Over the weekend, my family drove to a cabin in the woods for a short getaway. On the two-hour-long drive there and back, something magical happened: My 4-year-old daughter, Ella, didn’t need our attention, nor did she once ask, “Are we there yet?” And no, she wasn’t glued to a screen. She was completely engrossed in a new storytelling toy called Toniebox that just landed in the U.S. from Europe.
Tonies, the company behind this product, was founded in 2016 by two German fathers, Patric Faßbender and Marcus Stahl. “We loved listening to stories on tape or CD when we were young, but by the time our kids were born, none of these technologies existed anymore,” Faßbender says.
Instead, kids tend to listen to stories on tablets or smartphones that are packed with other apps that could distract young eyes. Or they might use smart speakers, but these often get the commands wrong, especially when a child is speaking. (Case in point: My daughter recently asked Alexa to play Cinderella and the device responded with an explicit rap song.) The Tonies dads couldn’t find a simple way for a child to play stories on their own, without parental supervision or the possibility of serious malfunction.
Faßbender and Stahl spent three years building a deliberately low-tech device. It’s a soft, indestructible five-inch cube speaker, along with little figurines that magnetically attach to the top of the box to start playing songs and stories. A child can also listen through headphones, which makes it ideal for car trips or plane rides.
After the initial setup, the device does not require Wi-Fi to operate, which makes it an entirely closed ecosystem that is not connected to the internet. This will be important to the 58% of parents who worry about hackers using smart speakers to spy on kids. The box itself costs $99.99, and the figurines cost between $11.99 and $14.99. They’re available on the Tonies website, and at Amazon, Target, and toy stores.
Tonies creates its own library of stories and songs, but it also partners with other children’s media companies like Penguin Books and Disney. The founders say its important to tailor the content to each market, because there is a lot of variation in terms of what children want to listen to in different countries. In the U.S., they’re launching with several Tonies based on Disney movies like The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, and The Jungle Book.
The founders wanted to develop a product that kids would intuitively understand how to use, allowing them to play with it independently. This is important because children tend to learn more and become more engaged in an activity if they feel like they have autonomy and control over their experience. The box has two ears on the top, a large one to make the volume louder and a small one to make it softer. To skip a song or story, you tap the right side. To go forward or backward a few seconds, you tip it right or left slightly.
“Most kids don’t understand the symbols that are obvious to adults on tech devices, like the ‘start’ button, ” Stahl says. “So we created our own system.”
Indeed, part of the reason Ella was so engaged in the toy was that she could operate it on her own. If she got bored of one Tonie, she would simply take it off and put on another one, without needing to call for us. Like many kids, she likes listening to the same story over and over, until she has almost memorized it, which tends to drive us crazy on long car rides. But on our trip to the cabin, she blissfully listened to The Little Mermaid four times on her headphones, while the adults in the car were able to have a conversation.
One of my favorite things about the Toniebox is that it comes with a figurine called a Creative Tonie that allows you to upload 90 minutes of your own own content. You can upload audio files onto your account on the Tonies website, then connect the Toniebox to Wi-Fi temporarily so that the files can be transferred to the figurine. Once that’s done, you can log off and your child can use it without the internet.
Tonieboxes have become popular in Europe, where the company has already sold millions of units. We’ll have to wait to see whether they will take off in the $27 billion U.S. toy market, where they will be competing with the hundreds of other toymakers that flood the market with new products every year.
But the Toniebox comes at a good time. During the pandemic, with kids spending more time at home than usual, many parents feel bad that they’ve been putting their children in front of screens to keep them occupied. This toy is on the expensive side, but given that it promises to keep kids occupied for hours without a screen, it’s an appealing idea for families in lockdown.