Competition in the field of children’s tablets is growing. With kids in mind, companies such as Fuhu make tablets that come standard with protective casings and parental controls. The entertainment industry is jumping into the sector too. That’s the reason Jim Mitchell started Fuhu Inc., an El Segundo company that makes tablets for consumers ages 3 to 14.
“We were tired of giving our kids the iPad when it first came out, and there really wasn’t anything else,” he said. “They wanted to play with all the games on the iPad, and it would come back all smudged, or if they dropped it, for heaven’s sakes, it would shatter.”
Fuhu makes Nabi tablets, which major retailers sell for between $100 and $300. The company posted $200 million in sales last year, and executives are betting that demand from children and parents will continue for high-powered devices that sport kid-friendly content and thick plastic bumpers to prevent damage. Kids can customize the machines with stickers featuring film and TV characters, as well as accessories such as alphabet letters that attach to the tablet. They can use the tablets to watch TV shows and movies, play games and explore the Web, but only the features and sites that their parents approve.
Companies such as LeapFrog Enterprises Inc. in Emeryville, Calif.; Toys R Us Inc., based in Wayne, N.J.; and tech giant Samsung Electronics Co. have tried to market devices to youngsters. Even traditional toy makers such as El Segundo’s Mattel Inc. have entered the app industry.
Education-focused cable channel BabyFirstTV, which is carried in 40 million U.S. homes, has unleashed 27 apps aimed at young children. Sharon Rechter, co-founder and executive vice president of BabyFirstTV, said she expects the reach of her app business to match her traditional TV business in the next two years
Hollywood has taken notice too. Walt Disney Co., DreamWorks Animation and Viacom Inc.’s Nickelodeon are putting out tablet and mobile apps. Educational features coach little ones on, for example, how to draw and animate their favorite characters, create books and edit video. Even the parental controls get the cartoon treatment. A short video of a DreamWorks character tells children when it’s time to take a break from the screen or shut down for the day.
Plenty of companies, from the biggest children’s brands to brand new technology startups, are exploring the potential of tablets and apps for kids, so what do they have in store for 2015? Here are some of the key trends for parents to look out for.
1. Digital storytelling finds its identities
It’s no surprise that the first few waves of children’s apps – at least the ones telling stories – took their cues heavily from books, complete with digital pages to turn. There’s still a place for that, but there’s plenty of room for invention too: less about apps trying to be better than books, and more about being different.
2. Children are storytellers too
We’ll see more apps this year that aim to put storytelling tools in the hands of children to create their own tales: whether pre-packed collections of characters, scenery and situations to play with, or stories that get children to write/draw in characters as they read.
3. Responsible use of in-app purchases
Children’s apps and in-app purchases is a very sensitive topic, thanks to the all-too-regular examples in recent years of kids blowing their parents’ credit cards on virtual items in mobile games. One under-reported point: it’s rarely children’s apps that they’re playing, but usually games intended for adults.
4. Parents as part of the process
There’ll also be more development around the idea of parental “dashboards” – ways they can log in from their own devices to see what their children have been doing, and how the apps they’re using are improving various skills. But another encouraging trend is apps that educate parents too: particularly those that suggest more non-digital activities to follow on the learning.
5. YouTube filters and other video apps
Children’s videos are massive on YouTube, as a glance at the charts for its most popular channels will tell you: DC Toys Collector, Stampy and Little Baby Bum are all fixtures in the top 10 for the entire site. Yet as a parent, YouTube can still be problematic when your children are watching it: if you’re not breathing down their neck throughout, it’s easy to end up on inappropriate videos.
In 2015, we’re going to see more attempts to provide child-friendly filters on YouTube as apps, whether focusing on particular niches like nursery rhymes or Minecraft, or more general curators. Plus more of those YouTube channels will launch their own apps, aiming for a slot on parents’ homescreens, and the growth of Angry Birds’ ToonsTV –four billion views and counting– will continue.