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My Two Kids Would Rather Play With This Speaker Than Watch a Movie

Photo-Illustration: retailer

My kids are all too happy to try out samples of newly released toys. And I’m sent a lot of them in my line of product-testing-heavy journalism. Still, when the Toniebox arrived at our house — it’s essentially a smart speaker for children that launched in the States in September — I couldn’t help but have my doubts that it would deliver on its promise: namely, to provide young people with hours of entertainment without involving any screens. I can’t count the number of kid products these days that purport to be a healthier (yet still tech-forward) alternative to the phone or tablet, only to disappoint.

But the Toniebox is different. What immediately impressed me was its user-friendliness. You work the Toniebox by placing a magnetized figurine, a “tonie,” on top of the speaker cube. From there, the audio content that corresponds to that specific tonie begins to play. So if you want to listen to a condensed version of Toy Story, for instance, you put the Woody tonie on top of the box. What follows is a half-hour-long retelling of the movie: Strains of Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” give way to a narrator’s voicing of the plot, with sound effects and pieces of dialogue from the film itself mixed in (and more songs, too). It’s essentially Radiolab for kids.

The Toniebox is so easy to operate that my 2.5-year-old daughter can do it all by herself. (There’s an initial onetime setup via app that an adult will need to handle, and it took my wife all of five minutes.) Tilt the box to fast-forward or rewind, and squeeze one “ear” to turn the volume up, the other to turn it down. (There’s a headphone jack, too.) Pull the tonie off the Toniebox and it falls silent all at once. The speaker is soft, with plush sides, and perfectly lap-size; it’s also durable for those times when little hands will inevitably drop it to the ground.

I also was pleasantly surprised by the production value here — talented voice actors, rich sound effects. It makes the aural experience of the content every bit as rewarding as watching the movie; arguably more so, as you create the visuals in your mind. Plus, you get that tactile moment with the tonies, which my kids seem to find quite satisfying, as well — more satisfying than tapping a screen. (Tonies are sold separately for about $15 a pop.) My 7-year-old son seems to get just as much out of the Toniebox as my daughter — maybe in part because he, like her, happens to be in a big Disney phase right now. My wife and I will hear the speaker going all times of the day, whether as background entertainment while they’re playing LEGOs or one last bedtime story before they fall asleep. They’ll grab a Gruffalo figure for a reading of the beloved book The Gruffalo, or Ariel for The Little Mermaid. There are also tonies for classic lullabies like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

Strategist senior editor Jessica Silvester, a mom of two, also owns and loves the Toniebox. “Even by toddler standards, my son has an exceptionally low attention span. Nothing (other than certain Pixar films and the occasional Netflix series like The Octonauts) holds his attention for more than a few minutes,” she says. “But the Toniebox does — both when it comes to stories he already knows, like The Lion King and Frozen, and those he previously didn’t, like Rapunzel. I can cook an entire breakfast with him entranced in front of that speaker.”

Plus, each unit comes with a Creative-Tonie that lets you record up to 90 minutes of your own content, and you can buy as many of these as you’d like. I can’t help but think of the grandparents that aren’t able to see their grandchildren during the pandemic. A Creative-Tonie is a great way for them to record a story-time session when they can’t actually be there in person. A pretty excellent gift.

One parent’s hack to use the TonieBox even more effectively

Kathryn VanArendonk, features writer at Vulture, says: “I have a 3-year-old and a 7-year-old, and my younger one got a Toniebox for Christmas last year. It has been so fantastic for us, in part because it’s become a way the 3-year-old can self-regulate. The box is super-easy to use, so when she gets overwhelmed or tired (but is fighting a nap), she can go into her room and pick out whatever Tonie she wants and just chill for a while, or fall asleep listening, or whatever she needs until she’s gathered herself together again.

“We have lots and lots of the Tonie figures; the audio-production quality is good and both my kids really enjoy the stories. But the real game changer is the Creative Tonie that Steve mentions above. The company suggests you use this plus the Tonie app to let grandparents record messages or record yourself singing your kids’ favorite songs. And … look, maybe that’s how stuff works in your family, but in mine none of us are sitting around lovingly recording 90 minutes of bespoke story-time content upon request. However! The Creative Tonies also have a browser interface that makes it very easy to load them up with MP3s, which means you can put anything on there. Kids podcasts (story-time ones, science ones), music, audiobooks, all of it. It’s very easy to open the browser and switch out all the content, which then automatically syncs the next time your kid puts the Creative Tonie figure on the box. So what would’ve been a great but somewhat limited speaker has become a much more open, flexible platform.”

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My Kids Would Rather Play With This Speaker Than Watch TV