Review: ZipBin Play Mat and Storage Bin

The ZipBin was profiled here last month, a play mat that folds into a toy storage bin, made by Neat-Oh! International. The Neat-Oh! folks noticed and sent me two ZipBins for my 2.5-year-old daughter to run through their paces.

In concept, I like the product’s idea, but would I want a play mat in my house when we already own a multi-purpose activity/train table? It turns out, yes. ZipBins are an awesome product with some cool advantages.

Marketing photo of a farm-themes ZipBin mat and box with a boy playing with the mat.
The Big Idea

The play mat quickly and easily scoops up toys as your child zips up the mat into a storage box. The mat has a series of folds and zippers at its corners to facilitate the transformation.

Design

1. ZipBins are made of a vinyl-like material over a rigid cardboard frame.  Laid flat, the mat’s folding creases bisect to create nine squares or rectangles. Each section contains a separate piece of cardboard inside the mat fabric, double-sewn to keep the boards in place. The corner squares have a diagonal crease in them to facilitate their folding into the box. There is a quality feel to the product.

2. In box form, two Velcro straps provide extra security to keep the box lid in place. The box is carried with hand straps.

3. The artwork on the mats is crisp and colorful.

Unpacking

Upon unpacking the bins, my daughter was delighted by her new toy—remove lid, unzip, flatten, zip-up, replace lid, repeat. Wow, and I hadn’t even put toys inside yet. In the unlikely event the process is confusing to an adult, you can refer to a holographic business card that resides in a pocket on the ZipBin. The hologram shows the stages of the ZipBin opening and closing. The backside serves as a “This belongs to…” ID tag.

She has been using two ZipBins—the Farm and Road & Rail play mats—around our home for the past month. (Neat-Oh! makes at least 10 different ZipBin themes.) We also took the Farm on a 14-hour round trip car trek to visit family over Thanksgiving. More on that later.

Two photos, Farm ZipBin play mat and the Farm box lid that resembles a pond. Click for an enlarged uncaptioned version.The Farm ZipBin

Laid flat, the Farm measures 24.5″ x 28″.  In box form its dimensions are 11″W x 13″L x 8″H.

A lot of care and attention went into this product’s design. The mat artwork features a farmhouse, barn, animal corral, corn field and dirt roads. Although the drawings have a cartoon-like appearance, the artist used shading and shadows to give the scene a sense of depth.

The box lid doubles as a swimming hole with a small dock—the artwork appears on the underside of the lid. My daughter puts her toy ducks in the pond.

If you don’t have any toy animals, the mat ships with three. Who buys a farm mat without owning a farm play set? I thought these three animals too few and completely unnecessary, but a nice gesture just the same.

The backside of the mat also has artwork. When the ZipBin is folded into box form, my daughter is toting around a red barn with a horse and cow looking out two painted windows. The odd thing is that there are apple trees on the corner panels of the box, but are located in positions where you will only see them when opening or closing the box. The rest of the time they are hidden. A lot of companies would have left those panels blank. Nice touch.

Photo of the Road and Rail ZipBin. Click for an enlarged uncaptioned version.The Road and Rail ZipBin

Laid flat, Road and Rail measures 35″ x 39″. In box form with the lid on, its dimensions are 14″W x 18″L x 11.5″H.

After seeing the Farm’s rich textures, the Road and Rail artwork seems a bit more “meat and potatoes.” It has a stronger 2-dimensional feel to it even though buildings and objects are still drawn with a 3-dimensional perspective. The flatness of the map features seems appropriate for playing with cars and trains.

There is a firehouse, farm with a corn field, house, gas station, construction zone, covered bridge and small bay connected or bisected by paved roads, dirt roads, railroad tracks and some trails.

We call this mat “Trashy Town” after one of my daughter’s favorite books by the same name that follows the doings of Mr. Gilly, a trash collector. She was immediately drawn to this mat as Trashy Town and began using a host of toys that have gone largely unused since we purchased them. Before we had the ZipBin, she simply didn’t play with toy cars or move plastic people around in mock scenarios. (Yeah, I know, I need to buy her a doll house. Incidentally, Neat-oh International also makes a ZipBin Mansion and Cottage.)

Update: The Road & Rail mat appears to
be one of the first ZipBins produced, as evidenced by the box’s solid
blue, red and yellow accents devoid of artwork. Newer ZipBin designs
like the Farm have artwork on the outside and the latest designs have
artwork on even obscure parts of the product. See the Addendum at the
end of this article for details.

