By Laurie Schacht - Toy Insider Mom and co-publisher of The Toy Insider
This past week my husband and I got together with my oldest daughter and her boyfriend, my sister and her husband, my parents, and my two nieces: ages 12 and 9. We were in a restaurant in New York City and we were 10 people, so as you can imagine, this was not a quick meal.
So how exactly do a 12-year-old and a 9-year-old behave perfectly for a 3.5-hour dinner? Not a single, "where is my food?," not a single "let's go home!," not a single one of any of the things that I would've heard from my three girls when they were that young. The answer is simple, as it's practically a part of our DNA: technology. Both girls were sporting a tablet and it kept them engaged and busy in an age-appropriate way.
I'm a believer in toys (duh…Toy Insider Mom), and I found it interesting that tablets are considered toys — but they are, and for many good reasons. First, toy retailers know that kids want tablets, and so they are carrying them. The "app makers" know how much time even our littlest kids spend on tablets, so there are apps for everyone and at every age. There are so many great options on the market, from tablets that simply copy what mom and dad have, to those true Android devices that are great for the family. Tablets are great learning tools, and a resource that I don't know how we have ever lived without, but they are also just plain fun.
But if you think a walk down the tablet aisle in a toy store, it is a bit overwhelming to decide on the best fit for your child. There really are quite a few to choose from and each has its own set of different features. Here are a few favorites, each of which has unique features that makes it stand out.
For our youngest kids, I have to begin with the LeapPad Ultra, from Leapfrog. As a leader in kids' educational toys, everything that you would expect from the Ultra, you'll find. It's built for kids inside and out and features a breakthrough kid-safe web browser, LeapSearch, created in partnership with Zui, a leading children's browser developer. LeapPad Ultra is kid-ready right out of the box and delivers a quality Internet browsing experience that parents can trust. It also offers instant access to more than 800 fun and educator-approved games, creativity apps, e-books, videos, music, and more. It has a 7-inch high-resolution screen designed to help children learn to write using a stylus while supporting interactive touch experiences. And of course — aside from the sleek new look — it has a long lasting rechargeable battery, front and back camera and video recorders, and 8GB of storage. This tablet is designed for kids ages 4 to 9 at $149.
VTech has introduced the InnoTab 3S, which features VTech Kid Connect: an exclusive communication app that allows kids to be connected with their parents and friends through tablet-to-mobile and tablet-to-tablet communication. I have to tell you, this is a very, very cool feature. Kids can actually send real-time text messages to mom and dad at work (or in a different room in the house) on what is still essentially a toy. As a working mom, I really like this new addition. In addition, the Wish List maker allows kids to browse the Learning Lodge and create an app wish list to send to their parents' email for approval. The InnoTab 3S has a 5-inch color touch screen, 4GB (and is expandable) of storage, and the front and back camera that all kids must have. This is also made kid-tough for kids ages 3 to 9 at $99.
As kids get older, we know that tablets are not only part of being like mom and dad, but they are also a great learning took as well as a great recreational toy. Techno Source has a full line of Kurio S tablets — and they own the "parental controls corner. When we begin talking about the Kurio tablets, we are looking at real Android devices with a 4.2 operating system that mom and dad will use too. Choose between a 7- or 10-inch touch screen with 8GB of internal memory (which can expand to 40GB). Each includes a front and back camera, a music player, e-books, and a built-in stereo. But check out the parental controls: You can easily create up to eight unique user profiles for each member of the family. Each profile offers full separation of files, apps, games progress, and scores. Parents can even set time limits per day by day of the week. It's actually like having eight different tablets in one. It comes preloaded with more than 60 family-friendly apps, including a pre-school through 6th grade learning system developed by award-winning American educator Mr. Nussbaum, and includes the protective bumpers. These are both also compatible with Netflix, YouTube, and Skype. Although the age grade is 3+, I consider this a tablet that is perfect for entire family, parents included. Kids, teens, parents—everyone will enjoy this tablet. Depending on size, the price ranges from $149 to $249.
A newcomer to the scene is the XO Learning Tablet, by Vivitar, also an Android device. This is a 7-inch tablet and comes preloaded with 100 apps. This tablet is under an exclusive licensing agreement with One Laptop Per Child and features the XO Learning System, which is an Android-compatible software package for child-centric learning for kids ages 3 to 12. The tablet features a full range of parental controls, and a dashboard where parents can review every usage of the tablet, including web page visits, apps, games, and files created. I like that parents have an easy way of tracking what their kids are doing online. The MSRP is $149.
The Lexibook Tablet One is another great choice and I really like the 15 language translator (I have not seen this feature anywhere else). It's got plenty of educational content, and a built in library of 200 literary works, three animated books, and an array of activities and games. This one is designed for kids ages 5 and up and goes for $129.
There are other choices as well, such as the Kindle Fire HD, which comes in a 7-inch or an 8.9-inch screen and includes free unlimited cloud storage for all your Amazon content.
I've been a Kindle user for years (for e-books, which I do not like to read on my iPad), but the Kindle Fire HD is a tablet for the family and boasts something new called FreeTime. Kindle FreeTime is a free, personalized tablet experience just for kids that gives parents the ability to set limits on their kids' screen time and choose the content each kid can see. There is also FreeTime Unlimited, which you need a subscription for, beginning at $4.99 a month (and $2.99 for Amazon Prime customers). FreeTime Unlimited gives kids the freedom to choose from thousands of books, games, apps, and shows and while they are exploring the digital media that's good for them. Web browsing and purchasing content are all disabled. Parents can set up six different profiles, and kids cannot exit FreeTime mode without a password (set by mom and dad). The MSRP is $199 to $269.
Just for reference, my older niece was on the Kindle Fire HD but not using the FreeTime. My younger niece was using the Blackberry playbook (which first belonged to my sister).
Tablets and devices are becoming a way of life. At our fingertips we have instant information, instant directions, instant knowledge, and instant entertainment. Of course our kids want them too, and companies are making them fun while adding various features and plenty of opportunities for kids to learn. New tablets are being introduced all the time, but the list above includes market leaders with products you can trust and that your kids and family will enjoy.