Amazon’s super cute Echo Dot Kids Edition has finally launched in the UK, giving parents the opportunity to pick a panda or get a tiger for their tots. Like the Amazon Fire HD Kids Edition tablets it isn’t just a standard device in a kid-friendly case: it’s been designed specifically for children with custom features built into Alexa, although of course grown-ups can use it too.
There’s a lot here to like, although one of my favourite features appears to be missing: the new Reading Sidekick feature for Echo devices has been rolled out to Kids+ subscribers in the US, but it isn’t currently available in the UK. Hopefully that’ll change when the Kids Edition starts shipping later this month, because it’s quite an important feature.
Even without Reading Sidekick there’s still a lot here for parents: you get a free year of Kids+, which has lots of great content for younger children, and Amazon’s parental controls are first class. Amazon is also starting to roll out Voice Profiles for Kids that will recognise which child is speaking and apply the appropriate parental controls, which might finally stop my kids torturing me by getting Alexa to play the Flying Bum Song at every opportunity. It also means that Alexa’s responses to questions will be age-appropriate.
Why Reading Sidekick is a great feature
Reading Sidekick is a clever feature that’s available to Kids+ subscribers in the US. When your child says “Alexa, let’s read”, Alexa will ask what book or ebook they’d like to read and then they can take it in turn to read paragraphs or pages. If the child stumbles over a word, Alexa will gently help them; as they progress, Alexa will congratulate them.
The feature is for children aged 6-9 and currently covers around 700 books (the same ones available as part of the Kids+ subscription and their printed versions too), and it was developed in association with teachers and other education experts.
Amazon says the goal isn’t to replace time spent with parents or guardians but to add another option to the parental toolbox: Alexa can be a virtual pal, someone safe to read aloud with – something that’s useful for kids who might not be confident or comfortable reading aloud to another person.
I think Reading Sidekick is a great idea, and I’d happily hear my youngest reading along with Alexa. But when it comes to buying an Amazon anything for kids I can’t help but have a bit of doubt in my mind. Well, two doubts. The first is the fear that I’m somehow sending my kids down Jeff Bezos’s data mines.
And the second is that I’m increasingly locking myself into Amazon’s ecosystem. The more I do that, the more difficult, awkward and expensive it becomes to jump ship if Amazon starts doing things I don’t like. I can influence how my kids behave, but I can’t influence Amazon: I just need to hope that Alexa remains on its best behaviour.