COMMENTARY: Taking Plush to the Next Level

Gone are the days when plush was simply a category of stagnant stuffed toys. Kids today can enjoy plush items that sing, dance, play music, light up, talk, and more. With technology moving ever forward, the plush category is seeing new ways to integrate interactive elements into soft products. While mechanized toys aren’t a brand new concept, many companies are producing new items that utilize today’s technologies in ways never seen before.

I’ll be honest—I wasn’t much for animated plush when I was a kid. Maybe it was the fact that interactive items didn’t really do anything cool enough to warrant sacrificing the softness and squeezability of a traditional stuffed animal. Or maybe I didn’t like the fact that you have to change the batteries. Whatever my reasons, I think I would have felt differently about interactive plush if I’d had some of the toys available today.

Screen Shot 2014-03-31 at 1.50.19 PMPeek-A-Boo Elmo, a licensed Sesame Street item from Gund, holds a cozy blue blanket to play peek-a-boo with kids ages 18 months and up. When kids press Elmo’s foot, he lifts his blanket over his face while saying phrases such as, “Where are you?” and “There you are!” One of the nicest things about Peek-A-Boo Elmo for parents is that by pressing his foot again, he turns off. I also love that he moves his arms up and down fairly quickly, enhancing the surprise factor for little ones. Elmo’s mouth also moves consistently with what he’s saying. Peek-A-Boo Elmo is programmed to say 13 phrases. [Read more...]

COMMENTARY: Bath Time Is Play Time in My House

I’m a lucky mom (for many reasons), but in the context of this post I’m lucky because my kids love taking baths. It’s one less thing to fight about. However, the reason they don’t mind cleaning up is that it’s fun. It’s not the getting clean part they enjoy (Lena has tried to make me forget about that portion of the experience many times), but the playing. Entertaining a 4-year-old in the tub is very different from distracting an 8-month-old, but bath toys have come a long way since I was a kid (plastic cup and Dawn dish soap, anyone?), and I’ve got a whole array of toys to get the job done. [Read more...]

COMMENTARY: Learning Healthy Habits Has Never Been This Much Fun!

As adults, we’re always obsessing over chasing that elusive 10 pounds that we gained so easily after college, but still haven’t figured out how to lose. Going to the gym and eating organic foods are second nature to those who have adapted healthier lifestyles in an effort to be at their best. It’s difficult to make those changes—switching french fries for brussels sprouts and being active instead of sitting on the couch all day. Why, then, don’t we give our kids a head start in this crusade? We should be teaching these healthy habits as early as possible.

eggplantAt Toy Fair 2014, there was one booth that stuck out to me, mostly because there was a dancing carrot in superhero gear in front of the ss-logotable. Hey, whatever you have to do! But the premise of this company is just that—to put a fun, positive light on vegetables and to get the attention of kids. [Read more...]

COMMENTARY: Inside the Mega Bloks Factory, Where Innovation Is Their Building Block

March19.MegaBloksFactoryThere’s been a trend of late among North American toy manufacturers to either move manufacturing back home or to stay put entirely. Recently, I had a chance to visit the Mega Bloks factory in Montreal, where Mega Bloks—the signature toys of Mega Brands Inc.—are produced, and it only strengthens the argument not to export toy-making abroad. Jean-Francois Albert, vice president of manufacturing for the company, offered a guided tour that showed off the facility’s various innovations, which keep it cost-effective, even compared to China and other countries that traditionally offer cheap labor. [Read more...]

COMMENTARY: Friendly Monsters Come to Life with The Horndribbles

imageAdventures of the Horndribbles: Zapp and the Oogah-Oogah Nut, by Herbert Joel and published by Explorers’ Playground Inc., is the tale of four creature friends that work together to save one of their own when he finds himself in potential danger. The Horndribbles live on—you guessed it—Horndribble Island, a fantastical land with lakes, forests, mountains, and beaches with names such as “Waka Forest,” “Rumblethump,” “Pinball Rapids,” “Willy Nilly Waterway,” “Namby Pamby Creek,” and “Gadzooks Glacier Range,” just to name a few.

My favorite part of the book is the map of Horndribble Island, printed on the inside front cover. [Read more...]

COMMENTARY: AllerMates Help Keep Kids with Allergies Safe

As the mother of a preschooler with a newly discovered sesame allergy, I am somewhat unfamiliar to the world of epi-pens and the importance of teaching a young child to speak up for themselves in a potentially lethal—but seemingly innocent—situation. It’s scary to be told your child has a serious allergy, and that the next seed to cross her lips could cause her throat to close up. While nut allergies are a known condition that can trigger anaphylaxis with tongue swelling and the inability to breathe, sesame allergies are a somewhat new, albeit growing phenomenon. As a parent, it’s my job to keep my children safe, and to make sure that no matter where my daughter is or whose care she is in, she will not be in danger.

allermates.wristbandMy daughter’s pediatrician recently stressed to me the importance of teaching Lena to always ask whether there is sesame in any food she is given, and to always ask a parent or teacher if it’s okay for her to eat. However, she is 4 years old, and new to this allergy herself. She does not understand the potential consequences of eating sesame, and it is extremely difficult for her to remember and be held responsible for something so serious.

allermates.medcaseThis is why I was so enthusiastic when I was contacted by AllerMates, and introduced to the company’s expanding line of products for kids with food allergies. [Read more...]

