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“Screenless” has become a buzzword among parents over the past decade. It was a reaction to the proliferation of phones and tablets in children’s lives, but now it seems especially timely over the past year, so many kids are spending their school days learning from a distance. Their little eyes need a break from looking at the pixels. And, while many adults may turn to smart speakers for their audio entertainment, they may not be as comfortable putting one in their child’s bedroom. Enter a series of audio products designed for children and their developmental needs, such as the $ 100 Yoto speaker.
The Yoto Player is an extremely attractive technology. While adult gadgets apparently try to be as unobtrusive as possible (this week new colorful iMacs notwithstanding), children’s electronics must be something that a child would actually want to touch and manipulate. And the Yoto Player definitely yearns for that – although it takes a decidedly different turn than the Toniebox, that I checked last year. The latter opted for a more “cuddly” approach with its speaker, with a fabric covering and cute ears on the top that you squeezed to adjust the volume. The Yoto Player looks more like the machine than it actually is.
It’s a solid block of plastic, with the speaker vents on the side and a translucent front that lets LED lights through. This is not a fancy LCD or OLED touchscreen; it just shows designs on a pixelated grid, reminiscent of retro video games or a Lite Brite. When the Yoto Player is not in use, it displays the time plus a weather graph. After a while, the player will turn off, along with the screen. The back of the player is wedge-shaped so that the player can be placed in front of a child at an angle when playing on the floor. If you place the Yoto Player face down on a surface, it becomes a night light.
To get started, you’ll need to download the Yoto app and follow the instructions to set up the player; it’s no different from any other IoT device you’ve set up in your home. Internet connection is required to download content. And thank goodness the charger is a round magnetic disc that snaps onto the player, so you can leave it around your kids without worrying about them stabbing themselves (but obviously avoid keeping it away from children who may ‘wrap the cord around their neck).
The basic player does not include any cards in the box other than the one with an instruction manual, but even without additional content there is still a lot to do with the Yoto player thanks to two audio streams provided for free. Click the orange button on the right side of the device to view Yoto Daily, a 10-minute podcast made especially for kids.
There is a new episode every day that changes day by day: Wednesdays are five facts about different countries and Friday features jokes sent by kids. The announcer plays little guessing or word games with the children, then each episode ends with a birthday scoop. My heart melted when I first heard this, as the announcer got to wish his own child a happy birthday. (Sadly, the birthday cries only last until the end of 2021.)
Press the orange button again to bring up Yoto Radio, which is just a continuous stream of kid-friendly music. And we’re not talking about Raffi and The Wiggles, but songs from Disney movies and popular artists like One Direction and Florence + the Machine. (As I type this, Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” is playing.)
So there’s a lot of value in the out-of-the-box Yoto Player, although I wouldn’t necessarily say $ 100. To make full use of the reader, you’ll want to pick up some of the content cards from the Yoto store or a site like Amazon. There is a Starter Kit of five cards you can buy for $ 10, while other cards range from $ 6 to $ 12. The price is usually correlated with the length of the program, so you get more content with the more expensive cards.
That’s a nice difference from the Tonies, which cost $ 15 each no matter how much content they contain – a 30-minute Disney program costs as much as a 90-minute collection of public domain stories. . Yoto doesn’t look at brands like Tonies does, but there is licensed content in its library, namely popular children’s books by authors like Roald Dahl and Beverly Cleary. There are also a few BBC programs in the mix, including old recordings of children’s stories like Winnie the Pooh and The wind in the willows, which deliver the high level of quality you expect from the BBC. In fact, none of the content seems to be collapsed; even Yoto’s stuff internally sounds great.
Aside from the stories and the music, Yoto also has a fairly diverse range of content, including educational maps and a meditation program. Each card is roughly the size of a hotel key card and slides into the top of the Yoto Player with a little effort – it actually requires a little force to insert or remove each card, which is good in that it prevents children from taking them willy-nilly and losing them, but bad in that smaller children with less strength may need an adult’s help to change programs.
This is where Tonies probably has the biggest advantage, as playing content is as easy as placing a figure on top of the unit and removing it when finished. The controls on the Yoto Player are also a little less intuitive, but still fairly easy to learn. The left orange button adjusts the volume, which is displayed on the front of the player as a colored bar. When a map is playing, clicking the left button takes you back one chapter, while the right button takes you forward one chapter. Turning a wheel after a click jumps or goes back. The chapter number is displayed, but it is a bit slow to respond and I have often exceeded my target.
Still, I really like the Yoto Player. It is small and can fit in a bag for easy travel; if there is no internet connection available, you can still play previously downloaded content or send tracks to the player from your phone, even if you don’t have the card handy. The app also allows you to create your own content and attach it to blank cards, like reading your kid’s favorite stories, creating playlists of their favorite songs, or just sending them a friendly message. I’ll probably end up making a few for my niece, because the app makes it super simple.
The biggest hurdle to buying any of these screenless audio devices is that we don’t know how long they’ll be supported. Content is not recorded on Tonies figures or inside Yoto cards. They must be downloaded to the device. Once the servers die, so does the ability to re-download your content. But right now, Yoto has a strong enough user base that you’ll probably get a few years out of it, and if the content ever dries up, it can still be used as a Bluetooth speaker. I would say $ 100 is a fair enough price for a well-designed podcast-clock radio-nightlight.