Every kid I know loves talking to Alexa, but the answers it gives aren’t always age-appropriate. The new $79 Echo Dot Kids Edition makes that a child-friendly experience while giving parents extra control.
Using the Kids Edition, your children won’t be able to order themselves a 50-pound bag of jelly beans, or even add that to a wish list. Instead, they get a curated selection of Audible audiobooks, kid-friendly radio stations and interactive Alexa skills like choose-your-own-adventure stories and games. Parents get tight controls and thorough reports — you can see everything your kids have said to Alexa, and delete items one by one.
The Echo Dot Kids Edition bundle includes an Echo Dot in a protective case, a year of FreeTime Unlimited for up to four kids, and a two-year guarantee against damage to the Dot. But if you already have an Echo, Echo Dot or Echo Plus, you can simply sign up for the FreeTime Unlimited plan (there’s a 30-day free trial), and enable it on the device you own.
Alexa for kids is cheerful and charming. When my 6-year-old son said, “Alexa, good morning,” it replied sweetly, “Good morning! Yaaaaay! It’s my favorite day. That’s because my favorite days end in Y. Like Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Especially today. Today is my favorite.” Uh, wow, that’s a morning bot if I ever heard one.
Of course, then my child wanted to say good morning five more times, and Alexa kept switching it up. “Good morning! Today I’m thinking about birds!” began one. Another went, “Good morning! Time to shake it out! Move your body and shake out the sleep! Ready? Shake, shake, shake!”
To be fair, when I said good morning to a different Echo device equipped with “adult” Alexa, it replied with a chipper greeting plus a fact of the day. I had no idea Alexa was so perky in the morning.
Alexa has lots of child-friendly answers on board, and you can even print out a little poster to hang in your child’s room to give them suggestions of what to say. Those suggested questions, such as “How many stars are in the sky?” give friendly explanations kids would appreciate. (“No one is sure how many stars exist. There are about 100 billion stars in the Milky Way, but you can see 9,096 from Earth without a telescope.”)
But when we came up with our own question, “What is a rainbow?” we got a much drier dictionary definition. (“‘Rainbow’ is usually defined as an arc of colored light in the sky caused by refraction of the sun’s rays by rain, or, alternatively, an illusory hope.”)
Alexa was very excited to hear about my son’s loose tooth, though. (“Wowzer! That must feel kind of funny!”) When I told Alexa (in my kid voice, of course) that I was sad, she suggested I speak with my parents or another trusted adult.
It would be cool if these questions also nudged the adult in question with a notification or email. But I could clearly see the transcript in the Alexa history and even hear a recording, so if it really was my son confiding in Alexa, I would be able to hear the tone in his voice at the time too.
At night, Alexa is downright soothing. My son loved listening to an Audible book, asking for a lullaby (Alexa sang “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” to him) and saying good night, which received this reply: “Good night. I wonder where you’ll travel to in your dreams tonight. Maybe you’ll ski on Saturn’s rings, or swim in the sparkling waves of the ocean with the fishies. Just close your eyes to start your dreamy adventure.”
The Echo Dot doesn’t have an amazing built-in speaker, but it’s plenty loud enough for audiobooks, podcasts and music — provided your child isn’t an audiophile. If so, use the Echo Dot’s audio-out jack or Bluetooth connection to pair it with a superior speaker.
I can tell you exactly what Alexa said to my son at bedtime, or at any time, because Amazon gives parents a lot of information about how their kids interact with the digital assistant.
The parent dashboard at parents.amazon.com and the Alexa dashboard at alexa.amazon.com both let you read transcripts of everything your child has ever said to Amazon — and will even play back recordings — as well as everything Alexa said back, plus all the skills used and music and audiobooks played.
You can even delete the whole Alexa history if you’re concerned about Amazon building up too much information about your child. I’d like this to be a one-click option, though, or at least better explained. Right now, you have to delete recordings one at a time. Maybe I can have Alexa remind me to do this periodically.
FreeTime Unlimited also comes with robust parental controls. The family plan lets you set up accounts for up to four kids, and there’s also a single-child plan. Each account can have time limits so the kids can’t stay up chattering with Alexa past bedtime. You can easily lock them out of devices at any time, which is handy if a kid needs to be grounded.
FreeTime Unlimited also includes e-books, videos and games for Fire tablets and Android devices, so the parental controls work across devices and even let you specify limits by category. For example, I could limit my son to an hour of videos every weekday, and two on the weekends, but only if he reads e-books for 30 minutes first. I can bump his game time up to 2 hours a day on the weekends, but then put only educational games on the device.
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The controls are easy to figure out and very flexible, much better than what you see in stock iOS and Android. It’s a drag that they aren’t available in the Alexa app for iOS (and there’s no FreeTime Unlimited app for iOS), but the web-based controls work well on iPhones.
