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Making carpet cleaning fun by Bissell, 1965


Toy stories:

100 years of American toy adverts – in pictures


From electric train sets

to Arnold Schwarzenegger action heroes,

a new book from Taschen brings together

American toy adverts of the 20th century.


“Whenever you ask someone, ‘What was your favourite toy?’,

there’s an immediate response – everybody had one,”

says co-author Jim Heimann.


Print adverts for toys are rare now,

but these images preserve a snapshot of the society

that produced them.


At the start of the book, which is chronological,

boys are advertised guns and adventures,

while girls are sold dolls and kitchenware;

gradually, attitudes (and adverts) start to shift.


“I wanted to show how toys reflected what was happening at the time,”

says Heimann. “It definitely does tell a story.”


Sat 27 Mar 2021    17.00 GMT



















Mike Keefe


Mike Keefe is the winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize,

and his cartoons are nationally syndicated by Cagle Cartoons.


24 May 2012


















by Charles Schulz


April 08, 2012






















For Better or For Worse

by Lynn Johnston


June 17, 2012








































toy        UK













toy        USA
















talking toy        USA












annual cost of a child's toys: £715        UK        2005










soft toy








Much loved teddy bears - in pictures        UK        29 October 2013


Award-winning Dublin-based

portrait photographer Mark Nixon

has created a whimsical and nostalgic collection

of images of individual teddy bears

that are battered and worn from years of play,

in a new book called Much Loved

from Abrams & Chronicle Books










gender-free toys        USA










Christmas toys        UK










toymaker        USA










model railway / model train        UK










rocking horse








policeman puppet








wooden block        USA










unit blocks — those basic, indestructible wooden toys

created in the early 1900s        USA










outdoor toys













USA > American toy adverts        UK

















board games        UK / USA















card- and dice-based games        UK










cribbage        USA


Cribbage has it all:

you play with a deck of cards,

but there's also a colorful board

to track your progress.


You gain points using familiar combinations

(runs, flushes, three-of-a-kind),

but there are also rules

that feel whimsical and random,

like scoring points

when your cards add to the number 15.


Play takes about 30 minutes,

ideal for pre-dinner drinks

— or playing best-of-three

if things get competitive.


Where cribbage really hooked me, though,

was the jargon.


Cribbage has a language all its own,

from pegging

(tracking your score along the board)

to calling Two for His Heels

if you flip up a Jack.


High-scoring combinations have nicknames

(Automatic Eight, Raggedy Ann, Trips),

and tallying your hand has a distinct rhythm

(15 for two, 15 for four, pair for six

and a flush for 10).










puzzle / puzzle hunters        USA










Lego        UK / USA


















iconic game > Dungeons and Dragons        UK

























pinball / pinball machine        USA











standard two-flipper machine        USA










D. Gottlieb & Company pinball factory in Chicago        USA












Corpus of news articles


Arts > Toys, Games




Steve Kordek,

a Pinball Innovator,

Dies at 100


February 23, 2012

The New York Times



Steve Kordek, who revolutionized the game of pinball in the 1940s by designing what became the standard two-flipper machine found in bars and penny arcades around the world, died on Sunday at a hospice in Park Ridge, Ill. He was 100.

His daughter Catherine Petrash confirmed his death.

Mr. Kordek actually revised a revision of what until the 1930s had been called the pin game. In that version a player would pull a plunger to release the ball, then shake the table in an often frustrating attempt to redirect the ball toward a scoring target — a cup or a hole.

In 1947, two designers at the D. Gottlieb & Company pinball factory in Chicago, Harry Mabs and Wayne Neyens, transformed that rudimentary game into one called Humpty Dumpty, adding six electromechanical flippers, three on each side from the top to the bottom of the field.

It was an instant hit — until, at a trade show in Chicago 1948, Mr. Kordek introduced Triple Action, a game that featured just two flippers, both controlled by buttons at the bottom of the table. Mr. Kordek was a designer for Genco, one of more than two dozen pinball manufacturers in Chicago at the time.

Not only was Mr. Kordek’s two-flipper game less expensive to produce; it also gave players greater control. For someone concentrating on keeping a chrome-plated ball from dropping into the “drain,” two flippers, one for each hand, were better than six.

“It really was revolutionary, and pretty much everyone else followed suit,” David Silverman, executive director of the National Pinball Museum in Baltimore, said in an interview. “And it’s stayed the standard for 60 years.”

Roger Sharpe, author of “Pinball!” (1977), a history of the industry, agreed.

“But not only did Steve choose to put two flippers down at the bottom of the playfield,” Mr. Sharpe said, “even more importantly he provided direct-current power to those flippers, meaning that a ball skillfully flipped from the bottom of the playfield could actually get to the top, and anywhere in between, with some semblance of accuracy.” Previous games had mostly used less powerful alternating current.

Mr. Kordek’s career spanned more than six decades and the industry’s evolution from battery power to computers. While the two-flipper standard is perhaps his most significant contribution, he would go on to lead design teams that created more than 100 games — at Genco and later for Bally Manufacturing and Williams Manufacturing — many of which were hits. Among them are Space Mission, which was inspired by the Apollo and Soyuz satellite missions; Grand Prix, with a car-racing theme; Contact, in which humans and space aliens meet; and Pokerino, based on poker.

The last game to which Mr. Kordek contributed was Vacation America, a computerized game released in 2003 that was inspired by the National Lampoon “Vacation” movies.

“Steve’s impact would be comparable to D. W. Griffith moving from silent films through talkies and color and CinemaScope and 3-D with computer-generated graphics,” Mr. Sharpe said. “He moved through each era seamlessly.”

Steven Francis Kordek was born in Chicago on Dec. 26, 1911, the oldest of 10 children of Anna and Frank Kordek. His father worked in the steel mills. Steven Kordek worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps and for the United States Forest Service during the Depression.

On a visit to his hometown in 1937, he was walking down a street without an umbrella when a torrential rain forced him to step into the lobby of a building he was passing. It was the Genco company. A receptionist asked if he was looking for a job.

“I had never seen a pin game before in my life,” Mr. Kordek told The Chicago Tribune in 2009. For 45 cents an hour, he was soon doing soldering on the company’s production line. He studied at the Coyne Electric School at night and began working his way up through the Genco engineering department.

Mr. Kordek married Harriet Pieniazek in 1941; she died in 2003. Besides his daughter Catherine, he is survived by another daughter, Donna Kordek-Logazino; two sons, Frank and Richard; a sister, Florence Wozny; two brothers, Joseph and Frank; six grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

Several pinball machines line the walls of Mr. Kordek’s house, his daughter Catherine said. “It’s always been the activity center for all our children and their friends.”

Mr. Kordek never got tired of the clang, clack and buzz of pinball. “I had more fun in this business than anyone could believe,” he told The Tribune.

Steve Kordek, a Pinball Innovator, Dies at 100,






Should the World of Toys

Be Gender-Free?


December 29, 2011
The New York Times


Berkeley, Calif.

NOW that the wrapping paper and the infernal clamshell packaging have been relegated to the curb and the paying off of holiday bills has begun, the toy industry is gearing up — for Christmas 2012. And its early offerings have ignited a new debate over nature, nurture, toys and sex.

Hamleys, which is London’s 251-year-old version of F.A.O. Schwarz, recently dismantled its pink “girls” and blue “boys” sections in favor of a gender-neutral store with red-and-white signage. Rather than floors dedicated to Barbie dolls and action figures, merchandise is now organized by types (Soft Toys) and interests (Outdoor).

That free-to-be gesture was offset by Lego, whose Friends collection, aimed at girls, will hit stores this month with the goal of becoming a holiday must-have by the fall. Set in fictive Heartlake City (and supported by a $40 million marketing campaign), the line features new, pastel-colored, blocks that allow a budding Kardashian, among other things, to build herself a cafe or a beauty salon. Its tasty-sounding “ladyfig” characters are also taller and curvier than the typical Legoland denizen.

So who has it right? Should gender be systematically expunged from playthings? Or is Lego merely being realistic, earnestly meeting girls halfway in an attempt to stoke their interest in engineering?

Among the “10 characteristics for Lego” described in 1963 by a son of the founder was that it was “for girls and for boys,” as Bloomberg Businessweek reported. But the new Friends collection, Lego says, was based on months of anthropological research revealing that — gasp! — the sexes play differently.

