If you have a child, you already know that everyone else in the entire world has a tablet (or so reports my niece, daughter and every other kid I’ve asked). Thinking about buying your child his or her own device so that those grubby mitts will stay off yours? Read on. We’ve got good tips from an expert on best practices as well as reviews for the most popular tablets on the market.
Tablets are a natural fit for children
There’s a reason your child seems to “get” tablets so easily, says Shira Lee Katz, director of digital media at Common Sense Media, a national nonprofit whose mission is to help families, educators and kids thrive as they navigate the media world.
“You don’t need to sit at a desk to use a tablet. You can easily place them on the ground where kids are used to sitting,” Katz reports. And you’ve probably already noticed that younger children may not have the dexterity to type, but the swiping motion is natural and intuitive to them.
The tablet as teaching tool
Many parents are concerned that once they buy their child a tablet, he’ll go into his room and disappear for the next 14 hours. Balance and moderation for all media use is smart, Katz says (and she reminds parents that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time at all for children under 2). But there are also ways to use a tablet to help your child explore his interests.
For example, Katz has a friend whose child is fascinated by all things space, so the parent found great science apps that helped her and her daughter identify constellations and explore the wonders of the night sky. Then they even took a trip to see the Space Shuttle Endeavour’s trek through California this past fall. There are also cool apps that help families go out and identify leaves, learn about dinos and so much more. “If your kids are into a certain topic, getting them all the best-quality apps and combining that with non-digital experiences” can be a great way to inspire them and have special time together.
Finding apps that rule
Talk to friends and family, as they can be great resources for what apps and games are fun, engaging and age-appropriate, our expert says. Then check out reviews like the ones found on Common Sense Media (they feature ‘Learning Ratings,’ so you can seek out the highest quality stuff for your kids) or search for YouTube demos, which companies and developers put out so people can get a preview of their games. Lastly, “we really encourage parents and caregivers to play with an app first” before letting a child interact with it, recommends Katz, because what might be fine for one child might be scary or frustrating for another, and you know your kid best.
FOUR POPULAR TABLETS FOR KIDS AGES 4 to 9
LeapPad2 ($99.99) at Best Buy
Good news: This five-inch tablet is a really great update to last year’s ¸ber-popular LeapPad. The new device now comes with more memory (4GB), better battery life and two cameras, a built-in microphone and a stylus. When it comes to educational devices, there’s a reason parents turn to LeapFrog. The brand develops excellent products that are safe, fun and educational. The LeapPad2 comes with five free learning apps. Two are already on the device, and the additional three will need to be downloaded. Kids can create and take care of their own animal with Pet Pad, sing along to alphabet tunes via the Learning Songs app, or draw and color pictures with the Art Studio app. Want more? There are also more than 325 apps and cartridges available for purchase.
There’s plenty of fun to be had, such as making animated movies, watching shows and listening to music, but parents will value all the learning potential available here as well. Quality science, math and reading tools can be customized to suit your childís skill level. For example, when your kid reads interactive stories, her LeapPad will automatically adjust the reading level to keep her engaged and learning at a comfortable pace. More than one kid? Each child’s unique progress is remembered. Added bonus: If you already own older LeapFrog cartridges, they can be used on the new LeapPad as well as the LeapsterGS.
Bad News: At $99.99, the device is affordable, but the price of additional cartridges and apps ranges from $5 to $25. (Pricier add-ons is a problem the LeapPad2 shares with other kid tablets, particularly if you compare it to all those 99 cent downloads you’re used to on your iPhone). And though the battery life is far better than its predecessor, it still isn’t magic, and a rechargeable battery pack costs extra.
Nabi 2 ($199.99) at Best Buy
Good news: This well-reviewed seven-inch tablet features a 2-megapixel front-facing camera, a drop-safe bumper that truly protects the device and plenty of free fun, including games, songs, e-books and more. A nice added bonus to the Nabi 2 is that grown-ups can enter a password-protected “Parent Mode” that opens Android 4.0 and allows you access to your own content (once you wrestle this away from your child, that is). If you’re looking for a device with educational apps, you’ll appreciate the Fooz Kids University learning system, which provides your child with cool ways to build skills and explore creativity. There’s also a Chore List app that lets you build the to-do list for your kid, and he can check off what he’s completed and earn rewards via the Treasure Box.
Bad news: Reviewers are disappointed that Google Play is not currently supported on the Nabi. You can install the Amazon Appstore, though. Also, some of the “freebies” here are trial-mode only, so you’ll have to pay if you want full access.
VTech InnoTab 2 ($79.69) at Amazon
Good news: With a five-inch touch screen (it also comes with two styluses), this Wi-Fi—enabled tablet allows up to four users to create their own profiles, including selecting their own avatar and voice greeting. InnoTab 2 comes with 14 built-in apps and one cartridge. A content library of hundreds more cartridges and apps are available to purchase separately. The included apps are fun for your budding social scenester. There’s a contact list, notepad and calendar as well as an MP3 player, e-reader and a lot of different tools for making art. The tablet boasts a rotating camera (with video recorder), so kids can switch from front to back depending on what they want to take photos of. It has 2GB of memory, and you can buy an SD card to add up to 32GB more. Just like the LeapPad, parents can track a child’s learning progress in clever and intuitive ways.
Bad news: This is not a radical upgrade from the original InnoTab, so if you have that device already, there’s not a big reason to buy a new one. According to multiple parents, it’s also a battery hog, so you’re probably going to wind up shelling out for rechargeable batteries. Lastly, our buddies over at TimetoPlayMag.com report that “the response time is slower than other kids” tablets on the market, which may get frustrating to older kids.”
Tabeo ($149.99) at Toys R Us
Good News: Running on the Android 4.0 operating system, the Toys R Us tablet has Wi-Fi, a front-facing camera and comes with 50 apps ranging from the fun to the educational. Kids can play Fruit Ninja or Temple Run, but they can also challenge themselves with Operation Math, a learning game in which children must stop Dr. Odd from ridding the world of all even numbers, and Solar Explorer, an interactive journey through the solar system. The device has handy parental controls with custom settings for up to eight users. Bonus: Tabeo can deal with rough handling without breaking.
Bad news: Reviewers have complained about short battery life, a so-so camera and some issues with freezing. Most of the apps that come with the device are of the light/fluffy variety, which is fine, but if you’re looking for an educational tool, we’ve found that the other devices have more to offer.
But I want a device aimed at all ages!
So you’ve decided on getting a tablet that’ll suit multiple generations rather than just young kids. No problem, Katz says. You’ll “have access to many high-quality, kid-focused apps.” Just remember that “not all content you download will be kid-friendly on these devices since they aren’t designed solely for kids,” and that it’s important to investigate settings before you hand the tablet over. For example, on Amazon’s Kindle Fire ($159), you can use FreeTime, a tool that allows parents to create profiles and monitor tablet use for each child in the home.
No matter what device you do or don’t buy, it’s wise to talk to your children about smart online use because it’s pretty easy for a child to inadvertently stumble across age-inappropriate content — even if he’s just hopping on your computer for a few minutes. Common Sense Media has helpful family media advice to get you started on talking about important issues like privacy, safety, cyber-bullying and more.
Andrea Pyros lives in New York’s Hudson Valley, where she raises her two kids and writes for http://theinsider.retailmenot.com/ — the online magazine of RetailMeNot.