It’s also worth noting that once you assign FreeTime Unlimited to an Echo device, that device will answer as the kid-friendly Alexa, even if it’s an adult that’s speaking. So if you’re already using an Echo for making shopping lists and Amazon purchases, don’t assign that Echo to your kids, because you won’t be able to place orders on it anymore, either.
The Echo Dot Kids Edition does a good job of onboarding to the Alexa ecosystem, for better or for worse. Once we started using it, we quickly wanted to try more skills, then found that with FreeTime Unlimited, dozens are ready to go — which then got us using Alexa more and more.
Alexa skills are usually free, so you could seek these all out on your own, but FreeTime Unlimited at least told us where to start. We enjoyed Disney Stories, Simon Says, Amazon Math, Batman’s Heroic Adventure, Ben 10 and especially Funny Fill-In, which is like Mad-Libs and got a ton of repeat play.
FreeTime Unlimited is another hook into the ecosystem, since it includes videos, games and ebooks for tablets, too. The same parental controls and time limits apply across devices, which makes Amazon’s line of Fire tablets that much more attractive, especially considering they start at just $60.
Once your included year of FreeTime Unlimited is up, a subscription is $5 per month for a single child ($3 per month with Prime) or $10 per month for a family of up to four kids ($7 with Prime). Yearly family plans are available for $119 ($83 with Prime). Yep, that’s going to make it trickier to ever quit Prime, too. Oh, Amazon.
(It’s worth noting that Amazon sells a Kids Edition of the Fire 7 and Fire 8 tablets, which also include FreeTime Unlimited for a year, a protective case, and a two-year breakage guarantee. Some parents might choose to go that way to get the tablet guaranteed, and then buy a standard $40 Echo Dot on which to use the FreeTime Unlimited plan. In our house, tablets take more abuse than Echo Dots.)
The Echo Dot’s settings let you enable or disable the Drop In feature, which turns the device into a kind of intercom. Say I have an Echo in the kitchen. I can say, “Alexa, drop in on Chris,” and that Echo connects to the Echo Dot in my son’s room. I can hear what he’s up to and tell him to wash up for dinner, instead of having to yell across the house. When an Echo is assigned to a child, only Echos in the same home can drop in.
You can set alarms by voice or with the Alexa app, and it supports recurring alarms, like, “Alexa, set an alarm for 7 a.m. every weekday.”
In the Alexa app, you can change the alarm voice, and the available voice selections now include a few aimed at kids, but we found them underwhelming. There’s SpongeBob and Squidward and Patrick from SpongeBob SquarePants, and a few Pixar characters, but the voice my son preferred was Missy Elliott’s, which isn’t aimed specifically at children.
Alexa doesn’t always understand what people say. My son is 6, and he needed to be prompted what to say a lot of the time, plus to raise his voice and separate his words enough. Alexa can understand some mispronunciations, but my boy tends to mutter, which occasionally drives me nuts. But after he used a skill two or three times, he would grow more confident in saying it himself in a voice that Alexa could hear. Maybe this will help the muttering problem.
Even when Alexa could understand him, we were more often frustrated by the syntax. “Alexa, play Nate the Great,” for example, found some jazz album in Amazon Music, while “Alexa, read Nate the Great” correctly found the Audible audiobook series we wanted. Once we got the right audiobook playing, the experience of listening to a story while we colored or played with trains was wonderful.
My son really loved the interactive Alexa skills, like the Ben 10 skill, which is an interactive story starring characters from the Cartoon Network show. But again, we were tripped up by syntax a few times. If my son was too slow to give an answer, or didn’t say the words correctly, we might hear that little section of the story over again before being presented with the same choice.
Even with a curated collection in FreeTime Unlimited, finding stuff is the hardest part. After all, the Echo Dot doesn’t have a screen so you can browse your choices. The Alexa app for iOS has a Skills section with a Kids category, but I wish the FreeTime Unlimited collection was highlighted more prominently.
It’s easy to get started with new skills, even if you’re new to Alexa, because all you do is say the name of a skill and it’s activated. You just say, “Alexa, open Amazon Math,” and you’re using it. The only trick is knowing what to ask for. Amazon has some onboarding pages with long lists of audiobooks, kid-friendly music and Alexa skills, and more questions to ask Alexa — we referred to them constantly the first few days of using FreeTime.
FreeTime Unlimited was already a good value for families who use it on a Fire tablet or Android device, and adding the Echo Dot to the party makes it even more fun. I was glad to replace some of my son’s screen time with Alexa time, which encouraged us to listen to stories and music more often throughout our day. I just wish it were easier to find content
I actually found one of my favorite books from childhood — The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright — in the list of audiobooks, and I’ve been listening to it while my son isn’t even around. Don’t let him know, though. Even after the first two days with Alexa for kids, he already thinks of this Echo Dot as his.
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