While as toddlers they interact similarly with the company’s Duplo blocks, by preschool girls prefer playthings that are pretty, exude “harmony” and allow them to tell a story. They may enjoy building, but they favor role play. So it’s bye-bye Bionicles, hello princesses. In order to be gender-fair, today’s executives insist, they have to be gender-specific.

As any developmental psychologist will tell you, those observations are, to a degree, correct. Toy choice among young children is the Big Kahuna of sex differences, one of the largest across the life span. It transcends not only culture but species: in two separate studies of primates, in 2002 and 2008, researchers found that males gravitated toward stereotypically masculine toys (like cars and balls) while females went ape for dolls. Both sexes, incidentally, appreciated stuffed animals and books.

Human boys and girls not only tend to play differently from one another — with girls typically clustering in pairs or trios, chatting together more than boys and playing more cooperatively — but, when given a choice, usually prefer hanging with their own kind.

Score one for Lego, right? Not so fast. Preschoolers may be the self-appointed chiefs of the gender police, eager to enforce and embrace the most rigid views. Yet, according Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist and the author of “Pink Brain, Blue Brain,” that’s also the age when their brains are most malleable, most open to influence on the abilities and roles that traditionally go with their sex.

Every experience, every interaction, every activity — when they laugh, cry, learn, play — strengthens some neural circuits at the expense of others, and the younger the child the greater the effect. Consider: boys from more egalitarian homes are more nurturing toward babies. Meanwhile, in a study of more than 5,000 3-year-olds, girls with older brothers had stronger spatial skills than both girls and boys with older sisters.

At issue, then, is not nature or nurture but how nurture becomes nature: the environment in which children play and grow can encourage a range of aptitudes or foreclose them. So blithely indulging — let alone exploiting — stereotypically gendered play patterns may have a more negative long-term impact on kids’ potential than parents imagine. And promoting, without forcing, cross-sex friendships as well as a breadth of play styles may be more beneficial. There is even evidence that children who have opposite-sex friendships during their early years have healthier romantic relationships as teenagers.

Traditionally, toys were intended to communicate parental values and expectations, to train children for their future adult roles. Today’s boys and girls will eventually be one another’s professional peers, employers, employees, romantic partners, co-parents. How can they develop skills for such collaborations from toys that increasingly emphasize, reinforce, or even create, gender differences? What do girls learn about who they should be from Lego kits with beauty parlors or the flood of “girl friendly” science kits that run the gamut from “beauty spa lab” to “perfume factory”?

The rebellion against such gender apartheid may have begun. Consider the latest cute-kid video to go viral on YouTube: “Riley on Marketing” shows a little girl in front of a wall of pink packaging, asking, “Why do all the girls have to buy pink stuff and all the boys have to buy different-color stuff?” It has been viewed more than 2.4 million times.

Perhaps, then, Hamleys is on to something, though it will doubtless meet with resistance — even rejection — from both its pint-size customers and multinational vendors. As for me, I’m trying to track down a poster of a 1981 ad for a Lego “universal” building set to give to my daughter. In it, a freckle-faced girl with copper-colored braids, baggy jeans, a T-shirt and sneakers proudly holds out a jumbly, multi-hued Lego creation. Beneath it, a tag line reads, “What it is is beautiful.”


Peggy Orenstein is the author, most recently,

of “Cinderella Ate My Daughter:

Dispatches From the Front Lines

of the New Girlie-Girl Culture.”

    Should the World of Toys Be Gender-Free?, NYT, 29.12.2011,






With Blocks,

Educators Go Back to Basics


November 27, 2011
The New York Times


Huddled together on the reading rug of a prekindergarten classroom on the Upper West Side, three budding builders assembled a multilayered church with a Gothic arch. Nearby, another block artist created a castle with a connecting courtyard. Meanwhile, a fifth toiled earnestly on a shaky tower, eliciting oohs and aahs from across the room when it came tumbling down.

These were not prekindergartners, but members of the Parents League of New York, who had crowded into an oversubscribed workshop on block building last month. The tower constructor, a lawyer named Matthew Hurd, was still wearing a suit.

Jean Schreiber, a self-described “block consultant,” advised the group to engage their children in building by photographing their work. “Don’t rush to help them with structural challenges,” she said. “You don’t have to ask them a million questions. Just sit with them and notice.”

As in fashion, old things often come back in style in education. The Parents League workshop reflects a renewed faith in unit blocks — those basic, indestructible wooden toys created in the early 1900s — sweeping through some elite swaths of New York’s education universe. While many progressive private and public schools have long sworn by blocks, more traditional institutions are now refocusing on block centers amid worries that academic pressure and technology are squeezing play out of young children’s lives.

Eva Moskowitz, the former city councilwoman who runs a fast-growing network of charter schools, said her schools had created a “religion around blocks,” and she proudly advertises their fully outfitted block labs alongside the chess program and daily science classes. The International School of Brooklyn is developing a program using blocks to reinforce foreign-language acquisition. And Avenues, the for-profit school scheduled to open next year in Greenwich Village, is devoting a large section of its kindergarten floor to a block center.

“If you talk about block program with parents these days,” said Libby Hixson, director of Avenues’ lower school, “they just light up.”

National school-supply companies like Becker’s and Lakeshore added more than a dozen block-related products to their catalogs this year. And at City and Country School, the West Village private school founded in 1914 by Caroline Pratt, who is credited with inventing unit blocks, there has been a marked increase in observers from local schools that do not have the progressive pedigree usually associated with block play.

Fretta Reitzes, who runs an early-education conference every November at the 92nd Street Y, said the block workshop sold out so quickly this year that she added a second one. “What we’re seeing,” she said, “is teachers really caught between these very prescriptive curriculums and their desire to give kids opportunities to explore.”

Sasha Wilson, co-director of the four-year-old Bronx Community Charter School, said his faith in blocks was solidified by a struggling second grader’s actions after an apple-picking field trip. “She went to the block corner and built an incredibly complex structure, a tractor engine, and she was able to talk about how all the parts moved,” Mr. Wilson recalled. He said he told his staff a few days later: “We need to be looking at this student in a very different way.”

Caroline Pratt’s original unit blocks were made of smooth, splinter-free maple, though cheaper sets are now available in birch, beech and rubberwood (experts say it costs about $1,000 to outfit a classroom). Sets usually include 5.5-inch-long rectangles as well as pillars, columns, triangles, curves and longer rectangles.

Studies dating to the 1940s indicate that blocks help children absorb basic math concepts. One published in 2001 tracked 37 preschoolers and found that those who had more sophisticated block play got better math grades and standardized test scores in high school. And a 2007 study by Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Hospital, found that those with block experience scored significantly better on language acquisition tests.

But perhaps the hottest pitch of late, particularly to high-stress, high-strung New York City parents, is that blocks can build the 21st-century skills essential to success in corporate America.

At the Chapin School on the Upper East Side, where educators have spent the last several years weaving a comprehensive block program into kindergarten and first-grade math and social studies, students toiled together on a grocery store and a fancy hotel one recent morning, beneath a sign that read: “When Partners Disagree They Try for a Win-Win Solution.” Nearby was another sign, outlining a seven-step building guide, that looked as boardroom as it did classroom.

Ms. Reitzes, who runs the youth center at the 92nd Street Y, said many educators were embracing blocks as an antidote to fine-motor-skill deficits and difficulty with unstructured activity, problems that they blame on too much time in front of screens and overly academic preschools. Sara Wilford, director of the “Art of Teaching” graduate program at Sarah Lawrence College, sees it as an obvious backlash. “There are so many schools where children are seeing less and less play,” she said. “And I think parents are getting that that is not going to help them.”

But many of the newfangled block centers go beyond unstructured play. Students are encouraged to continue working on the same structure, sometimes for weeks. Teachers seize on opportunities to connect what they are building to the curriculum. And technology is often involved.

Jessica Thies, a teacher at Chapin, said her students photographed their block extravaganzas with one of the school’s iPads. Last year, they made a documentary about blocks using a Flip video camera and edited it during computer class. “It is very low-tech/high-tech here,” Ms. Thies said.

At the 92nd Street Y preschool, teachers videotape students doing block work so they can review their process. And at the Packer Collegiate Institute, the Brooklyn Heights private school where educators have recently recommitted themselves to blocks by hosting workshops for teachers and moving block corners to more centralized locations, students often use classroom computers to search for images or watch videos that help them visualize something to build.

