Five Perfect Toys for Toddlers

Finding toys for toddlers can be super challenging! They’ve outgrown their baby toys–but not quite ready yet for more complex toys geared to preschoolers.  The toys need to match their new found mobility and desire to do things again and again!

Here are just five of my favorites:

Little People Load ‘n Go Wagon (Fisher-Price)

Step 2 Basic Rhythms Piano (Step 2)

Playskool Clipo Creativity Table (Playskool)

Schylling Color Roller (Schylling)

Rollipop Toddler Starter and Advanced Sets (Edushape)

The full reviews are on our site, www.toyportfolio.com.

Baby Einstein Videos: Not a Ticket to Harvard

We’ve taken a lot of heat for not embracing baby videos.  When the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with their recommendation against videos for kids under the age of 2– we were delighted (and quite frankly it made it possible for us to continue excluding these videos from our television segments despite a lot of pressure). But we still knew that these videos have become a staple in most households with very young children.

So I was really happy to read  The New York Times article “No Einstein In Your Crib? Get a Refund” by Tamar Lewis that discusses the announcement that Baby Einstein has agreed to offer parents a refund of $15.99 for up to 4 videos bought during the last five years.  The settlement came after a threatened class action lawsuit alleging that the company made false claims that these videos were educational.  Kudos to Susan Linn, Director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, for taking on Disney (it bought the Baby Einstein Company in 2001).

While we were taping a segment about the best toys for babies, one of our favorite producers from the local WNBC came to our offices with her baby and one of her friends brought her baby as well so that we could get their kids on tape.  Our producer’s baby was completely engaged– at 9 months he was completely taking in the world around him.  He delighted when his mom would play with him.  He was thriving.  In contrast her friend’s baby, also 9 months old–was very muted.  His mother, an investment banker, was insisting that the Baby Einstein videos were doing wonders for her son.  She was a walking billboard for the Baby Einstein marketing strategy.  And no matter what my mother and I said to her about how babies benefit more from  “real life” interactions with real people, she would not be moved from her belief that these videos were preparing her baby for preschool, doing well in elementary school and beyond.

When the videos first came out I was taking a graduate class  in neurological development in children at NYU.  I thought maybe my mother and I were missing something. It’s important not to be closed minded so I brought in one of the best selling Baby Einstein videos for a screening.   The class and my professor were stunned and then there was just a lot of laughing.  When I told them that this was a multi-million dollar business, they were shocked. There was no research supporting that  showing random images and exposing kids to the four different languages at the same time delivered any magic educational bullet.

What Baby Einstein and others in the market  accomplished was to scare parents–that if they didn’t buy these videos their kids would be left behind.  The success of these videos spawned a multi-million dollar industry and I can’t tell you how many video makers in this category would try to get us to change our mind.

That investor banker mom also argued that her child knew and wanted the videos.  So we put one on and watched both babies.  It was true that when the music came on,  both raised their arms in excitement and then they became glued.  “See they love it!”   She’s right they recognized the music and responded happily. Anyone who has watched young children (or let’s face it, adults) in front of the tv, know that it’s easy to become dazed- it certainly doesn’t mean something educational is happening.  (In fact, young children will often watch something very scary on the tv without emotion or moving away because they can’t make the leap between reality and fantasy, they literally can’t make that break.)

When we suggested that awake  play time would be better spent getting down on the floor and engaging her son, she just shook her head. The video had won.

Of course the whole “smarter baby” push is not limited to videos.  During the same period that Baby Einstein came on the scene, most toy companies got on the same bandwagon- pushing toys that were going to make your baby smarter, faster.  This meant that almost every baby toy was covered with the “ABCs”.  One of my “you have to be kidding” moments at toy fair was being shown a Baby Einstein toy (licensed to Playskool) that encouraged babies to find the rhyme!  Yes, babies that aren’t even talking yet were to find the word and image that rhymed with bat.  What was even more alarming were the number of young editors from parenting magazines taking it all in–”wow” “that’s great”….

The whole “hurry-up baby syndrome” unfortunately gave parents the wrong information about what they should expect from their babies – not to mention that kids were being given toys that were well beyond them–teaching them nothing but frustration.  While we wrote about this trend in children’s media across the board in our annual books, it was hard to convince new parents that the nursery doesn’t need to be filled with school based skills. Children don’t make the leap to abstract thinking much before the age of three.  So if your child can sing the ABC song at two, it’s usually very cute and will delight the grandparents, but if you ask a two year old what does LMNOP mean…you’ll see, it’s not really too meaningful.  What is important is that babies and toddlers are engaged–we know that young children that are read to on a regular basis, will enter school with at least 300 more words than kids who don’t have that exposure to language.

So I’m delighted with the news and the refunds–just sad that it took so long.  And for what it’s worth my older son probably learned more about his ABC’s  from  Wheel of Fortune.  “Give me an N!”

