Children’s Tablets Review: The Electronic Baby Sitter Wises Up

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This very important article appeared in today’s Wall Street Journal.  CLICK HERE to read the article at WS Journal’s website!  I recommend that you read the piece there to see pictures of the devices that Mr. Fowler reviews in his article.  With the holidays coming up, this couldn’t appear at a better time!

Children’s Tablets Review: The Electronic Baby Sitter Wises Up

The Amazon Fire Kids Edition, LeapFrog Epic and Fuhu Nabi Elev-8 educate and entertain and may just leave parents guilt-free

by Geoffrey A. Fowler

The tablet has become a staple of the American tween’s life, just five years after its invention. But can a tablet be a guilt-free baby sitter?

I found out, by putting the latest youth-targeted tablets to the test.

A survey released Tuesday by the nonprofit family advocacy group Common Sense Mediafinds Americans age 8 to 12 spend an average of an hour each day using a tablet. Add to that the time these children spend playing games and videos on smartphones and iPods, and it eclipses even the time they spend in front of a TV. Call them Generation Touchscreen.

The tablet transition is stressing out moms and dads. “Parents like to make themselves feel guilty,” says Common Sense’s research director Michael Robb. They fret about limiting tablet screen time, which is harder to monitor than TVs used in common rooms. And some families share one iPad that mixes grown-up apps and open Web browsers with child-appropriate fare. A common nightmare begins, “Junior just Googled what?”

Tablets have the potential to turn children into zombies, but there’s evidence touch screens can help develop young minds, too. It requires a holistic view: exposure to the right apps, in the right amount, for each child’s needs.

Three new tablets are brushing up on their electronic baby sitting skills. The Amazon Fire Kids EditionLeapFrog Epic and Fuhu Nabi Elev-8 come not just with protective covers but walled gardens of content—parents aren’t left having to figure everything out for themselves. These are also full-fledged Android tablets—not toys.

You may wonder: Why not just an iPad? They’re great, but much more expensive and you have to provide your own child-proofing. iPads don’t have a dedicated child mode, though there are steps you can take to lock them down.

For any touch screen in your child’s hands, I’ve pulled together a few basic rules for the road:

• Set screen-time rules. Limits, imposed via parental settings, can help when screen time becomes a detriment to other healthy activity, though it’s still important for children to learn how to self-regulate. “Sanity, not censorship,” is the right philosophy, says Mr. Robb.

• Not all screen time is created equal. Passive consumption is still the most common activity for tweens on touch-screen devices. Playing games is almost tied. Yet tablets have largely untapped potential for creation, with cameras and drawing tools.

• Monitor what children are using, even among the so-called educational apps. Parents can tap resources like Common Sense’s ratings of 25,000 products. The children’s tablets do some vetting, but it isn’t a replacement for conversations with children about what media is worth their time.

• Stay away from in-app purchases. They’re used by many seemingly “free” games to encourage your pint-sized Angry Birds addict to rack up charges. All three children’s tablets ban them, at least on apps that come preinstalled or with a subscription.

• Children may not be ready to use the open Web, YouTube and social networks without parental guidance. These tablets all restrict access to approved sites, and there are settings for iPads and others to do the same.

I enlisted junior testers named Olive and Peter to help me evaluate how well the LeapFrog, Amazon and Fuhu tablets mix fun with parent-approved activity. Just like adults, children can spot cheap hardware a mile away, and get frustrated by clunky interfaces. We found there’s much that separates these devices, from screen quality to educational content. Think of each as a different kind of after-school program.

LeapFrog Epic

Price: $140, plus $2 to $20 for apps

Age: 3 to 9

Who it’s for: Families looking to blend learning with fun, not watch “Frozen” on repeat.

Who chooses what’s included: LeapFrog has a team, led by education Ph.D. Jody ShermanLeVos, that creates LeapFrog’s own educational apps and selects other educational and entertainment content.

