Vocabulary > Arts > Toys and games
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
HAP MOORE ANTIQUES AUCTIONS
Auction of Estate Antiques
The Goodwin Building 611 U.S. Route
One York, Maine
Saturday Morning, October 1, 2005
Old Dolls and Related Items at 10:00 a.m.,
photo recadrée à gauche et à droite par les Anglonautes.
Toys from the Index of American Design
London > Museum of Childhood > toys
London > Science Museum > toys
rocking horse USA
unit blocks — those basic, indestructible wooden toys created in
the early 1900s USA
card- and dice-based games
standard two-flipper machine
D. Gottlieb & Company pinball factory in Chicago
Steve Kordek, a Pinball Innovator, Dies at 100
February 23, 2012
The New York Times
By DENNIS HEVESI
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
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
“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
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, NYT, 23.2.2012?
Should the World of Toys Be Gender-Free?
December 29, 2011
The New York Times
By PEGGY ORENSTEIN
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
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?,
Blocks, Educators Go Back to Basics
The New York Times
By KYLE SPENCER
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
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
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
By STEPHANIE ROSENBLOOM
Who’s laughing now, Elmo?
The hottest toy this holiday season is not a ticklish red monster. It’s a fake
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
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
“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
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
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
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
By MATT RICHTEL and BRAD STONE
SAN FRANCISCO, Nov. 28 — Cellphones, laptops, digital cameras
and MP3 music players are among the hottest gift items this year. For
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
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
“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
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
“ ’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
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
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
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
--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
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
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
Feds Urge Vigilance
on Toy Safety, NYT, 20.11.2007,
Toys 'R' Us recalls Elite Operations toys for lead
Wed Oct 31, 2007
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
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
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
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
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
''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
By ANDREW ADAM NEWMAN
“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
“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
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
“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
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
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
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
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
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
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
By ERIC LIPTON and LOUISE STORY
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
“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
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
“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
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
By ERIC S. LIPTON and DAVID BARBOZA
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
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
“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
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
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
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
“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
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
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,
As More Toys Are
Recalled, Trail Ends in China, NYT, 19.6.2007,
Doll Web Sites Drive Girls to Stay Home and Play
June 6, 2007
The New York Times
By MATT RICHTEL and BRAD STONE
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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
“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,