After walking the aisles of Toy Fair 2011, taking in all the creativity, innovation and excitement, I’ve caught my breath and am ready to share my impressions and hot tips. This year my mission was the same with a new name. I was seeking outstanding toys, games and books with the DNA for inspiring creative play and lots of language with kids. I’ve been using these products for over 35 years with children but now my reviews will accompany the PAL Award (Play Advances Language). Here are the trends I saw and the language enriching products to look for this year:

  • Active Play: With the emphasis on good health and getting our kids moving, parents are looking for toys and games that have a physicality to them. “Angelina’s Dance With Me” by Wonder Forge Games is full-body active play that will get kids up to dance. Players choose cards that picture a dance move, act it out and have to remember the sequence. Cardinal’s “Where’s Sock Monkey?” has a player hiding the cute little sock monkey somewhere in the house (he’s actually too cute to part with!) while other players ask questions to ascertain his whereabouts.
  • Multi-purpose Play: Infantino’s “5 in One Activity Mat” for infants has add on pieces and sections to bend and re-configure as the child grows. Legos’s Creator Line (3 in 1) includes a magnificent “Lighthouse Island”  that can be reconfigured to be a boathouse or seafood restaurant.
  • Create and Play: Alex Toys has moved from crafts to crafts with a developmental purpose that are loads of fun along the way. Their “Build and Roll Car” and “Robot” come with cardboard pieces and screwdrivers and soon transform to a 3-D toy for pretend play. “First Letter Fun Building Blocks” by Haba have letters on many sides butAlex build a robot, car plenty of blank squares with green chalkboard to add your own when building words. “Creative Toy Shop” introduced a large robot and farm to construct and color on cardboard for later creative play. Mattel’s “Hot Wheels Video Racer” might just be “play and create” rather than the other way around. Race the Hot Wheel cars with a little video camera on the front, flip it over and watch the video on the mini-screen, then make your own movie using the software and drag and drop editing.
  • Layered Play: Old favorites can take on new dimensions with the addition of technology. Mattel’s “UNO Roboto” adds personalization that kids today are accustomed to from hours on Facebook and social networking. Families laugh out loud as the Robot gives personalized commands to players.Mattel’s “Fijits” for tween girls get gals up and dancing but also combines with webisodes and apps, allowing the Fijits to communicate with apps, thanks to voice recognition.
  • Intentionally Educational Play: As most of you know, give me a great toy or game and I can bring out the language.  When the fun factor is in place, kids become engaged and learn without knowing it. It’s exciting when companies are intentional about designing their products to match developmental stages. I was pleased to re-connect with Thinkfun’s Head of Education and New Media, Charlotte Fixler, who knew the educational Picolino book truckchemistry, research, and improvements behind their games. It was fun to talk shop with a former kindergarten teacher who pointed out that “What’s GNU” had been re-engineered to make the vowels pop with red color so kids know “red goes in the middle of a CVC sandwich!” (Consonant-Vowel-Consonant) for those who aren’t familiar with teacher lingo! Since I am scouting for great language building games and toys, I have to mention Discovery Bay’s new Highlight line coming out in June. “Silly Situations” is a story telling game where players have to respond to a situation using the description of several object cards in their answer. What can be more educational than pulling a wagon full of books? P’Kolino has delightfully different products for little ones and I especially like their school bus, firetruck or “Princess Book Buggy” for toddlers to load up with treasures and books to take reading on the road. Plan introduced “Plan Education” at this year’s toy fair, with a line of little clothes to throw in the laundry, many pretend play sets including “Eco-town” and several games to foster developmental growth.
  • Heart Healthy Play: Eeboo, filled with products to promote creative conversation, introduced “Make My Day” which is a changeable day calendar  allowing a preschooler to name elements of the weather and his day, as well as talk about his feelings–“Today I am feeling____,” “Today I will try to_____” and “Today was____.” Parents can use this to launch a conversation about their child’s day before and after, leading to meaningful sharing and naming heart-felt emotions.