Likes: The Epic was our crew’s favorite, a big improvement over LeapFrog’s earlier LeapPad tablets. The Epic personalizes itself for each child, based on age and grade, and tracks her progress across apps so it can level up the educational challenge as she grows.

Most of the available apps and videos skillfully mix the boring stuff (doing math) with fun (making cartoon chickens run around). Children earn tokens from some apps to spend on virtual goods, and parents get updates on how they’re doing.

My testers raved about the Epic’s home screen, which they could customize with stickers and backdrops.

Dislikes: About 20 apps come included, but the Epic puts an app store at the top of the screen, encouraging children to ask Daddy to buy more. Some apps even contain ads for other apps.

The Epic store has high-quality material, but the selection is limited. To get apps like Minecraft and Netflix, parents have to manually install Amazon’s Appstore.

The child-safe Web browser left my testers a little frustrated because it only includes access to about 20 sites and a few thousand online videos. You can add to the list, but I still couldn’t play YouTube videos like “Gangnam Style.”

The Epic still uses a cheaper screen technology that can be hard to view from certain angles.

Amazon Fire Kids Edition

Price: $100, including one year of the FreeTime Unlimited library of apps, videos and e-books (normally $5 per month)

Age: 3 to 10

Who it’s for: Families who want a media-consumption tablet, or have already invested in Amazon video and books.

Who chooses what’s included: Amazon employees filter the FreeTime library based on what’s popular and then refine based on guidelines from Common Sense Media.

Likes: This device is Amazon’s jaw-droppingly inexpensive $50 Fire tablet dressed up with a thick bumper and child-friendly software. The Kids Edition includes a two-year replacement guarantee if the tablet cracks or ends up in the pool.

The FreeTime Unlimited library is all about abundance: more than 10,000 apps, videos and e-books from Disney, Nickelodeon, PBS Kids and others. Children get to choose without having to keep asking permission, but parents can set limits based on time or goals. For example, no videos until there’s been 30 minutes of learning.

There’s no store to tempt children. Parents can buy apps or media and share access to the child’s tablet. A forthcoming Web browser promises over 20,000 safe sites and YouTube videos, but it wasn’t ready to test.

Dislikes: The Fire Kids Edition doesn’t have the same learning focus as rivals. Its software doesn’t track a child’s performance across multiple apps to reach educational goals.

While the FreeTime Unlimited selection is broad, it doesn’t necessarily include top-tier shows, movies and apps—parents will have to pay extra for “The Lego Movie.”

The FreeTime apps all need to be downloaded, which initially annoyed my testers. FreeTime videos require a live Internet connection, only ones you buy can be stored.

Fuhu Nabi Elev-8

Price: $170, including 6 months of Nabi Pass service (normally $5 month)

Age: 6 to 9 (and older)

Who it’s for: Families looking for an educational supplement, or a full-powered tablet that can grow with a child.

Who chooses what’s included: Fuhu has one team that created its own Wings education apps, and another that curates other content from Disney, Discovery, National Geographic and others.

Likes: The Elev-8 looks and acts more like an iPad, with a bright 8-inch HD screen and snappy processor. You can also buy apps and movies from Google Play.

The Wings learning apps teach elements of the Common Core. The Elev-8’s parental controls allow you to set time for individual apps, or dole out time with fun apps for completing educational tasks. If your idea of a successful children’s tablet is something closer to tutoring, this is the one for you.

My testers liked that the Elev-8 includes functional apps such as chores and calendars, as well as drawing and animating.

Dislikes: I found the Elev-8’s multi-screen interface to be confusing, but my child testers didn’t seem to mind. I also encountered a number of apparent bugs. (Fuhu says a parental login request appearing when you swipe up from the bottom of the screen is caused by an Android feature the company can’t alter.)

In addition to the Nabi Pass library, children can use allowance “coins” to buy apps and movies in the Treasure Box. This could lead to begging.

The Elev-8 requires a special cable that isn’t likely to match any others you already have around the house. (Fuhu said it chose a larger plug to be more child-friendly.)

Write to Geoffrey A. Fowler at geoffrey.fowler@wsj.com


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