Rajul Mehta, who has two daughters at Chapin, fondly recalls playing with blocks during her own childhood in Mumbai and appreciates their applications in math, science, architecture and aesthetics. “These are very basic skills that our children can take back into their daily lives,” she said.

Riley Palmer, a second grader at City and Country, said that creating a series of Brooklyn Bridges, each about three feet tall, helped her class understand what it had been like for the original builders. “There is so much you can do with blocks,” Riley said. “You can stagger them. You can stack them. It’s fun and cool. And when we’re done, we’re going to be able to show everybody in school what we did.”

    With Blocks, Educators Go Back to Basics, NYT, 27.11.2011,






A Hamster Is the Season’s Hottest Toy


November 21, 2009
The New York Times


Who’s laughing now, Elmo?

The hottest toy this holiday season is not a ticklish red monster. It’s a fake hamster.

Known as Zhu Zhu Pets, the artificial rodents have some advantages over the real thing. They do not stink, chew electric wires, or run around their cages making noise at night. In fact, they do not need cages.

Children are delighted at how they coo and scoot about unpredictably. Parents are delighted not to have to clean up after them. And at $7.99 each, the hamsters are recession-friendly.

The trouble is, Zhu Zhu Pets are so popular that stores cannot keep them in stock. The critters are routinely sold out at the likes of Toys “R” Us, Wal-Mart and Target, though more will hit the shelves the day after Thanksgiving, when deal-seekers wake up early to shop for bargains. In the meantime, the hamsters are being sold at a premium on the Internet.

“Beware of the price-gouging on Amazon and eBay, which we don’t condone,” said Natalie Hornsby, director of marketing for Cepia, the St. Louis company that created Zhu Zhu Pets.

The five different battery-operated hamsters — Chunk, PipSqueak, Mr. Squiggles, Num Nums and Patches — are mainly coveted by girls, according to toy industry professionals. This possibly makes sense; Jim Silver, editor in chief of TimetoPlayMag .com, pointed out that girls also own the majority of live hamsters.

Boys, it appears, are wild this year for Bakugan Battle Brawlers, a game that uses cards and action figures hidden inside small spheres. The goal is to be the first player to capture three of your opponent’s cards, known as Gate cards. (The name comes from the Japanese words “baku,” meaning “to explode,” and “gan,” meaning “sphere.”) Yet as popular as Bakugan is, the hamsters are upstaging that game and everything else in toy land this season.

“It clearly is the hottest phenomenon of the year,” said Gerald L. Storch, chairman and chief executive of Toys “R” Us. “There’s no doubt about that.”

After seeing a commercial in October for Zhu Zhu Pets, Tracey Henry of Safety Harbor, Fla., decided to buy one for her 6-year-old daughter, even though the girl wanted a real hamster for her birthday. Ms. Henry considered a fake hamster a better idea, so she went to Toys “R” Us.

“The shelves were empty,” she said, “and there were these signs that said, ‘Limit four Zhu Zhu Pets per day.’ ”

Ms. Henry, who writes the blog SuburbanDiva.com, returned home and began calling local toy stores and scouring the Web sites of Toys “R” Us, Wal-Mart and Target, with no luck. In the end, she bought a Zhu Zhu Pet on Amazon, marked up to $34.99.

“We got the yellow one,” Ms. Henry said. “We should rename it ‘greenback.’ ”

The nation’s stores, which have become familiar with these sorts of tales, are trying to round up enough hamsters for the holidays.

Toys “R” Us said this week that it would have tens of thousands of Zhu Zhu Pets in stock on the Friday after Thanksgiving. But consumers will have to drink coffee with their turkey if they want a hamster: Toys “R” Us stores will open on Thanksgiving at midnight, and the first 100 customers in line will receive a ticket for a Zhu Zhu Pet, with a limit of one for each household.

“Others may try to make a lot of noise out of a few hamsters,” Mr. Storch said, “but we have by far the most inventory and opportunity to find Zhu Zhu at any retailer.” (Next month, Toys “R” Us plans to offer an exclusive $100 Zhu Zhu Pets set that includes — brace yourself — two hamsters, an exercise wheel, a fun house, a car and garage, an adventure ball and a sleep dome.)

Melissa O’Brien, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart Stores, declined to comment on the chain’s Black Friday hamster plans, though she said the chain had more Zhu Zhu Pets on the way.

“At this time, we’re even air-shipping them in some markets,” she said. But she warned that when the hamsters do arrive, “a lot of them don’t spend the night in a store.”

Indeed, Cepia has found itself increasing hamster production and fielding phone calls from parents desperately seeking Zhu Zhu Pets, as well as their slightly pricier accessories, like a ramp with slide and a garage with car. There is even a surfboard.

Ms. Hornsby said the hamsters take their name from “zhu zhu,” or “little pig” in Chinese, which the folks at Cepia thought was fitting, given that hamsters are known for making messes.

Mr. Silver of TimetoPlayMag .com said a toy hamster had not been this hot for at least a decade, when Americans became enamored of one that danced to “Kung Fu Fighting.”

Cepia is relatively new. Founded in 2002, it has 16 employees in the United States and 25 in China. Ms. Hornsby, the marketing director, said Zhu Zhu Pets were the company’s breakthrough toy. “This is definitely our big fish,” she said, forgetting the hamster lingo for a moment. “Every day, we are humbled by what’s going on.”

The creators of Bakugan have more experience with this sort of craze. Bakugan, a Japanese import that some industry professionals have likened to the Pokémon phenomenon, was a hit last Christmas. The must-have addition to the toy line this year is Bakugan 7-in-1 Maxus Dragonoid, which, at $39.99, enables children to connect several game pieces to form one intimidating creature. Toys “R” Us has an exclusive 7-in-1 Bakugan, New Vestroia Maxus Helios, also for $34.99.

Harold Chizick, vice president of global communications and promotions for Spin Master, the creator of Bakugan, said the toys were all the rage because children liked collecting the cards and action figures just as much as battling. There is also a hit Bakugan Battle Brawlers anime television show that has fueled sales. “We have increased manufacturing and expedited shipment to be here for the holiday season,” Mr. Chizick said.

While it is the second Christmas for Bakugan, Mr. Silver of TimetoPlayMag.com noted that “when you have a hot item like this, usually Year 2 is bigger than Year 1.” That is primarily because the toy companies are able to ramp up to meet demand the second year.

Josh Green, chief executive of Panjiva, which tracks water-borne goods, said shipments of Zhu Zhu Pets to the United States skyrocketed for the three months ended in October.

But a warning to mischievous children everywhere: Mr. Green noted that shipments of coal were also up, by 6 percent, over last year.

    A Hamster Is the Season’s Hottest Toy, NYT, 21.11.2009,






For Toddlers,

Toy of Choice Is Tech Device


November 29, 2007
The New York Times


SAN FRANCISCO, Nov. 28 — Cellphones, laptops, digital cameras and MP3 music players are among the hottest gift items this year. For preschoolers.

Toy makers and retailers are filling shelves with new tech devices for children ages 3 and up, and sometimes even down. They say they are catering to junior consumers who want to emulate their parents and are not satisfied with fake gadgets.

Consider the “hottest toys” list on Amazon.com, which includes the Easy Link Internet Launch Pad from Fisher-Price (to help children surf on “preschool-appropriate Web sites”) and the Smart Cycle, an exercise bike connected to a video game.

Jim Silver, editor of Toy Wishes magazine and an industry analyst for 24 years, said there had been “a huge jump in the last 12 months” in toys that involve looking at a screen.

“The bigger toy companies don’t even call it the toy business anymore,” Mr. Silver said. “They’re in the family entertainment business and the leisure business. What they’re saying is, ‘We’re vying for kids’ leisure time.’ ”

Technology has been slowly permeating the toy business for a number of years, but the trend has been accelerating. On Wednesday, six of the nine best-selling toys for 5- to 7-year-olds on Amazon.com were tech gadgets. For all of 2006, three of the top nine toys for that age group were tech-related.

The trend concerns pediatricians and educators, who say excessive screen time stifles the imagination. But more traditional toys — ones without computer monitors, U.S.B. cables and memory cards — are seen by many children as obsolete.

