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Amazon Alexa Wants To Be Your Kid’s Lego Playmate

A new Alexa skill, designed by Lego Duplo, guides families through brick-based stories.

Amazon Alexa Wants To Be Your Kid’s Lego Playmate
[Photos: Rahul Chakraborty/Unsplash; Arto Alanenpää/Wikimedia Commons]

Most parents do not realize, when buying an Alexa device, that they are bringing an on-demand Moana soundtrack into their homes. How quickly the swell of wonder and pride, upon seeing your kid master an Alexa skill for the first time, turns to fear and loathing at the opening lines of “How Far I’ll Go,” repeated ad nauseam.

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James Poulter, head of emerging platforms and partnerships for the Lego Group, knows that feeling well. “Since the age of 2 [my daughter] has been able to get the Moana soundtrack playing around the house,” he says. “Our kids are very easy to pick this up.”

But thanks to Poulter, families now have a greater array of kid-friendly Alexa options. His Lego team launched their first Alexa skill last December, leading up to Christmas. With the learnings from that product, they are today launching Lego Duplo Stories, an interactive storytelling skill for children ages 2-5.

Lego Duplo Stories includes five animal stories and five vehicle stories, which a child can engage with independently or with a parent. The bird story, for example, features a bird that needs to find a home, and focuses on developing language and motor skills. In the truck story, a truck constructs a house and knocks it down, highlighting the classic building skill that is Lego’s signature. The stories are compatible with existing Duplo sets, but also work with other blocks and toys.

Poulter envisions the skill as a way for parents to get started with play. “Maybe you only have 15 minutes in the morning, or half an hour before bedtime. This is something that’s really easy,” he says. “The fun isn’t just in the thing that you build in the end of it, it’s in the process of the building.”

Amazon, like Lego, has noticed that many Alexa adopters are parents. The company has been encouraging developers to create skills appropriate for children; there are now skills for Sesame Street, SpongeBob, and more (the “games” category includes a variety of trivia quizzes and drinking games, as well).

Amazon has also been expanding its kid-friendly content offerings outside of Alexa. Earlier this week, the company launched Prime Book Box, a subscription service for hardback children’s books (cost: $22.99 per box). In addition, Amazon has turned its tablets into a family favorite for over 10 million children, thanks to careful curation and rigorous parental controls. An update to the parental dashboard, released in April, highlighted the company having tighter control on their content, unlike rival YouTube which has come under fire for serving up violent and disturbing videos to children via its recommendation algorithm.

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“People don’t want to hover and hand-hold their kids,” says Kurt Beidler, director and general manager of Amazon FreeTime, the company’s family-focused content platform. “They want them to have that freedom to discover and learn and have fun on their own, but still be within a walled garden and know that they’re going to be relatively safe and not stumble onto something that is inappropriate.”

With FreeTime (and FreeTime Unlimited), parents can create profiles for each of their children, and customize settings based on age, learning goals, and other factors. For example, some parents limit video time but allow children unlimited reading time. Others set cut-off hours, shutting down access after bedtime.

As for Beidler, he and his team do the work of selecting all content, and tagging it by age. Commercial content, like YouTube’s popular unboxing videos, is not allowed.

Amazon is just starting to create an equivalent walled garden for Alexa—FreeTime and FreeTime Unlimited became available on Alexa last week. If skills like Lego Duplo Stories are a hit with families, the company may continue to invest in developing the family-friendly side of the Alexa platform.

“They’ve supported us through the process in helping us get the experience right and the submission to the store,” Poulter says of Amazon. “They’ve helped in a number of ways–refining the concept, and the testing. This is one of the first skills for kids and families together. It’s been really great to work alongside them.”

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About the author

Staff writer Ainsley (O'Connell) Harris covers the business of technology with a focus on financial services and education. Follow her on Twitter at @ainsleyoc.

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