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Calling all parents: looking for toys that appeal to kids of all ages, that they can also use on their own? Here's what you need to know about screen-free audio speakers for kids.

By Jennifer Barton
April 01, 2021
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An image of audio speakers for kids on a colorful background.
Credit: Art: Jillian Sellers.

From apps to expert advice, there are plenty of ways we can try to limit our children's screen time. A fun alternative? Screen-free audio speakers.

There are several different brands of portable audio speakers on the market now, with various benefits for toddlers and even tweens. For a start, these can help turn young kids into avid readers, by giving them access to an extensive library of kids' audio books and stories—a booming business. Kids can use them independently (parents typically need to connect them to WiFi and they're good to go), and many have additional features like radio, bedtime music, and mindfulness tracks. Some double as nightlights and clocks, too.

Audio speakers have been invaluable for my family during the pandemic. They've helped entertain the kids and get them into a bedtime routine. While any educational benefit would be a cherry on top, we have noticed that our 8-year-old, who was pretty lukewarm about books, is now riveted by them—even if she won't always pick up a book herself, she will always be up for listening to a story on the audio player.

If you do happen to have a hard copy of the book you're listening to, Joshua Rosenthal, Psy.D., clinical psychologist and president of Manhattan Psychology Group, recommends reading along with the story to really engage youngsters. "I like that it's stressing aural over visual learning, but I wouldn't see it as replacing books or screens—I see it as an adjunct to books and screens," adds Dr. Rosenthal.

Here are the smart audio speakers for kids to get on your radar now.

Yoto Player

The Yoto, with its bright orange knobs that kids use to control what they're listening to (and how loudly it plays), is a versatile, eye-catching audio player which doubles as a Bluetooth speaker. Cool features like Yoto Radio and the Yoto Daily podcast, which includes facts, trivia, and more, ensure that even older kids are happy to go sit in their rooms and listen to it.

Designed for kids 3-12, Yoto works with content cards: these include songs, podcasts, phonics cards (for remote learning and revision), and mindfulness. There are also books in the Yoto store with collections from Roald Dahl, Beverly Cleary, Lewis Carroll, A.A. Milne, Jeff Kinney, and other beloved kids' authors.

For more bespoke content, you can buy Make Your Own cards to fill with your own playlists or MP3s, so the kids can have their grandparents read them bedtime stories or listen to the top bands from their own school days (we love a good nostalgia trip). The multitasking device is also a clock and a nightlight (just flip it over and choose the color of the nightlight in the Yoto app), while cute, pixelated graphics at the front of the player help to bring stories and songs to life. Even if you lose a card, no biggie: if your story has been downloaded onto the player, you can still listen to it through the app.

To buy: Yoto Player, $109.99; amazon.com.

Toniebox

Designed for kids 3 and up, the Toniebox has everything to appeal to a toddler. It comes in an array of bright colors, and kids operate the device by squeezing and bending the cute ears at the top to change the volume, fast forward, or rewind (to change chapters, they simply tap the sides). The speaker box is sturdy, but also soft enough to cuddle for those kids who want to bring it into bed with them. Each Toniebox comes with a Creative Tonie, a little hand-painted, collectible character available in a choice of colors to match the speaker, as well as three different skin tones.

Parents can load up their Creative Tonie with 90 minutes of their own custom content, including songs, stories, and audio books. You can also purchase more characters—think pirates, vampires, fairies—and create themed content for each one.

There's also a range of beloved stories to choose from—they are activated when you place a hand-painted collectible on the device—choose from Disney's Frozen, Finding Nemo, The Gruffalo, Peter Rabbit, and dozens of other titles. For a little extra help at bedtime, Tonies has just released new Sleepy Time characters, which play white noise and lullabies, to help soothe kids to sleep. The Toniebox can also be used on the go, and with headphones.

To buy: Toniebox, $99.99; amazon.com.

Lunii My Fabulous Storyteller

Lunii is a multilingual audio storyteller for kids, with stories available in a selection of languages including English, French, Spanish, and German (kids can switch between languages as they listen from one story to the next). What sets this lightweight green and yellow audio speaker apart from the rest is that it encourages children to become co-creators of the stories they're listening to, engaging the imaginations of those aged 3 to 10. They can choose a protagonist (either Ben or Suzanne), an object, and a location for a total of 48 different story options.

Chunky yellow knobs make it easy for kids to use independently, allowing them to adjust volume, pause stories, change characters, and more. A light-up picture appears on the front of the device when the story is playing. You can also download free bedtime stories and purchase additional Lunii content in the online store, which includes a range of music and books, like nursery rhymes, autobiographical-style stories, and beloved characters, including the Peanuts gang. Parents and relatives can also create bespoke content for kids on the Lunii app; this can be loaded onto the device and is free of charge. Lunii also sells accessories, such as the My Octave headset, which you can daisy-chain so multiple friends or siblings can listen to the device together.

To buy: Lunii My Fabulous Storyteller, $79.90; amazon.com.

Vtech LeapFrog StoryCube

This plastic cube of awesomeness has more than 80 stories, poems, and songs, as well as an option to record your own stories or silly sayings. The stories included cover everything from classic tales like The Tortoise and the Hare to mythology (see: The Midas Touch).

You can also program it to play a certain number of stories or songs to help little ones get to bed, and it projects pictures of Leapfrog dog Scout, the brand's interactive green puppy character, onto the walls or ceiling to bring stories to life, and act as a nightlight of sorts. You can also download up to 20 additional stories for free. It can be used with batteries or plugged into the wall. This one is recommended for kids 3 and up.

To buy: LeapFrog StoryCube, $57.99; amazon.com.

Jooki Rocks (1st and 2nd generation)

A bright blue, screen-free Wi-Fi speaker, the Jooki, aka "the magical jukebox," is available in two iterations, 1st and 2nd generation. It allows kids to stream their favorite stories and music through Bluetooth or Spotify (you can also upload audiobooks, podcasts, and MP3 files from old CDs to Jooki's internal memory).

Jooki works with an accompanying app that parents control—whether they want to limit the volume level or turn Jooki off remotely when kids go to bed. But kids can turn the bright orange knobs on the Jooki to control the device themselves, changing the volume or the chapter. The Jooki works with tokens and characters, which you sync with music and then place on the device to intuitively start playing. The Jooki 2nd gen is currently available for pre-order.

To buy: Jooki, $199; amazon.com.

Echo Dot (4th Gen) Kids Edition

Calling all Amazon smart device fans: there's a new speaker to add to your collection. The baseball-shaped Echo Dot Kids Edition smart speaker has an animal appearance (choose from panda or tiger print), plus all of the benefits of Alexa for youngsters: answers to trivia questions, animal-themed sound alarms, and even homework help.

The Echo Dot Kids Edition can also make calls to pre-approved contacts, and parents can set all kinds of controls to block explicit lyrics, set time limits, and stop any purchases from being made. It also includes a year's Amazon Kids subscription, which gives kids access to an extensive collection of thousands of hours of Audible books for kids, as well as kid-friendly podcasts, music, and games. Bonus: A Reading Sidekick feature lets Alexa take over when it comes to helping your child improve their reading skills. The device includes a two-year guarantee.

To buy: Echo Dot (4th Gen) Kids Edition, $59.99; amazon.com.

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