• Tina Benitez-Eves

Direct from Market: ASTRA 2014 Marketplace & Academy

ASTRA 2014PHOENIX – The American Special Toy Retailing Association (ASTRA) heated things up at its 2014 Marketplace & Academy, held at the Phoenix Convention Center, June 8-11. Each year brings in more new exhibitors, and this year wasn’t any different. Buyers walking the show were pleasantly surprised by more than 100 new exhibitors, some new seminars and this year’s Best Toys for Kids finalists.

This year’s Marketplace offered seminars broken down into several categories: children and play, business and finance, traditional marketing, social media and technology. On the show floor, retailers also had a chance to see, touch, feel and play (and vote for) this year’s Best Toys for Kids finalists. (Winners will be announced on Wednesday, June 18.) Construction, arts and crafts, science, specifically more STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics )-based learning play were infused throughout this year’s show.

STEM Cells
Bio RadBio-Rad Labs

The workings of a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)-based education and play were all around the Marketplace & Academy. And it’s never too early to learn forensics. Bio-Rad Laboratories were on hand with three new kits for kids, including: Genes in a Bottle, which lets users visibly see strands of their DNA in a helix-shaped test tube keepsake; DNA Model, an attachable foam model that helps kids get a hands-on approach to piecing together DNA; and The Candy Caper, A Crime Scene Detective Kit that includes 12 fun activities that use chemistry, biology and biotechnology to solve the crime of the missing cell phone and more.

SmartnogginSmartNoggin Toys

At Science Wiz, Penny Norman, Ph.D was also at ASTRA to explain the concept behind her collection of science play kits. Norman, who earned a doctoral degree in biophysics from U.C. Berkeley, says that the current U.S. school system moves too fast through a science curriculum. One year students are studying biology, the next, chemistry, and then they move on and never touch on those sciences again. Instead, she proposes layering the sciences more throughout years and in classes to help kids better absorb everything. “There are layers in mathematics,” she told Playthings, “but there are no layers in the sciences. Chemistry needs layers. It’s more than solids, liquids and gases. In Biology, there’s the teaching of evolution, climate change and geology and so on. Stop jumping around, and let’s give kids a solid education in science.”

Her kits tap into all the sciences while teaching some science history and include: Inventions, which lets kids build a spinning motor, clicking telegraph, light flashing generator and radio; Sound, inspired by Tom Edison with all the pieces to make different instruments and an actual Edison phonograph. Other kits delve into Charge by building a Van de Grafff generator and other projects like Energy, Chemistry, Light, Electricity, Magnetism, Rocks, DNA, Physics and more.

For the earlier set's education,

YoxoPlay from Scratch
SmartNoggin showcased the latest addition to its line. Joining the NogginStix, which also has new packaging, the company showed off its Noggin Ring. The original design from the 1980s,

Building Up

ASTRA newcomers, Cubiciti has its block city set up on display. The maple wood pieces come in different shapes, colors, and patterns, all handcrafted in the U.S. Cubiciti lets kids build a cityscape—house, streets, buildings, streets—setting using the patent-pending modular blocks. It’s as easy as snapping the different blocks into the grid of holes on the base. Tegu also showed off its new Robot magnetic wooden blocks set, newly added after some popular demand for

Build ImagineBuild and Imagine
a robot-centric kit.

Moss sets by Modular Robotics are robotic construction kits with easy-to-snap-together pieces and leave the building open to multiple variations. A motorized chip can then be added to make your vehicle, creature or other structure come to life and move. Sets include steel spheres that connect to make legs, arms or other parts: connect two blocks for a ball joint, two spheres and two blocks for a hinge and so on.

Also on track Thoughtfull Toys premiered its Modarri collection at ASTRA. The new company’s do-it-yourself (DIY) car kits were created by toy veteran David Silverglate (creator of the Sky Blaster) and feature fun racing vehicles that piece together in minutes. All car pieces can also be mixed and matched. Kids can also register their licenses online for added play.