“If you give kids an old toy camera, they look at you like you’re crazy,” said Reyne Rice, a toy trends specialist for the Toy Industry Association. Children “are role-playing what they see in society,” she added.

That seems to be the case even when youngsters are not old enough to have any clue how to use actual gadgets.

Yunice Kotake, of San Bruno, Calif., recently purchased a Fisher-Price Knows Your Name Dora Cell Phone for her twin year-old daughters. But a few days later, she returned the play phone to a local Toys “R” Us, after she found that the girls seemed to prefer their parents’ actual phones.

“They know what a real cellphone is, and they don’t want a fake one,” Ms. Kotake said.

Inside the Toys “R” Us, the shelves near the store’s front were brimming with toys with a high-tech twist. Among them were numerous starter laptops that play educational games (and in the shape, for instance, of Barbie’s purse and Darth Vader’s helmet) and traditional board games with DVD extras. Perched prominently on one shelf was one of the country’s hottest-selling toys, the EyeClops Bionic Eye, an electronic camera for children ages 6 and up.

Standing near the front of the store, a 6-year-old named Sabrina, with a gap-tooth smile, explained that her No. 1 choice for a Christmas gift is an adult laptop.

“ ’Cause it’s cool,” she explained.

“Maybe when she’s 8,” said her mother, Amina, who declined to give her last name. She might, she said, have to yield when her daughter turns 7.

“These kids are different from the way we were,” she added.

Toy companies are eager to meet demand with products like the LeapFrog ClickStart My First Computer, which gives children ages 3 and up a keyboard to help them learn computer basics, using a TV screen as a monitor.

“Children want to emulate their parents, whether they are on the phone, using a digital camera or on their computers and online,” said Mark Randall, vice president of the toy and baby store at Amazon.com. “The toy industry now has pretty much got a product for every one of those behaviors.”

Even toys with no typical connection to technology are newly wired. A new generation of popular stuffed animals and dolls, like Webkinz, are now tied to Internet sites so that toddlers can cuddle and dress them one minute and go online to social-network the next. Among the hottest toys listed in the holiday issue of Toy Wishes magazine are Barbie Girls MP3 players and the Rubik’s Revolution, a blinking, beeping update of the Rubik’s Cube that includes six electronic games.

Wiring toys for a young audience is worrying some children’s advocates and pediatricians. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises against screen time for children ages 2 and younger, and it recommends no more than one to two hours a day of quality programming on televisions or computers for older children.

Donald L. Shifrin, a pediatrician based in Seattle and the spokesman for the academy, said tech toys cannot replace imaginative play, where children create rich narratives and interact with peers or parents.

“Are we creating media use as a default for play?” Dr. Shifrin asked. “When kids want to play, will they ask, ‘Where’s the screen?’ ”

But to the toy industry, the so-called youth electronics category is a bright spot and now accounting for more than 5 percent of all toy sales. Overall toy sales have been flat at around $22 billion a year for the last five years, according to the market research firm NPD Group.

“If you’re just selling traditional toys like board games or plastic toys, you can survive but you can’t grow,” said Sean McGowan, a toy industry analyst with Needham & Company. “This industry has to redefine what a toy is.”

Toy makers are also worried that they might be losing their youngest, most devoted customers to the consumer electronics and video game companies. Mr. McGowan said the industry has even coined a term for the anxiety: KGOY, which stands for Kids Getting Older Younger.

Meanwhile, electronics makers, and entrepreneurs, see opportunity in capturing today’s bib-wearing consumers.

A cellphone company called Kajeet, based in Bethesda, Md., introduced a cellphone this year for children ages 8 and up. In October, Toys “R” Us started stocking the phones, which have software aimed at children but the same hardware as adult models.

“When we put devices in front of kids, if they smack of kid-ness, they’re much less interested,” said Daniel Neal, Kajeet’s chief executive. “They want your iPhone, they want your BlackBerry, and they’re smart enough to use it better than you do.”

Eric Jorgensen, a programmer at Microsoft, has invented PixelWhimsy, a computer program that allows toddlers to sit at a regular computer and bang away on the keys to create sounds and colors and shapes, but without damaging the computer.

Asmin Jalis, who also works at Microsoft and whose 2-year-old boy, Ibrahim, has been using PixelWhimsy, said his son liked it better than his toy computer. “We have a toy laptop for him, and he knows it’s a fake,” he said.

Grace, a 1-year-old in San Francisco, however, has been going through a decidedly nontechnology phase.

Recently, playtime has involved “putting little toys and dolls into bags and zipping them up,” said her mother, Tanya, who declined to give her last name. “Wouldn’t it be great if our lives were so simple?”

Still, Tanya has put the Fun Elmo Laptop on Grace’s Christmas list. Tanya says Grace is getting the gift because she loves to sit on her mom’s lap and hit the keys and move the mouse on the family’s real computer.

“I think she just likes mimicking people,” Tanya said.

    For Toddlers, Toy of Choice Is Tech Device, NYT, 29.11.2007,






Feds Urge Vigilance on Toy Safety


Published: November 20, 2007
Filed at 10:08 a.m. ET
The New York Times


WASHINGTON (AP) -- Federal regulators sought Tuesday to restore parents' confidence in toy safety, urging vigilance during the busy holiday shopping season with little mention of lead hazards that have prompted a record number of toy recalls.

Consumer groups, though, warned that they found numerous cases where toys that posed a choking hazard or lead danger had improperly made it to store shelves. ''Consumers looking for toys still face an industry full of safety loopholes,'' said the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

Three days before the start of the busy shopping season, Nancy Nord, acting chief of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, issued safety tips in a two-page release that called on parents to ''stay informed'' about safety risks by reading product warning labels and signing up for direct e-mail notification of recalls at www.cpsc.gov.

Among the biggest toy hazards cited by CPSC:

--Riding toys, skateboards and inline skates that could cause dangerous falls for children.

--Toys with small parts that can cause choking hazards, particularly for children under age 3.

--Toys with small magnets, particularly for children under age 6, that can cause serious injury or death if the magnets are swallowed.

--Projectile toys such as air rockets, darts and sling slots for older children that can cause eye injuries.

--Chargers and adapters that can pose burn hazards to children.

''Toys today are undergoing more inspection and more intense scrutiny than every before,'' Nord said in a statement, citing CPSC's ''daily commitment to keeping consumers safe 365 days a year.''

The agency noted that the Chinese government recently had signed agreements to help prevent lead-painted toys from reaching the U.S., and that the CPSC was ''taking the action needed to remove violative products from the marketplace.''

Consumer groups weren't so sure.

In its 57-page annual survey, U.S. PIRG agreed that toys with small magnets as well as small parts that pose choking hazards create significant risks.

Between 1990 and 2005, at least 166 children choked to death on children's products, accounting for more than half of all toy-related deaths at a rate of about 10 deaths per year, the group said. Several times this year potentially dangerous toys were sold without the required warning labels of possible choking risks while the CPSC also has been slow to issue public warnings, U.S. PIRG said.

U.S. PIRG and Oakland, Calif.-based Center for Environmental Health also pointed to continuing risks involving lead-tainted toys, millions of which were recalled this year. They cited weak laws that only clearly ban lead in paint.

The findings come as both the House and Senate consider legislation that would overhaul the product safety system by substantially increasing CPSC's budget, raising the cap on civil penalties for violations and giving the CPSC authority to provide quicker notice to the public of potentially dangerous products.

The measures also seek to ban officials at federal regulating agencies from taking trips financed by industries they oversee. Both Nord and her predecessor as chairman, Hal Stratton, accepted free trips worth thousands of dollars at industry expense.

On Monday, California Attorney General Jerry Brown sued 20 companies in state court, including Mattel Inc. and Toys ''R'' Us, claiming they sold toys containing ''unlawful quantities of lead.'' The move follows major recalls of toys, lunch boxes, children's jewelry and other goods during the last year by CPSC.

    Feds Urge Vigilance on Toy Safety, NYT, 20.11.2007,






Toys 'R' Us recalls

Elite Operations toys for lead


Wed Oct 31, 2007
1:50pm EDT


WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Toys "R" Us Inc is recalling about 16,000 Elite Operations toys because the surface coatings of the military-style toys contain excessive levels of lead, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said on Wednesday.

