles.  Ok, this may be fun–but it’s not really Monopoly.  Keeping an open mind though. 

Then there’s Monopoly U-Build ($19.99, available for fall 2010)…here you’ll notice you are building your own board.  This version inspired by the original looked like it could be fun.  The big selling point to parents is that the size of the board that you build will determine the length of your game play – so if you only have 30 minutes to play, you can customize the board accordingly…that’s a fun concept.

Monopoly Town

We thought this was such a clever preschool version of the classic game.  Mr. Monopoly is in a little car (very cute) and he travels around the board on a little track.  All very age appropriate and fun so far.  He tells you how many spaces to move–which is also fun and interactive.  You know there’s a but coming….right?

The problem is that when you move him, he sometimes gets stuck and/or moves too quickly and when he does either, the count is off.  The whole concept of having a concrete moving “counting” experience is lost since it’s not always accurate. Too bad.  We hope they can address this issue — the premise of the game is fun.