As a gadget reviewer and father of a tech-hungry little six-year-old, I'm both aware and wary of the myriad electronic devices manufactured for kids. I'm also frequently approached by friends and family wanting to know which of these gizmos I'd recommend for their children. My answer is almost always the same: Pretty much anything from LeapFrog.
Though only around for about 15 years, this American toy maker has established a reputation for consistently delivering the Holy Grail of kids' electronics: durable, high-quality devices that both entertain and educate (hundreds of pedagogy professionals are on LeapFrog's product development payroll). Unlike other gadgets that occasionally consume my daughter's time, I never feel guilty about switching on and handing over a LeapFrog device to keep her occupied in the backseat while I navigate crowded freeways or try to meet a deadline while working from home.
And that holds true for the company's latest product, the LeapPad Explorer.
As its name suggests, the LeapPad is basically a tablet for kids. Its five-inch finger-touch screen–just a little larger than those of most smartphones – is surrounded by thick and hardy layers of white, green, and black plastic designed to withstand tumbles. My daughter has already put the evaluation unit I was provided through ordeals that would have murdered my iPad, and all it suffered was a few scuffs.
A low resolution camera mounted on the back is capable of capturing both stills and video, while a stylus used for drawing and writing sits in a sheath on the right side. Headphone, USB, cartridge, and power jacks line the edges, while the front plays host to just four buttons – power, home, volume up, and volume down – and a directional pad. An internal accelerometer enables a motion control interface in some activities.
Two compartments in the back house a quartet of double-A batteries, which in anecdotal testing provided more than enough juice to get my daughter through a lengthy Labour Day weekend road trip.
Of course, as with adult tablets, the LeapPad's hardware is simply a window to content, and all but forgotten once a child is engaged in an activity. To that end, the LeapPad already has more than 100 downloadable apps and cartridge-based games that can be purchased separately for $5 and $30 each, respectively. Plus, it's backwards compatible with all previous titles developed for the Leapster Explorer, another LeapFrog device that launched last year (these games, originally designed for smaller screens and physical controls, appear in a window on the LeapPad's larger LCD, with virtual buttons displayed beside them).
There's also plenty to do right out of the box. A pet simulator lets kids play with, customize, and care for furry little creatures, a licensed Cars 2 storybook teaches younger children to recognize simple words while providing a few basic games to play, and a nearly feature-length animated video sees LeapFrog's amphibian mascot Tad going on an alphabet adventure through his father's letter factory.
My daughter was most taken, however, by the LeapPad's creative functionality. The camera, mic, and touch screen are put to great use in a series of apps that allow kids to snap and artfully edit photos, capture video, and even create their own storybooks with pages populated by a mixture of photographs and hand drawn art. Everything your kids create can be accessed from a central folder on the home screen and transferred to a PC via USB to be saved or printed.
The processing speed for resource-hungry art activities is snail-like (lag is especially noticeable while drawing), but my daughter – despite having spent plenty of time doodling on her dad's much quicker tablets – didn't seem to mind in the least. She simply slowed her interactions to match the device's capabilities.
Parents can monitor their kids' performance in educational games by reviewing the badges they've earned when the device is connected to a PC. This can be useful under certain circumstances, and I've tinkered with it in the past with other LeapFrog devices, but I've found it more useful – and more rewarding – to simply take the time to sit down and personally observe how my daughter is doing in the games she plays and then help her out when she gets stuck.
Priced at $109.99 in Canada (a $10 premium over the American MSRP), the LeapPad Explorer is among the priciest gadgets yet released by LeapFrog and probably won't be an impulse buy for most parents. However, moms and dads in search of a backseat toy with both legitimate entertainment and real educational value for kids between ages four and nine won't do much better.
It's certainly what I'll recommend to anyone who comes knocking on my door for children's tech gift ideas this holiday shopping season.