The Chinese-made toys were sold from July 2007 through October 2007, and include Super Rigs (#1004), Command Patrol Center (#1020), Barracuda Helicopter (#1023), and 3 Pack 8-inch Figures (#1024).

No other Elite Operations brand military play sets are included in this recall, the agency said.

The toys were sold in stores nationwide and online at toysrus.com for between $10 and $30. The agency said no incidents or injuries have been reported from the Elite Operations toys.

The CPSC also on Wednesday announced the recall of about 43,000 Chinese-made fake teeth sold as Halloween party favors and about 1,500 Chinese-made SimplyFun Ribbit board games because they contain unsafe levels of lead paint.

The "Ugly Teeth" party favors were imported by Amscan Inc and sold at various retailers throughout the United States in 2006 and this year for about $2, the agency said.

The CPSC said the Ribbit board games were sold by SimplyFun independent consultants nationwide from March 2007 through October 2007 for about $18.

The games each contain five frog-shaped wooden pieces that act as pawns for movement. The CPSC said the surface paint on the frogs contains excess levels of lead.

Consumers should immediately remove the frogs from the game and discontinue using them, the agency said. They can contact SimplyFun at (877) 557-7767 for a refund or a set of replacement frogs.

For the Elite Operations toys, consumers should immediately take the toy away from children and return it to any Toys 'R' Us for a full refund or store credit, the CPSC said.

Consumers who bought the fake teeth should return them to the store where they bought them for a refund, the agency said.

(Reporting by Karey Wutkowski)

    Toys 'R' Us recalls Elite Operations toys for lead, R, 31.10.2007,






TSA to Scrutinize

Remote - Controlled Toys


October 1, 2007
Filed at 11:08 a.m. ET
The New York Times


WASHINGTON (AP) -- Airport screeners will be taking a closer look at remote control toys in carry-on luggage due to concerns they could be used to detonate bombs, U.S. officials said Monday.

The new practice is not a result of a specific threat, according to the Transportation Security Administration. But authorities recently arrested two Florida college students who posted a video online with instructions on how to use a remote-controlled toy to set off a bomb.

Passengers -- including children -- carrying these toys may have to go through secondary screening.

''While not associated with a specific threat at this time, TSA is aware that remote control toys can be used to initiate devices used in terrorist attacks,'' according to Monday's press release. ''Transportation security officers have trained on this possibility and travelers may encounter additional screening when bringing remote control devices in carry-on luggage.''

    TSA to Scrutinize Remote - Controlled Toys, NYT, 1.10.2007,






Recalls Make Toy Shopping

a Source of Anxiety


September 29, 2007
The New York Times


“Get this, Mommy,” said Thalia, 2, on a recent morning at a Target in Brooklyn, as she handed her mother, Liz Gumbinner, a plastic horse made by the Schleich company.

“We have a lot of these; they’re made in Germany,” Ms. Gumbinner said, then checked a white sticker on the hoof and shook her head. “No, it’s made in China. I’ve been misled by the German name.”

With more than 20 million toys manufactured in China recalled for lead paint and other hazards this summer — and some children being hospitalized after swallowing the magnets of recalled toys — a lot more parents are looking carefully at what they buy and where it comes from. But it is not easy to find many exceptions to the rule that most toys come from China.

Ms. Gumbinner pulled a package of Lincoln Logs off a shelf. “If these are made in China, I’ll be upset,” she said. “No, China. I was holding out hope that something called ‘Lincoln’ would be American.”

As the holiday season nears, parents are waiting for Barbie’s other plastic shoe to drop. When a Mattel toy is recalled for having lead paint, should they avoid just that toy, or all Mattel toys, or all painted toys from China, or all toys from China? Or, since Mattel admitted recently that the problem with loose magnets is not in the manufacturing process but with Mattel’s domestic design, is anxiety toward China misdirected?

“Nobody wants to be a paranoid parent,” said Ms. Gumbinner, 39, of Brooklyn Heights, who works as a creative director for a Los Angeles advertising agency and is a co-founder of the site coolmompicks.com. “I mean, where do you draw the line between cautionary and crazy?”

Other than purging the toy chest of all recalled products, many parents are at a loss. The steady drumbeat of recalls over the last three months has led some parents to wonder whether it is just a matter of time before more of their children’s playthings will be found hazardous.

In the absence of hard and fast rules, the range of reactions has been mixed. Some parents are shrugging off the potential danger as remote or unavoidable. Others are going out of their way to avoid anything even faintly suspicious.

Among the signs that concerns are escalating: pediatricians and health centers report that more parents are bringing their children in for lead tests, which doctors say are never a bad idea.

From June, when the first Thomas the Tank Engine lead-paint recall was issued, through August, the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, for example, conducted 3,046 lead tests, an increase of 81 percent from the 1,684 in the period last year.

And some parents are trying to test their children’s toys themselves. Sales of a First Alert home lead test are up 900 percent over last year, according to the company. On Thursday, the product was the 17th best seller in the broad Home Improvement category on Amazon.com, although some product safety experts say that home tests are unreliable.

In an effort to offer some guideposts for parents, retailers like F.A.O. Schwarz are highlighting countries of origin of their merchandise. EBay, where used toys that have been recalled occasionally pop up for sale, recently began directing bidders to toy company recall lists.

Some people are thinking twice before buying used toys. “My girlfriends and I are concerned about going to garage sales, and people are actually staying away,” said Beth Blecherman, who lives in Menlo Park, Calif., and helps run a blog called Silicon Valley Moms. “You hope that toys in stores have been vetted, but how do you know if something you get at a garage sale has been recalled? This has really ruined the whole secondary market for toys.”

Even in the market for new toys, shoppers are puzzled. Is a toy that is assembled in China from parts manufactured elsewhere any safer than one made entirely in China? Does a “made in Indonesia” label inspire any greater confidence?

“I think people are kind of stunned because they don’t know what to do,” said Greg Allen, who writes a blog for fathers, daddytypes.com, and has a 3-year-old daughter. “You can’t just cut out every made-in-China toy. It’s just not realistic.”

On a recent visit to the Toys “R” Us in Times Square, Mr. Allen paused at a section of Playmobil toys, which he said are popular at his house. He trusts the brand because the toys are made in Europe and known for high quality, but he said that the recent spate of recalls has made him question even those assumptions.

“The Thomas the Tank Engine recalls were shocking,” he said. “Then when the Fisher-Price recalls hit, that’s when the problem of the lack of regulations started to become clear.”

As for what all this portends for holiday toy shopping, retailers are unclear, and many parents are trying to figure out how to proceed.

“I don’t think the industry is going to see a big nose dive in terms of dollars,” said Lane Nemeth, who founded Discovery Toys in 1978 and sold the company to Avon a decade ago. “You’re still going to want gifts under the tree at Christmas. There’s just going to be a shift in what people buy.”

Ms. Nemeth said that if she had a toddler, “I’d avoid anything that is painted — I’d just wait until the industry shakes itself out.” Besides, she said, “by bringing home wooden blocks that are unpainted, you’re probably helping your child’s creativity.”

But plain wooden blocks alone probably will not satisfy most toddlers. Danielle Wiley, a 33-year-old publicist in Chicago, recalls a recent tantrum that her 2-year-old son, Max, had in the bathtub.

“I knew a new toy would help,” Ms. Wiley said, but the only one in the house was a Fisher-Price Diego toy that had just been recalled for lead paint. Nevertheless, “I handed him the toy and he stopped,” she said. After the bath, she said, she discarded the toy.

Back in the toy aisle at Target in Brooklyn, Ms. Gumbinner was examining a toy car made by Mattel from the Pixar movie “Cars,” when another shopper, Dunia Sunnreich, a stranger to her, offered some unsolicited advice.

“I don’t think that one’s in the recall, but another one in the series, Sarge, is,” said Ms. Sunnreich, who was shopping for her 3-year-old son, Simon. “I’m glad I can get online on my phone — otherwise I’d have to carry around an extra little bag just for the recall lists. It’s total madness.”

    Recalls Make Toy Shopping a Source of Anxiety, NYT, 29.9.2007,






Robot Maker Builds Artificial Boy


September 13, 2007
Filed at 7:40 a.m. ET
The New York Times


RICHARDSON, Texas (AP) -- David Hanson has two little Zenos to care for these days. There's his 18-month-old son Zeno, who prattles and smiles as he bounds through his father's cramped office. Then there's the robotic Zeno. It can't speak or walk yet, but has blinking eyes that can track people and a face that captivates with a range of expressions.

