Warm weather is just around the corner, so it's time to get kids who've been hibernating indoors all winter out of the house. TODAY contributor Stephanie Oppenheim of ToyPortfolio.com highlights the newest toys to entice them to work off their stored-up energy:
Getting your kids outside on a spring day used to be as easy as turning off the TV and saying, "Go outside!" When many of us grew up, it was the time to get your bike out and ready for the season. In my neighborhood, it meant that there would be an afternoon game of kickball or baseball. Unfortunately for this generation, getting on your bike or wandering down the road to a neighborhood game just doesn't happen. Times have changed. Safety concerns are valid, but also mean that kids really don't get outside.Kids are more likely to stay inside — plugged in. After homework is done and after-school programs are over, there isn't a lot of time to just be a kid outside. And while many kids are involved in Little Leagues across the country, it doesn't really replace the freedom of being outside with friends. That no-pressure, let's-just-run-around time has been replaced with more structured sporting events.As a result, parents need to "plan" more outdoor time for their kids. We need to pull ourselves off our own electronic devices and get outside as a family! When we start putting together our list of “must have” active toys, I always look for new climbing equipment. In fact, this season I had a number of toy testing families ask for just this type of “first” climber equipment, while others requested recommendations for the best new playhouse. So I was really happy when we first saw the new "Step 2 Neighborhood Fun Center," which combines both those active play opportunities with its slide and the playhouse — just right as a pretend setting for this age group. Older toddlers and preschoolers love having their own special space that’s scaled for them! For many parents with limited backyard space or budget, this all-in-one setting can really come in handy.Springtime also means the return of baseball season. I love watching all the new Little Leaguers in my neighborhood put on their uniforms every weekend. Every year there is new baseball equipment for the youngest batters. You should know that a simple T-ball is really just fine — the ball is there; you have to work on hitting it. Nothing complicated. There are always batting machines that have more bells and whistles.
The one we tested this year is ESPN’s "Better Batter Baseball." I was really taken aback by the strong, mixed reviews this machine got. In most situations, when a product gets mixed reviews, we pass — but the positive reviews on this one indicated that we should share the results. All of our testers loved the mechanism for activating the ball (you step on the “plate”). The armature then picks up the ball and, all at the same time, the machine plays ESPN music and says baseball slogans. Everyone was still happy up until this point. The ball is delivered to the zone by an arm that picks up the ball via Velcro. Now here’s the rub: For many kids, the Velcro holds the ball so well that they had trouble hitting the ball hard enough so that the ball would release, while other kids had no problem and loved the whole experience. This is the type of toy that would be great to check out at a neighbor’s before you bring it home. The idea of all of these machines is to build your child’s skill and confidence — not undermine their experience. Finding toys for the age 8 and up crowd is even harder, since this is really when you start competing against their video games. Having some new sporting equipment or a new game can do the trick. It doesn't have to be expensive either. A ball from the grocery store will usually work — even for older kids. There's something very pleasing about a new bouncy ball that will entice even the most jaded 9-year-olds. They'll like it even better if you play with them!Games like "Boochie" and "Horton Hears a Who! You to the Rescue" are great fun, but will need some adult rule-reading to get the game going. I also find that tweens/teens can often be convinced to run one of these games for their younger siblings and neighbors. Given the authority to be the one in charge is really a vote of confidence — with the added bonus of everyone being active. While we often think of cross generation in terms of children and grandchildren, mixing up the ages with a game for kids can also be rewarding for everyone. Of course, it depends on the maturity level of the tweens/teens.While it is way too early for me to declare my favorite toy of the year, a true front-runner is the new "WowWee Flytech Butterfly." Not only is it easy to launch, but there are no finger-pinching propellers to hurt little hands. As a professional toy tester, I’m always the one who sticks my fingers where I feel confident a curious 8-year-old might go. Unfortunately for many of the flying toys on the market, that can really hurt! These flutter and really take off. While I much prefer gender-free products, at least now there is a flying toy that I believe girls will enjoy. In fact, we received the pink butterfly version first and all the boys wanted to play with it — but really wanted to know if they could do something about the color! Luckily there are also less-pink "Moths" available as well.For other Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Platinum Award-winning toys, visit .