First it was TV that used to worry parents, then when computers, smartphones and tablets became part of everyone’s every day, we began to seriously freak out about how much screen time our children have access to.
Time children used to spend playing with each other, drawing, jumping, listening to stories or making dens has been given over to an online, visual world, where they watch rather than engage.
Luckily, there’s audio – definitively screen free, but which allows children a dose of technology. It’s a powerful way for children to receive, enjoy and absorb information.
Audio – be it music, radio or stories – has always been a popular medium for children – who else remembers listening to cassette versions The Witches or Just William or your dad’s Graceland on long car journeys as a kid? And this popularity remains today – although the technology has changed somewhat.
This selection includes mp3 players, speakers, boom boxes and retro record players. It sees value in the cheap and cheerful and the mind-bogglingly innovative.
We were looking primarily, for something children could use easily and ideally independently from parents – as this brings about a sense of confidence. We wanted children to be able to quickly grasp how the machines worked and to be able to properly take ownership of them. Another priority was ensuring all the audio products provided kids with a sense of fun and invited them to let their imaginations run riot.
We certainly considered size, portability and sound quality – as well as how aesthetically pleasing they all were.
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Toniebox Starter Set
It’s not hard to see why the Toniebox has won so many awards for innovation – it is a really awesome product. Essentially a cube which plays stories that it downloads from little (hand painted!) figurines, known as Tonies. The Toniebox isn’t operated with traditional buttons or symbols – instead with intuitive shapes or integrated sensors, meaning it is easy for any child to work. Our five-year-old tester loved how squeezing the big ear made the volume go up and squeezing the small ear made the volume go down. Each box comes with a CreativeTonie, which, as the name suggests means audiobooks, music and even the voice recordings of friends and loved ones can be uploaded onto it – and in turn downloaded onto the Toniebox. If this sounds complex, it isn’t. We can honestly say that the set up was fool-proof – so simple, clear and crucially speedy.
There are a huge variety of Tonies available – including anthologies of classic fairy tales, popular fiction like The Stickman, festive song collections or the history of some of the world’s most adored creatures.
The Toniebox also doesn’t just suit one age range – we know a three-year-old and an eight-year-old who are both obsessed with the world of Tonies. We love how robust the Toniebox is – it is covered in a padded leather and can withstand all manner of rough and tumble. It can also be used with headphones; ideal for long journeys.
Fisher-Price Classic Toys classic record player
As an object this retro record player is a total feast for the eyes – bright, colourful and fun. No wonder it’s been a playroom staple for decades – with no danger of it losing appeal. Sure, it’s archaic by today’s technological standards, but that’s not a slur. Many younger children love selecting a record and learning how to make it work, observing the physicality of the process. OThe record player comes with five different – and very durable – double-sided records playing nursery favourites like Humpty Dumpty. These can be neatly stowed away inside the player when not being used.
The record player comes with five different – and very durable – double-sided records playing nursery favourites like Humpty Dumpty. These can be neatly stowed away inside the player when not being used. Our two-year-old tester was delighted with all the different mechanisms – so much so that we don’t think any song actually got to the end!
This looks like a retro speaker of sorts, but the Yoto Player is so much more than that. Kids can access a world of stories and music, without any difficulty. There’s a built-in rechargeable battery, and the set-up is easy-peasy (you’ll need wifi and smartphone).
Stories (including some of Roald Dahl’s most celebrated tales), music, podcasts and activities are played via cards which are slotted into the top of the machine. What we really liked about the cards was how easy they were to transport and store: they can fit neatly into wallets and are virtually weightless. This is a massive bonus for holidays. Our five-year-old tester loved listening to this before bed – not least because it doubles as a nightlight. A really lovely, clever machine.
We are loving the design of the Ocarina, which comes in choice of bright rainbow hues. Not only is it super tactile – a kind of soft rubber which is also free of toxic substances, it is essentially impossible to break. It can be dropped, squashed or sat on and it will come back fighting. The sound quality is top notch – but there are volume limits so as to protect growing ears.
What we – but arguably not our little testers – thought was particularly clever was the element of parental control available. Parents can ensure volume is at a suitable level (and authorise a louder option for outdoor or party use, say), schedule a time for the Ocarina to turn off and disable its buttons.
There are four buttons and a light-up digital screen, all of which are easy for adults to get acquainted with, but might take little ones longer to manage, particularly if they have not learnt to read yet. That said, the Ocarina is made to be picked up, touched and carried by children and in our experience the testers – aged between three and six – all took delight in getting acquainted with this unique little player. We also considered how easy this would be to pack for car journeys or holidays.