At 17 inches tall and 6 pounds, the artificial Zeno is the culmination of five years of work by Hanson and a small group of engineers, designers and programmers at his company, Hanson Robotics. They believe there's an emerging business in the design and sale of lifelike robotic companions, or social robots. And they'll be showing off the robot boy to students in grades 3-12 at the Wired NextFest technology conference Thursday in Los Angeles.

Unlike clearly artificial robotic toys, Hanson says he envisions Zeno as an interactive learning companion, a synthetic pal who can engage in conversation and convey human emotion through a face made of a skin-like, patented material Hanson calls frubber.

''It's a representation of robotics as a character animation medium, one that is intelligent,'' Hanson beams. ''It sees you and recognizes your face. It learns your name and can build a relationship with you.''

It's no coincidence if the whole concept sounds like a science-fiction movie.

Hanson said he was inspired by, and is aiming for, the same sort of realism found in the book ''Supertoys Last All Summer Long,'' by Brian Aldiss. Aldiss' story of troubled robot boy David and his quest for the love of his flesh-and-blood parents was the source material for Steven Spielberg's film ''Artificial Intelligence: AI.''

He plans to make little Zenos available to consumers within the next three years for $200 to $300.

Until then, Hanson, 37, makes a living selling and renting pricey, lifelike robotic heads. His company offers models that look like Albert Einstein, a pirate and a rocker, complete with spiky hair and sunglasses. They cost tens of thousands of dollars and can be customized to look like anyone, Hanson said.

The company, which has yet to break even, was also buoyed by a $1.5 million grant from the Texas Emerging Technology Fund last October. The fund was created by Gov. Rick Perry in 2005 to improve research at Texas universities and help startup technology companies get off the ground.

Hanson concedes it's going to be at least 15 years before robot builders can approach anything like what seems to be possible in movies. Zeno the robot remains a prototype.

During a recent demonstration, Zeno could barely stand and had to be tethered to a bank of PCs that told it how to smile, frown, act surprised or wrinkle its nose in anger.

Robotics, Hanson believes, should be about artistic expression, a creative medium akin to sculpting or painting. But convincing people that robots should look like people instead of, well, robots, remains a challenge that robot experts call the ''uncanny valley'' theory.

The theory posits that humans have a positive psychological reaction to robots that look somewhat like humans, but that robots made to look very realistic end up seeming grotesque instead of comforting.

''Nobody complains that Bernini's sculptures are too darn real, right? Or that Norman Rockwell's paintings are too creepy,'' Hanson said. ''Well, robots can seem real and be loved too. We're trying to make a new art medium out of robotics.''

So just how did Hanson end up with two Zenos, anyway?

It all goes back to when his wife, Amanda, gave birth to their first child and Zeno the robot was already in the works.

They rattled off several names to their baby boy, but it wasn't until they whispered ''Zeno'' that ''this look of peace fell over his face; it was like soothing to his ears,'' Hanson recalled.

''There was no way we could give him any other name. He chose Zeno as his name,'' he said.

That was just fine with Amanda.

''I thought that it was very endearing, very sweet,'' she said.

The similarities go beyond the name. Though Zeno the robot was built to resemble the animated Japanese TV show character Astro Boy, his plastic hair and saucer-shaped eyes bear a striking resemblance to the curly locks and wide-eyed smile of the real Zeno.

''So by coincidence they're both Zeno, and in other ways this robot has become more of a portrait sculpturally of the son, although it's almost coincidence,'' said Hanson, whose previous jobs include working as a character sculptor for The Walt Disney Co. ''We didn't consciously sculpt this robot to look like him. It's the way things filter through the hands of the artist.''

Hanson says one of the robot Zeno's biggest advancements is that its brains aren't inside the robot. Instead Zeno synchs wirelessly to a PC running a variant of Massive Software -- the same Academy Award-winning code that enabled the fantastical battles among humans, orcs and elves in the ''Lord of the Rings'' movies.

Like some modern version of Geppetto's workshop, Hanson's office is crammed with rows of shelves stacked with books about robots next to toy robots and plastic skulls. Notes ranging from mathematical formulas to design sketches cover several white boards like high-tech graffiti.

There are scattered bits from Hanson's previous creations, including Albert Hubo, a white robotic body topped with a realistic head of Albert Einstein that has graced magazine covers and even shaken hands with President Bush.

Hanson has been recognized for his work, garnering accolades from the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence in 2005 and a ''best design'' award at the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Triennial last year.

But Hanson is most proud of the real Zeno, a rambunctious toddler who frolics with free rein among priceless electronics.

''If the robots become popular I suppose it will pose an identity crisis for my son,'' Hanson said. ''But I think that the amount of love that he receives will make him feel like an individual no matter what.''


On the Net:


    Robot Maker Builds Artificial Boy, NYT, 13.9.2007,






Toy Makers

Seek Standards for U.S. Safety


September 7, 2007
The New York Times


WASHINGTON, Sept. 6 — Acknowledging a growing crisis of public confidence caused by a series of recent recalls, the nation’s largest toy makers have taken the unusual step of asking the federal government to impose mandatory safety-testing standards for all toys sold in the United States.

Toy importers and retailers are already scrambling to recheck their vast inventory of merchandise to ensure that products already on the market are not contaminated with lead or have other safety flaws.

Facing broadening questions about the safety of toys sold in the United States — particularly those made in China — as the holiday season approaches, the industry is asking that these kinds of tests be required of toy companies, big and small.

“There is enormous pain in the industry that has been generated by the lead-in-paint recalls,” said Frederick B. Locker, a lawyer for the Toy Industry Association, whose members include Mattel, Hasbro, Lego and hundreds of other manufacturers and importers. “Nothing is 100 percent. But this will tighten it, enhance it, bolster it.”

Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, who recently co-sponsored legislation that would impose such testing requirements on all children’s products, said he welcomed the request.

“What a dramatic turn,” he said in an interview Thursday, adding, “These news stories have really shaken the confidence of American families in toys.”

The proposal, which was approved by the board of the Toy Industry Association at a private meeting last week, does not envision a broad federal inspection program.

Instead, companies would be required to hire independent laboratories to check a certain portion of their toys, whether made in the United States or overseas. Leading toy companies already do such testing, but industry officials acknowledge that it has not been enough.

To address these shortcomings, the proposal calls for uniform standards for frequency of testing, to determine at what point during production the tests would be conducted, and what specific hazards, whether lead paint or small parts, must be checked for.

The uniform standard would also establish global requirements for laboratories that do this testing.

Mr. Locker said the standards would give major toy importers a more reliable system, making it more likely that they would catch flawed products before they arrived in toy stores. Small companies that currently do little or no testing would be required to pay for testing as well.

Europeans already require that toys and certain other products undergo such testing, and they affix a certification mark to products before they are sold. The United States has no such premarket testing requirement.

Industry executives also acknowledged in interviews Thursday that part of the goal was to reassure the American consumer after a summer of toy recalls.

“The industry was feeling pretty good about itself that we were doing all the right things, and then this stuff hit,” said Carter Keithley, president of the Toy Industry Association.

The string of embarrassing news started in June with the recall of Thomas & Friends trains for lead paint, and has been followed by three separate recalls from Mattel covering Barbie, Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer toys, all made in China.

“If the consumer is aware that the government has some responsibility and is holding companies responsible, it will set their minds at ease as to the products they are buying off the shelves,” said Jeff Holtzman, chief executive of the Goldberger Company, a toy maker.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which would ultimately help enforce the mandate, has not yet taken a position on the proposal. The agency itself has extremely limited capacity to test toys; it employs only one full-time toy tester at its laboratory in Maryland.

But a spokeswoman, Julie Vallese, said the commission supported the expansion of third-party testing by independent laboratories.

Donald L. Mays, senior director of product safety planning at Consumer Reports, said that if the proposal was going to be effective, the government would also have to ensure that the tests were being done often enough, and spot-check products coming into the country to make sure that they were safe.

That would require more staff members at the commission, which during the Bush administration has been cut by more than 10 percent, to 420 employees. Toys that are tested, he said, should have a safety certification mark on them, like the Underwriters Laboratories seal for electrical products.