YOXObot greeted most visitors entering the Phoenix Convention Center on the ASTRA floor. The YOXObot, is just one of the fun construction kits on display from Play from Scratch’s YOXO collection of construction toys. The St. Paul, MN company has a collection of buildable figures that are constructed using recycled wood chips (painted in soy inks) with connectors. Made in the U.S., the YOXO line includes the original “bot,” YOXObug “Flye”, YOXOmoto “Doon” and a Megabuilder set.

Sugar LuluSugar Lulu
Launching in October 2014, Build & Imagine are magnetic building sets that create different play scenes. Build a multi-floor Beach House, a Marine Rescue Center or mix and match for new constructs. “It’s taking magnetic building, which has become popular in the last few years,” says creator Laurie Peterson, “and adding creative play. Designed for girls, the sets encourage early engineering skills.

Fun and Games

Tenzi added some new colorful die to the collection, including sleek black with orange dotting, bolder blues and yellow and even some glitter. A kaleidoscope of art make up the Puzzle without Borders collection from Nene Imagination. The large, soft magnetic foam pieces are tactile and piece together in multiple patterns and shapes. The puzzles help develop spatial problem solving, sequencing, logical thought and more. One set can create infinite designs.

FoxmindFoxmind Games

At Foxmind Games, Time in a Box encourages parents and kids to simply spend time together. The game includes 96 cards that can be divided by four seasons with fun activities like trying new things, exploring a museum, making hot chocolate, thinking about the future, helping someone or sharing a memory.

Launched last year, the Green Tones collection of children’s instruments are made of rubber mango wood and non-toxic colors. The age-appropriate instruments designed by Hohner feature every instrument, including an acoustic guitar, maracas, a kokoriko, wood ratchet and more. “There’s a lack of age-appropriate instruments on the markets,” said Tim Henry, music education sales and product manager, Hohner. “It’s important to create that authentic experience for kids instead of things that aren’t tuned right or noise makers.”

Hand Crafted

Art of Earth journal kits by Artterro have eco-friendly arts and crafts materials to add some creative layer to scrapbooking. The company also has its other kits for making dolls, wire and bead art, wool felt art, books, bubble wands, bug figures and more.x

At Sugar Lulu, the BFF charm kits were a hit. The mini jewelry-making kits coming in a cute bag-shaped tin with signature Sugar Lulu bulldog with wings design. Each tin is $9.99. The company also displayed its Writers and Artists journals and sets and is also launching a a

rmoire this fall that can hold multiple pieces of jewelry and other crafts in different little compartments.

Bommer Buddies come in different patterns and some DIY design options. Made in the U.S., the plush keepsakes were inspired by sisters Joan and Pat Bommerscheim, who loved their childhood carry dolls that were hand-stitched family tradition. Three generations later, the company is still sharing the plush dolls, which are completely machine washable. Lambs, bears, monkeys, pigs, owls, dogs and elephants are part of the collection, along with some traditional Bommer Buddies with fun kid prints, camouflage and more.


Luis Garcia spent two decades designing products for Ralph Lauren Fragrances, Bobbi Brown Cosmetics and Sephora, but when he spent five months, traveling and volunteering to help children in developing countries, he career path changed. Bixbee is a collection of designer backpacks that fall horizontally to not add more pressure to a child’s back with the weight falling below the waist. The bags, made with 600-denier polyester are durable enough to avid too much wear and tear. Garcia noticed a lack of school supplies as he traveled around, and for every backpack purchased, Bixbee will donate a schoolbag with supplies to a kid in need. Next month, Garcia will bring 2,000 bags to the Phillipines. He is hoping to one day start a foundation, so he can give back more.

The dates and location of next the 2015 ASTRA Marketplace & Academy will be announced shortly.

Tina BenitezTina Benitez-Eves | Business Editor, Gifts and Decorative Accessories

Tina covers the business of the gift/home decor and toy industry for Gifts and Decorative Accessories and Playthings. Also published in Men's Fitness, amNewYork, Wine Spectator and other publications.

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