Toy Wars and George Costanza's shrinkage factor

Even though most of us haven’t even contemplated buying our Halloween candy yet (ok, I’ve contemplated but I haven’t bought any yet), the major box retailers want you to think holiday toy shopping TODAY!  Walmart has expanded its offer of  toys for $10 to 100 items…KB Toys saw that and raised it to 200, and Target is  trying to match prices.  There’s free shipping to be had…and if you’re really sharp, you can find certain Barbie dolls for as little as $5.

So what’s a toy consumer to think?

1. Toy prices are getting a much needed adjustment. All of that toy safety testing costs a lot –and if you’ve bought a toy recently you’ll know that the added expense has been passed on to consumers.  While we don’t rate toys based on price, we have had sticker shock here as we’ve watched the prices just continue to climb for the past two years. So from this point of view toy wars are good, very good.

2. Less Inventory. If there’s something your child wants for the holidays, buy it early.  Tight inventories is another way retailers have protected themselves this year.

3. Shrinkage…

One of the trends we’ve watched this season is shrinkage…which always makes me thing of Seinfeld’s infamous shrinkage episode with George in the Hamptons.

Toy makers are making many of the same type of toys they used to…but smaller…much smaller…and much less expensive.

For example, last year we featured Playskool’s $300 Kota My Triceratops Dinosaur. This high tech dino-wonder was big enough for your child to sit on! Rec_kota

This year, the same manufacturer is offering Kota & Pals  Stompers – TriceratopsRec_tristompHe walks on my desk. Watch the video. He’s very cute and he actually walks (something the big guy can’t do)…but still, this is what the price wars mean.

So does this mean you should buy only $10 toys this holiday season?

There are in fact lots of toys for $10 and under that are really great. We have many award winners that fit the bill, but buying lots of “stuff” seems like a mistake in the long run. Keep in mind that 60% of our toy dollars are spent this time of year…so bringing home toys that will have lasting play value makes more sense in terms of having toys your kids will play with after the holidays are over.

Open-ended toys and supplies are a better bet. I love novelty toys as much as the next guy…and there are some on our list this year.  The holidays are about making dreams come true, but if you’re looking to make your dollar stretch…buying more open-ended toys is the way to go.  Art supplies, games (that are played again and again), blocks, pretend props (toy kitchens, dollhouses), and toys for active play (ride-ons, sporting equipment)…all will be enjoyed  for a long time and played with differently as your child grows.

Pool your resources. If there’s a toy that your child really wants that costs a little more, have your family chip in. Much more fun to get the present you wanted, then lots of little token gifts from aunts and uncles.

The olden days. There was a time when we didn’t go to the toy store with a shopping cart.  We got fewer toys…not necessarily a bad thing.

Get Your Screwdriver Ready. One way to keep prices down…toy makers leave more for parents to do. Many toys don’t even come with the pre-drilled holes.  If you’re handy with a power drill/screwdriver, you’ll be fine. If you’re not, we warned you.

Make it count. We started the toyportfolio with the tag..we test all the toys so that “you don’t waste your money or your child’s time.”  So  no matter what your budget, we’ve tried to take the mystery of finding a great toy.   So take a look at our Platinum List!

Rocky the Talking Truck and Monty T-Rex Dance it Out!

Talking Truck dances with Roaring T-Rex….watch the video.

So after I got done video taping these guys, I went back to work in the other room.  But it turns out they didn’t need me to keep going…here are two photos taking about 20 minutes apart…they are quite able to entertain themselves…and move about! In the second photo it looks like Monty is leading a Congo line!

dancingtoysdancingtoy2

Matchbox Rocky the Talking Truck Makes Friends

Matchbox Rocky the Talking Truck

Matchbox Rocky the Talking Truck

Decided to introduce Matchbox Rocky the Talking Truck (click here for full review)…to some of our friends in the office. Watch the video.

Pick of the Day: Tonka Wheel Pals Round-About Railway

099941418512_main200One of the hardest categories to fill each year are small vehicles that are safe for the 3 and under crowd.  Many parents just hope for the best and give their kids small Hot Wheels, Matchbox and wooden trains–the problem with them of course is that they do have small parts that are potentially dangerous.  Playskool’s new Wheel Pals line is meant to answer that issue.  The cars are  small in scale – with everything safely anchored.  Our testers loved the new Round About Railway. If you’re looking for a setting that your toddler will enjoy (and not sit on)…look no further.  You put the train at the top of the setting and then your child can either hit the plunger (which activates the train sound)…or just push the train down the track. The vehicle moves slowly enough so that your toddler can track the vehicle, a plus. We thought the Railway works much better than the Fold ‘n Go Garage (we found that some of the ramps did not lock in sufficiently well).