The Toy Industry Association has asked the American National Standards Institute to help develop the new specifications. Lane Hallenbeck, the standards institute executive leading the effort, said he hoped to have a proposal ready by year’s end.

Turning this proposal into a federal mandate would require action by Congress or the safety commission and would represent somewhat of a reversal for the commission. In the early years of the Bush administration, it opposed some additional mandates, including a ban on the sale of adult-size all-terrain vehicles for use by children and a requirement that children’s products include registration cards, so customers can be found in recalls.

Mr. Durbin said he thought there was support in Congress for such a mandate, even if the commission was not willing to adopt it on its own. “Not only has the confidence of American consumers been shaken, but the confidence of the toy makers in their own process has been, too,” he said. “They thought they had a good system. Clearly it is not.”


Eric Lipton reported from Washington

and Louise Story from New York.

    Toy Makers Seek Standards for U.S. Safety, NYT, 7.9.2007,






As More Toys Are Recalled,

Trail Ends in China


June 19, 2007
The New York Times


WASHINGTON, June 18 — China manufactured every one of the 24 kinds of toys recalled for safety reasons in the United States so far this year, including the enormously popular Thomas & Friends wooden train sets, a record that is causing alarm among consumer advocates, parents and regulators.

The latest recall, announced last week, involves 1.5 million Thomas & Friends trains and rail components — about 4 percent of all those sold in the United States over the last two years by RC2 Corporation of Oak Brook, Ill. The toys were coated at a factory in China with lead paint, which can damage brain cells, especially in children.

Just in the last month, a ghoulish fake eyeball toy made in China was recalled after it was found to be filled with kerosene. Sets of toy drums and a toy bear were also recalled because of lead paint, and an infant wrist rattle was recalled because of a choking hazard.

Over all, the number of products made in China that are being recalled in the United States by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission has doubled in the last five years, driving the total number of recalls in the country to 467 last year, an annual record.

It also means that China today is responsible for about 60 percent of all product recalls, compared with 36 percent in 2000.

Much of the rise in China’s ranking on the recall list has to do with its corresponding surge as the world’s toy chest: toys made in China make up 70 to 80 percent of the toys sold in the country, according to the Toy Industry Association.

Combined with the recent scares in the United States of Chinese-made pet food, and globally of Chinese-made pharmaceuticals and toothpaste, the string of toy recalls is inspiring new demands for stepped-up enforcement of safety by United States regulators and importers, as well as by the government and industry in China.

“These are items that children are supposed to be playing with,” said Prescott Carlson, co-founder of a Web site called the Imperfect Parent, which includes a section that tracks recalls of toys and other baby products. “It should be at a point where companies in the United States that are importing these items are held liable.”

The toy trains and railroad pieces are made directly for RC2 at plants it oversees in China, presumably giving it some control over the quality and safety of the toys made there. Staci Rubinstein, a spokeswoman for RC2, declined on Monday to comment on safety control measures at company plants in China.

The Toy Industry Association, which represents most American toy companies and importers, also declined to comment.

Julie Vallese, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, said the agency recognizes that more must be done to prevent the importation of hazardous toys and other products from China. “It is a big concern. And the agency is taking steps to try to address that as quickly as possible,” Ms. Vallese said. “Their businesses will suffer if they don’t meet safety standards.”

Scott J. Wolfson, a second Consumer Product Safety Commission spokesman, would not say how long ago RC2 discovered the problem or when it first reported it to federal authorities.

In the last two years, the staff of the consumer product commission has been cut by more than 10 percent, leaving fewer regulators to monitor the safety of the growing flood of imports.

Some consumer advocates say that such staff cuts under the Bush administration have made the commission a lax regulator. The commission, for example, acknowledged in a recent budget document that “because of resource limitations,” it was planning next year to curtail its efforts aimed at preventing children from drowning in swimming pools and bathtubs.

The toy industry in the United States is largely self-policed. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has safety standards, but it has only about 100 field investigators and compliance personnel nationwide to conduct inspections at ports, warehouses and stores of $22 billion worth of toys and tens of billions of dollars’ worth of other consumer products sold in the country each year. “They don’t have the staff that they need to try to get ahead of this problem,” said Janell Mayo Duncan, senior counsel at the Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports. “They need more money and resources to do more checks.”

Most recalls are done voluntarily, as was the case with Thomas & Friends, after companies discover problems or receive complaints.

Among the toy recalls, the problem is most acute with low-price, no-brand-name toys that are often sold at dollar stores and other deep discounters, which are manufactured and sent to the United States often without the involvement of major American toy importers. Last year, China also was the source of 81 percent of the counterfeit goods seized by Customs officials at ports of entry in the United States — products that typically are not made according to the standards on the labels they are copying.

At one of the RC2 factories in Dongguan, China, on Sunday, a pair of workers who were paid about $150 a month to spray paint on mostly metal toy trains six days a week said they did not know whether the paint they used contained lead. The factory produces metal toys as well as the wooden toys listed in the Thomas recall.

“We’re just doing the painting,” says Li Hong, a 22-year-old factory worker who was sitting out in front of the factory dormitories.

Exactly who operates the factories making the Thomas & Friends trains in Dongguan is unclear. While the zone is run by a group of Chinese or Hong Kong suppliers, it also houses an office building that bears the RC2 corporate logo.

China’s own government auditing agency reported last month that 20 percent of the toys made and sold in China had safety hazards such as small parts that could be swallowed or sharp edges that could cut a child, according to a report in China Daily. Officials in China, of course, are fighting back, insisting that its food and other exports are safe and valuable, that new regulations are being put into place and that problem goods account for a tiny portion of all exports.

The Toy Industry Association urges its members to routinely test products it is importing to make sure they comply with federal safety standards, which prohibit, for example, surface paint that contains lead in toys or items that could cause a choking hazard.

Other major retailers or toy industry companies hit by recalls for products made in China this year include Easy-Bake Ovens, made by Hasbro, which could trap children’s fingers in the oven and burn them, and Target stores, which the consumer product commission said was importing and selling Anima Bamboo collection games, some of which were coated with lead paint.

The 22 models of the Thomas & Friends toys that are being recalled include some of the most popular items in the line’s collection, such as the red James engine and the fire brigade truck. The toy line, based on the children’s book and television series, has an almost fanatical following among some families, who own dozens of models, which can cost $6.50 to $70 each.

The string of lead paint cases has drawn the most attention from consumer watchdogs and parenting advice columnists.

“Do I have to look at every toy that has paint on it that comes from China as perhaps suspect?” said Mr. Carlson, of Imperfect Parent.

Ms. Duncan, of Consumers Union, urged parents to sign up for the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s automated notification system at the commission’s Web site (www.cpsc.gov), so they can stay on top of which toys are being recalled.

Ms. Vallese, the spokeswoman for the product safety commission, said the agency’s acting chairwoman, Nancy A. Nord, went to China in May for a meeting with her counterparts there, focusing in particular on toys, lighters, electronics and fireworks.

“Is there a concern that there are more products coming in from China and making sure they live up to the standards we expect?” Ms. Vallese said. “Yes, there is, and we understand our authority and obligation and we will make sure we enforce it.”

But parents shopping at for toys in New York over the weekend said the whole episode left them uneasy.

“I think it’s terrible,” said Chris Gunster, 41, while perusing the Thomas & Friends display area in Toys “R” Us at Times Square with his wife and 4-year-old son, James, a big fan of the toy trains. “Lead paint in this day and age?”


Eric S. Lipton reported from Washington

and David Barboza from Dongguan, China.

As More Toys Are Recalled, Trail Ends in China,






Doll Web Sites

Drive Girls to Stay Home and Play


June 6, 2007
The New York Times


Presleigh Montemayor often gets home after a long day and spends some time with her family. Then she logs onto the Internet, leaving the real world and joining a virtual one. But the digital utopia of Second Life is not for her. Presleigh, who is 9 years old, prefers a Web site called Cartoon Doll Emporium.

The site lets her chat with her friends and dress up virtual dolls, by placing blouses, hair styles and accessories on them. It beats playing with regular Barbies, said Presleigh, who lives near Dallas.

“With Barbie, if you want clothes, it costs money,” she said. “You can do it on the Internet for free.”

Presleigh is part of a booming phenomenon, the growth of a new wave of interactive play sites for a young generation of Internet users, in particular girls.

