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Amazon’s new Kindle for Kids is probably not as good for kids as real books

October 8, 2019
amazon kindle for kids
amazon kindle for kidsAmazon

Amazon has announced it’s launching a Kindle designed especially for children. Research suggests that getting an e-book to encourage your young reader might not be the best idea.

What’s different about the Kindle for Kids? Amazon is billing the six-inch device as the “first ever dedicated reading device built just for kids.” Access to a basic version starts at $109.99; unlimited access to Amazon’s FreeTime content—the company’s subscription service to kid-friendly content ranging from books to movies to games—costs a one-time fee of $199.99.

Will it help build good reading habits? Unclear, but a small study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics earlier this year gives some clue. The study watched 37 parent-toddler pairs reading in three ways: an “enhanced” electronic device (with sound effects and animation); a “basic” device (without all those bells and whistles); and a book. The researchers, led by Tiffany Munzer at the University of Michigan, found that books elicited more, “richer” conversation between parents and kids about the story. One example of “rich” conversation is a child saying “Here is a wagon,” and a parent acknowledging, “A big red wagon!” In the case of an e-book, however, comments often veered away from the book’s content: “We are going to the store after this” or “Can I hold it?”

It’s not a direct comparison, but we can glean a few things. The study wasn’t performed using a Kindle for Kids but an unnamed commercially available e-book app. And since the kids are still toddlers, comprehension couldn’t be measured. But Munzer says the results were clear: “Parents and kids spoke more when using physical books, and the language and questions parents asked were richer with print books.”

Tablets lead to a turf war. Instead of having reading-focused interactions, parents and children tussled over who would hold the tablet and push buttons.

Books offer the important psychological benefit of “social reciprocity.” When adults read to kids, kids are not only learning new words—the stories also teach them how to navigate new situations and interact with different kinds of people, which builds emotional intelligence and problem-solving skills.

E-books are better than nothing. Reading in any capacity, even on a tablet, is good for developing brains compared with doing nothing at all—just not quite as good as print books, Munzer says. And parents should realize that tablets are probably better suited for older children, even if they are marketed to “kids” overall, because by design, they’re for personal use and have buttons, animation, and sound effects that distract a kid from the story. (The Kindle for Kids includes pop-ups for difficult words, along with achievement badges for meeting reading goals.)

Amazon is bullish on the children’s market. The company’s FreeTime product has been available for a couple of years now, and last month Amazon announced Communications With Kids for Alexa, which allows kids whose parents have mutually approved communication at certain times to chat with each other on their Echo devices. Amazon is marketing the Kindle for Kids as a “sanctuary reading experience with no distractions,” but Munzer says more research is urgently needed.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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