COMMENTARY: Not a Barbie Girl!

Barbie just celebrated her 55th birthday, and to commemorate the occasion, made a splash on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Wearing a skimpy, and quite-controversial, neutral-toned swimsuit, Barbie caused quite a stir. Many argue that it may be time for Barbie to finally step down as the queen of the children’s doll world. Nickolay Lamm, creator of the new Lammily doll, would certainly agree that there is a new girl in town: the “average is beautiful”-promoting Lammily doll.

Lamm claims that Lammily is the world’s first normal-sized doll. Last year, Lamm designed images of what he dubbed, “normal Barbie,” in an attempt to make the doll reflect the proportions of real female bodies. He used the measurements of the average 19-year-old woman from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and molded them into a 3-D model of Barbie.

lammilyBarbie’s unrealistic proportions have long been criticized by feminist campaigns. Although her waist was expanded and her bust made smaller in 1998, her figure remains significantly out of proportion and unrealistic for the average teenager. Studies show that if transformed into a real woman, Barbie’s 16-inch waist would be four inches thinner than her head. She would be required to walk on her hands and feet, as her 6-inch ankles and vast, missing areas of body would not be able to hold her upright. Studies also show that body image issues in young girls may be related, in part, to Barbie and dolls of the like, and that more than 50 percent of girls ages 9 to 10 claim to be, “on a diet.” This is deeply unsettling, and it seems that while no one thing can be blamed for this warped sense of body image in young girls, Barbie’s unrealistic figure can’t be helping.

Lammily represents something new. [Read more...]

COMMENTARY: Animation Has Long Been a Promotional Vehicle for Toys

BrandonEngel1by Brandon Engel

You’ve likely heard about the massive success of The Lego Movie, and maybe you were even one of the millions worldwide who have gone to see it. Despite its financial success, some have blasted the film for essentially being a glorified, expensive commercial for Legos. I don’t think that anyone can deny that The Lego Movie is obviously commercially motivated, but does that make it wrong? Is it all that different from children’s movies selling toys based on the film?

BrandonEngel2Last Christmas, the Frozen Castle Playset and matching Barbie dolls from the Disney film Frozen were at the top of many children’s lists for Santa. Every time a commercial appeared for the movie or the toy, they advertised each other. Is The Lego Movie any different just because the toy existed before the movie? Here is the bigger question: In an age where almost no image is spared licensing of some form, where does the line get drawn between entertainment and commercial? [Read more...]

COMMENTARY: Let Kids Play With What They Want!

Every so often, I babysit my cousin’s two kids, one boy age 5 and one girl age 6. During one particular instance, we ended up saving a city on the brink of destruction while playing with a police construction set accompanied by a fire truck and superhero action figures. That’s when Alex asked his sister why she wanted to play with us when we were playing with “boy” toys.

“Because it’s fun,” she casually replied in a heartbeat, adding a quick shrug. And it was as simple as that. But what would make Alex question why his sister wanted to play with him even though there were no female characters involved in the story?

Maddie.March7While some toys in the industry are truly gender neutral, others are “reverse gendered.” Gender neutral toys, such as certain board games and Play-Doh, do not intentionally appeal to the divide between girls and boys. Reverse gendered toys don’t exactly have the opposite purpose, but the companies attempt to reach a broader audience. A manufacturer will make changes to a previously gender-specific toy to make the opposite gender drawn towards it. The most common way this is done is having the exact same product produced in two different color palettes. [Read more...]

COMMENTARY: Marble Runs Are on a Roll!

During Toy Fair last month, I saw quite a few marble runs on display, which is not at all surprising. This particular toy has been around since my own childhood and never seemed to go away for any prolonged span of time. Meanwhile, one of the vendors I spoke to said marble runs have actually increased in popularity over the past year, thanks to the growth of the construction toy category. He also said that many customers opt for larger sets—or else buy multiple small ones of the same brand—and that the ability to combine sets to build ever-larger runs makes for exceptional toy value in their eyes.

Personally, I think marble runs are a thing of beauty: You drop in your fateful spheroid and watch as it winds its way toward its ultimate destiny, guided only by physics and skilled engineering. For young builders, they are a terrific means of developing an understanding of cause and effect, not to mention patience–as any seasoned vet can tell you, it can take repeated tries and multiple setbacks before a marble run is put together perfectly. But it’s worth it: A well-built run can have a downright pacifying effect, as watching the marble traveling along can put the mind in a focused, relaxed state.

Despite what they may have in common collectively, marble runs come in a range of different shapes, materials, and styles. Here are a few of my favorite companies currently producing them, but by no means should it be considered a definitive list. The breadth and scope of these toys is certainly worthy of a longer discussion; I’m just here to get the proverbial ball–or marble–rolling:

Phil.2.28.Pic2Hape is known [Read more...]