Millions of children and adolescents are spending hours on these sites, which offer virtual versions of traditional play activities and cute animated worlds that encourage self-expression and safe communication. They are, in effect, like Facebook or MySpace with training wheels, aimed at an audience that may be getting its first exposure to the Web.

While some of the sites charge subscription fees, others are supported by advertising. As is the case with children’s television, some critics wonder about the broader social cost of exposing children to marketing messages, and the amount of time spent on the sites makes some child advocates nervous.

Regardless, the sites are growing in number and popularity, and they are doing so thanks to the word of mouth of babes, said Josh Bernoff, a social media and marketing industry analyst with Forrester Research.

“They’re spreading rapidly among kids,” Mr. Bernoff said, noting that the enthusiasm has a viral analogy. “It’s like catching a runny nose that everyone in the classroom gets.”

Hitwise, a traffic measurement firm, says visits to a group of seven virtual-world sites aimed at children and teenagers grew 68 percent in the year ended April 28. Visits to the sites surge during summer vacation and other times when school is out. Gartner Research estimates that virtual-world sites have attracted 20 million users, with those aimed at younger people growing especially quickly.

Even as the children are having fun, the adults running the sites are engaged in a cutthroat competition to be the destination of choice for a generation of Americans who are growing up on computers from Day 1.

These sites, with names like Club Penguin, Cyworld, Habbo Hotel, Webkinz, WeeWorld and Stardoll, run the gamut from simple interactive games and chat to fantasy lands with mountains and caves.

When Evan Bailyn, chief executive of Cartoon Doll Emporium, said that when he created the site, “I thought it would be a fun, whimsical thing.” Now, he says, “it’s turned into such a competitive thing,” adding that “people think they are going to make a killing.”

Even Barbie herself is getting into the online act. Mattel is introducing BarbieGirls.com, another dress-up site with chat features.

In recent months, with the traffic for these sites growing into the tens of millions of visitors, the entrepreneurs behind them have started to refine their business models.

Cartoon Doll Emporium, which draws three million visitors a month, is free for many activities but now charges $8 a month for access to more dolls to dress up and other premium services. WeeWorld, a site aimed at letting 13- to-25-year-olds dress up and chat through animated characters, recently signed a deal to permit the online characters to carry bags of Skittles candy, and it is considering other advertisers.

On Stardoll, which has some advertising, users can augment the wardrobe they use to dress up their virtual dolls by buying credits over their cellphones. At Club Penguin, a virtual world with more than four million visitors a month, a $5.95-a-month subscription lets users adopt more pets for their penguin avatars (animated representations of users), which can roam, chat and play games like ice fishing and team hockey.

Lane Merrifield, chief executive of Club Penguin, which is based in Kelowna, British Columbia, said that he decided on a subscription fee because he believed advertising to young people was a dangerous proposition. Clicking on ads, he said, could bring children out into the broader Web, where they could run into offensive material.

Mr. Merrifield also bristles at any comparison to MySpace, which he said is a wide-open environment and one that poses all kinds of possible threats to young people.

To make Club Penguin safe for children, the site uses a powerful filter that limits the kinds of messages users can type to one another. It is not possible, Mr. Merrifield said, to slip in a phone number or geographic location, or to use phrases or words that would be explicit or suggestive. Other sites are also set up to minimize the threat of troublesome interactions or limit what users can say to one another.

“We’re the antithesis of MySpace,” Mr. Merrifield said. “MySpace is about sharing information. We’re all about not being able to share information.”

Other sites are more open, like WeeWorld, which permits people to create avatars, dress them up and then collect groups of friends who type short messages to one another. The characters tend to be cute and cartoonish, as do the home pages where they reside, but the chatter is typical teenager.

“There’s a lot of teasing and flirting,” said Lauren Bigelow, general manager of WeeWorld. She said that the site had around 900,000 users in April and is growing around 20 percent a month.

Ms. Bigelow said that 60 percent of WeeWorld users are girls and young women, a proportion that is higher on some other sites. Stardoll said that its users are 93 percent female, typically ages 7 to 17, while Cartoon Doll Emporium said that it is 96 percent female, ages 8 to 14.

Some of the companies are aiming even younger. The Ontario company Ganz has a hit with Webkinz, plush toys that are sold in regular stores and are aimed at children as young as 6. Buyers enter secret codes from their toy’s tag at webkinz.com and control a virtual replica of their animal in games. They also earn KinzCash that they can spend to design its home. The site draws more than 3.8 million visitors a month.

Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies the social aspects of technology, said that the participants on these sites are slipping into virtual worlds more easily than their parents or older siblings.

“For young people, there is rather a kind of fluid boundary between the real and virtual world, and they can easily pass through it,” she said.

For some children, the allure of these sites is the chance to participate and guide the action on screen, something that is not possible with movies and television.

“The ability to express themselves is really appealing to the millennial generation,” said Michael Streefland, the manager of Cyworld, a virtual world that started in South Korea and now attracts a million users a month in the United States, according to comScore, a research firm. “This audience wants to be on stage. They want to have a say in the script.”

But Professor Turkle expressed concern about some of the sites. She said that their commercial efforts, particularly the advertising aimed at children, could be crass. And she said that she advocates an old-fashioned alternative to the sites.

“If you’re lucky enough to have a kid next door,” she said, “I’d have a play date instead of letting your kid sit at the computer.”

Doll Web Sites Drive Girls to Stay Home and Play, NYT, 6.6.2007,






The rise of the machines


Friday May 4, 2007
Eric Clark


From a marketing viewpoint, the birth of Transformers toys in 1984 was an orchestrated act of genius. It not only launched one of the most successful playthings ever, it propelled a massive change in toy selling. Today, marketing rules; toys and the entertainment industry have become two sides of the same coin. The groundwork of all that was laid with the birth of Transformers.

Hasbro, now the world's second biggest toy company, had licensed Diacron, a puzzle toy with cars and planes that transformed into robots, from the Japanese company Takara. The Japanese had tried to sell it on the American market for a year. When it failed, they handed licensing rights to legendary toy man Henry Orenstein, who took the toy to Hasbro.

Convinced it could still be a success, Stephen Hassenfeld, Hasbro's CEO, the man regarded by many as the architect of the modern toy industry, had made the decision to market the toy instinctively. Now Hasbro had to make it work. Just how was thrashed out in an after-hours car ride between Hasbro's Rhode Island headquarters and New York City: the toy company's marketing chief and the three heads of Hasbro's ad agency Griffin Bacal brainstormed for three and a quarter hours.

One after another, decisions emerged. The toys would no longer be three-dimensional puzzles but characters in a story, with cars (the Autobots) being the good guys, and planes (the Decepticons) the bad guys. Joe Bacal came up with the name Transformers against initial opposition from the others. A back-story was created: Transformers had all come from Cybertron, a distant planet, where civil war raged between giant alien robots, under siege and desperate for fuel supplies.

By the time they reached New York, Diacron was no longer a stand-alone puzzle. As Transformers, it had broken away from its role of toy as object. The play pattern was spelled out. So too was the inducement to keep buying Transformers merchandise - playtime now would need lots of characters and props.

The remaining problem was how to sell such a fantasy toy effectively on television - the use of animation in advertising in the US at that time was strictly controlled. The Griffin Bacal agency had the answer. They made Transformers the subject of a comic book, and then advertised that instead to create awareness of the Transformers brand: there were no guidelines for commercials for comic books, because comic books never advertised on television. Griffin Bacal's ingenuity drove a coach and horses through the rules. Now the commercials could include all the animation they wished.

There was one more ingredient. Over a decade before, the Federal Communications Commission had cracked down on attempts by toy companies to introduce toy-led programmes. But now, under the Reagan administration, that changed. Transformers was free to become a "programme-length commercial".

A watershed had been crossed. The old idea of basing toys on characters in books or movies or programmes was turned upside down. Now the toy came first. The borders between programme and product became forever blurred, and in 1984 the Transformers TV series was launched.

Transformers sold $100m worth of toys in its first year - the most successful toy introduction in history at that point. Despite ups and downs since, constant marketing-led initiatives - new TV series spinning off new toys - have ensured it has never been out of production, a triumph in a business where a successful toy is one that lasts more than a year.


· The Real Toy Story:

Inside the Ruthless Battle

for Britain's Youngest Consumers

by Eric Clark is published by Black Swan, £8.99

The rise of the machines,










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