The Ocarina originally contains three stories and songs in Italian. However, further content is available online – the Ocarina can connect to your computer via USB cable. This USB port also means you can play the Ocarina’s content through your car stereo. It can play continuously for 15 or so hours – but takes under three to charge.
Disney Frozen II sing-along boom box
This boom box not only blasts out songs and favourite quotations from hit Disney movie Frozen II, but it comes complete with a sing-along mic and flashing LED lights. If this isn’t enough for young partiers, they will be delighted to know that the boom box can connect to your own devices by aux cord so that a world of musical opportunity can open up. Our four-year-old tester found this dead easy to navigate – there are only four buttons to get acquainted with after all and the handle meant that this was easily portable fun. It needs three AA batteries, but the set-up ends there. A simple, exciting and economic way for children to learn to make their own musical choices.
Lunii My Fabulous Storytelle
First of all – a word about how inviting the colour scheme is here, teamed with rounded corners and a diminutive frame, this audio player has a visual appeal for magpie-eyed children. But this is much more than a beautiful façade, as it essentially allows children to be the author of hundreds of different possible narratives: children can choose characters, settings and a key object and then listen as the action unfolds. Each audio player comes with 48 stories with it, but more can be downloaded from the online Luniistore.
With minimal buttons and knobs, our four-year-old tester got to grips how to work this very quickly. We loved how it proved to be both interactive and relaxing – promoting both decision-making and imagination. Interestingly this has single-handedly spawned an interest in writing stories for our tester who is keen to plot out a tale or two of her very own. The size of this – not much bigger than an iPhone, really – is a huge selling point as it is so easy to pack up and carry.
KidzAudio Badoo music box
One of the first things we noticed was the obvious portability of the Badoo – the silicone handle on top signals how easy it is to transport. The entire product is lovely to look at – it’s pretty grown up with the bamboo casing and save for the primary coloured buttons you could be forgiven for thinking it’s an adult’s machine. It is essentially a Bluetooth speaker which allows for music, audio stories and podcasts to be played via a smartphone or USB stick. There is a “secret” volume limiter which can be pre-set by parents so as to keep little ears safe from too much noise.
We found this easy to assemble if you want to use it simply with Bluetooth – there’s nothing to it really. However, if you want to create a UBS stick of media to use with the Badoo you’ll have to get this together first – and label the files accordingly so the box can identify what it is meant to do. With this in mind, we think this is pretty fiddly for children to operate, despite the colour-coded buttons. It isn’t particularly intuitive.
Almost needless to say, our two testers, aged four and seven, were most taken by the “record” facility, which accesses the built-in microphone and allowed them actual hours of fun recording and then listening to themselves sing, chat and practise their American accents! The sound quality was absolutely excellent – noticeably cleaner and crisper than any other product in the round up. We think parents will definitely consider using this for a kitchen disco once the kids have gone to bed.
This microphone has Disney’s Polynesian Moana on the front and when turned on plays songs and quotations from her eponymous movie. When switched off, it doesn’t lose its appeal, because microphones are always a good idea. This might technically be on the more basic end of the spectrum but we have to say that the unbridled joy on the face of our four-year-old tester when she was presented with this mic reminded us that often kids plump for simplicity.
Horbert Audio Player
Serving a strong retro aesthetic, this handmade wooden MP3 player music box punctuated by a splatter of multicoloured buttons might evoke a bygone era but its tech is totally contemporary. You’ll need to pop batteries into the back to begin with, and get to grips with the included memory card. The latter arrives with a variety of rhymes, stories and songs on it as well as the Horbert software on it, which needs to be installed onto your home computer if you want to add your own audio media to the Horbert, which we did.
The handle is not only handy, but has been thoughtfully designed to ensure little hands are comfortable when carrying the Horbert; it is also not very heavy at all, so toting it around is no hardship at all for little ones. The controls on top are straightforward: the round knob controls the volume and the baton switch is on/off. But the coloured buttons on the front take a bit of getting used to – which is no bad thing when it comes to children exploring a new toy. Each colour relates to a different playlist on the memory card; there are some 17 hours of audio play time available which seems super generous - ideal for long journeys or holidays. The sound quality was top notch – even with the volume restrictor in place.
Our four-year-old tester was fascinated by the innards of the Horbert – she loved seeing the mechanisms and learning about how it worked, perhaps because children so rarely get to see that side of their toys. It’s not cheap but it’s premium quality.
The verdict: Kids’ audio players
For us, the Toniebox wins hadns down for its ease of use, playfulness, indestructible design and appeal to a wide age range.
For more ideas on entertaining kids, read our guide to the best wooden toys that will inspire their imagination
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