Photo of the Farm ZipBin closed in box form and a second photo showing toys inside the ZipBin box.Travel

We brought the Farm ZipBin on our Thanksgiving trip last week. Although we have lots of small wooden farm animals, they didn’t come close to filling the box. So we also stuck inside a small box of wooden puzzles, a memory tile game and a domino game, plus a pretend doctor’s kit. The ZipBin was a handy way to condense all of our toys for packing into the car’s trunk, and it was nice to then also have a play mat at my grandmother’s house.

The Good

1. Speeds toy clean-up. This is a major benefit. Toys remain centralized on the mat instead of getting scattered around a room. At clean-up time, my daughter zips up the mat and the toys are automatically corralled. If I asked her to carry the toys individually in her arms, it would be met with resistance and the task would take 10 times as long.

2. Makes toys mobile. Normally playing in different parts of our home means carrying handfuls of toys from my daughter’s room to other locations around our house. Now she or a parent brings a single ZipBin to the room where the parent is working.

3. Gobs of storage. I just don’t have enough farm pieces or cars and trucks to fill these bins. If one of these bins was full of toys, I’d have too many toys to fit onto the mat.

4. The boxes stack. I wouldn’t place a heavy box on top of a ZipBin, but in a child’s room with other toys, this feature has a place. We keep them stacked on top of one another.

The Bad

1. Laid flat, the mats have slight height variations due to the cardboard segments sewn into the fabric. A play mat purist might prefer a standard rolled mat if he insists his kid play on a near-perfect surface. I doubt kids care.

2. The printed railroad track on the Road and Rail mat is sized to match the dimensions of Thomas Train-style tracks. In other words, you could lay down your toy track over the one that is printed on the mat.

However, I found that the folding points in the mat are just bumpy enough that my wooden track joints [image] don’t line up flat in certain spots, typically at the corners. But our toy trains moved fine across the mat without the wooden tracks. (I mean, what’s the point of using wooden tracks when the mat has its own painted track?) I asked the Neat-Oh! folks about the issue and they said they have no problem using toy tracks on the mats and that the mat will eventually lie flat.

The Competition

There are at least two competitors to the ZipBin: Play Mat by Alex Toys and Matville Double Play by Discovery Toys.  They seem to miss the point.

1. Bag totes, not boxes. They don’t have lids. A bag isn’t stackable and
don’t even think about sliding it sideways in a crowded car trunk.

2. Tougher clean-up. These totes don’t scoop toys up in the closure
process. Wouldn’t you need to pick up and/or turn the tote on its side
to get the Velcro arranged properly?

3. Velcro not zippers. Velcro in this instance seems more complex for a child (or an adult) to close up a box, and would be time intensive.

4. Extra junk. The Matville Double Play has a checkerboard on its reverse side and comes with checker pieces. This ruins the idea of free play, pegging your child into a specific game which he might not even like. Either way, your tote is now carting around a bunch of checker pieces.

In Summary

ZipBins seem ideal for several situations:

1) Clutter-conscious homes where it’s valued to offer a play mat surface, yet not have a room cluttered with toys.

2) Parents working in a home office with a child playing in the room, but who want toys stored in the child’s bedroom.

3) Daycare situations where toys are brought to a babysitter’s or grandparent’s home. Or, travel situations where a play mat becomes a robust play option when your child is far away from home.

Of course, anyone might enjoy a ZipBin, but it’s the ZipBin’s ease of assembling into a storage box around existing toys that makes it a real plus in some situations.

See: the ZipBin official web site.

Addendum

The Neat-Oh! folks wrote back, delighted that I noticed small details such as the hidden apple trees on the Farm box:

“We try to build surprise and delight into the ZB line and explicitly discussed whether we should use art where it might not be noticed. That explains the pond under the lid as well.”

We kept learning (and still are learning) as we designed, built, sold and obtained consumer feedback. That’s why on our two latest models–Medieval Castle and Tiki Beach, every surface is playable—the outside of the lid, the underside of the lid, the main playscape and the remaining 5 exterior surfaces of the bin. And it’s why in the case of Mansion, Cottage and Farm the bin itself has play value. By the way, your daughter’s delight in manipulating the zippers and opening and closing the bin is often mentioned by consumers as a benefit. Apparently, mastery over these processes is inherently satisfying.”

I noticed that the news section of ZipBin’s site includes customer comments. One parent mentioned placing the Dinosaur ZipBin against a wall. It “now sits open, the back flap with the volcano vertical against the wall and the giant dinosaur mountain on top. The bin is the perfect dinosaur playland to imagine them in the primordial ooze or eating and drinking.”

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