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Parenting

Toniebox offers kids screen-free storytime

The cute gadget provides hours of age-appropriate entertainment

A child plays with a fox Toniebox. Credit: Reviewed / Lisa Lawrence

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For many parents, tablet time can soothe even the most savage of beasts. There are YouTube videos to watch, games to play, movies to stream, and kids eat it all up. It quiets them down, entertains them, and can give a parent some much-needed zen time.

That being said, tablets come with issues: Questionable advertising, unfriendly-for-kids content, the threat of overstimulation and anti-socialization, and the inevitable challenge of trying to tear a kid away when the time comes, just to name a few. Also, even with the most durable of covers, a savvy, unsupervised kid can still find a way to break a screen, douse a motherboard in juice, or Facetime an unsuspecting boss. Thus, tablets can be a dicey proposition at best.

That’s where the Toniebox seeks to help. Designed for kids ages 3-and-up by two German dads, Toniebox is billed as an “imagination-building, screen-free digital listening experience that plays stories, songs, and more.” In layman’s terms, that means it’s a speaker, but one that the company says is the “perfect storytime companion for tiny hands and active imaginations.” But is it? We tested it to find out.

What does Toniebox actually do?

Alone, the Toniebox can’t do much of anything. It’s a speaker, yes, but it requires accompanying “Tonies'' to even operate. Tonies are small, adorable vinyl figures modeled after some of your kid’s favorite characters—think Frozen’s Elsa, Cars’ Lightning McQueen, or Julia Donaldson’s Gruffalo. Place one of the Tonies atop the Toniebox, and boom, the speaker turns on, playing music or reading the story associated with that Tonie.

For instance, if a kid puts the little Elsa Tonie atop the box, they’re going to hear songs from Frozen. Throw a (non-Disney) Pinocchio on the box and you’ll get a narrator reading a version of the classic story. Each Tonie can hold about 90 minutes of content, though some Tonies feature only one audiobook. There are even three Sleepy Time Tonies, which contain nature sounds, white noise, and bedtime songs and lullabies, respectively.

Then there are the Creative Tonies, which is what the company calls its non-branded vinyl figures. (A pirate, a fairy, a vampire, etc.) The contents of those are completely up to the user, meaning a parent can read their kid’s favorite books into their phone’s audio recorder and upload the content onto the Creative Tonie through the MyTonies app. Users can even load songs from their own libraries onto the Creative Tonies, should their kid be more into “Let It Be” than “Let It Go.”

How much does a Toniebox cost?

A Toniebox starter set containing a box, a pre-loaded Tonie, and one Creative Tonie is $99.99, and boxes come in six colors: red, blue, pink, purple, green, and grey. Pre-loaded Tonies cost $14.99 each, and can be purchased in three-packs—Favorite Songs, Sleepy Time, Julia Donaldson books, and so on—for $44.97. Creative Tonies come in a variety of skintones and are $11.99 each.

The best buy is the Starter Set bundle, which features the Box, a Creative Tonie, and five additional Tonies for $139.99—a discount of about $35. Users who sign up for the Toniebox newsletter also receive a coupon for 10% off their entire order.

How kid-friendly is the Toniebox?

Children play with a Toniebox.
Credit: Reviewed / Lisa Lawrence

The Toniebox gives kids something to independently configure.

As a parent of twin toddlers who have already broken both a record player and a laptop screen, I’m always skeptical of tech products that claim to be “for kids” but almost always require adult supervision to make sure nothing gets destroyed. The Toniebox is, amazingly, the exception to that rule.

The speaker is wrapped in foam and fabric, making it basically drop-proof, and save maybe a romp in the washing machine, the Tonies themselves are also pretty much indestructible. Kids control the volume of the tunes and stories by squeezing one of the Toniebox’s two ear-like protrusions—squeeze the bigger one to make it louder, etc.—and the audio system simply turns on in the presence of a Tonie, and off when the Tonie is removed. Easy as that. There’s a headphone jack as well, should that be of interest.

How safe is the Toniebox? Any privacy concerns?

In short, very safe, especially compared to a lot of other kids products these days. According to a spokesperson for the company, “After initial set up, WiFi is no longer required for use. Unlike YouTube or Amazon’s Alexa, the Toniebox and Tonies figures work on a closed ecosystem that’s not connected to the internet.” The Toniebox uses RIFD technology, not Bluetooth or WiFi, meaning it’s absolutely not a hackable smart speaker. A software engineer from Australia even tried to hack the thing, and came to the conclusion that, “The Toniebox seems to be a really well made product that cares about the customer’s privacy and security.”

What did our kids think of the Toniebox?

Simply put, our twin toddler testers are now Tonie-obsessed—and frankly, we are too. We received a Toniebox, Creative Tonie, and a few different Tonies for review, including the aforementioned Elsa, Lightning McQueen, and Sleepy Time trio.

Our kids were interested from the second the Tonies emerged from the box. Showing them how the box worked took all of 10 minutes, and with only a few follow-up “remember, to make it louder squeeze this one”-style reassurances, they’ve pretty much run with it.

We can pull out the box when they’re crabby, and it’ll give them something new to quietly, independently mess with, though there certainly have been noisy squabbles over just which Tonie gets played, and how long that Tonie stays atop the box.

They’ve checked out what all the Tonies do, but tend to favor Elsa—even though they’ve never seen Frozen and called her “the old lady” for the first couple weeks—and Pinocchio. They also like the Tonie modeled after popular children’s book character Spot the dog, which we also enjoy, since the story is read by David Oyelowo.

What we love about Toniebox

A child plays with a dog Toniebox.
Credit: Reviewed / Lisa Lawrence

The Toniebox inspires kids to really listen to what they're hearing.

Honestly, it’s great. It’s cute, not too loud, totally safe from questionable content, and inspires kids to really listen to whatever they’re hearing. We could probably do without hearing Sheryl Crow’s “Real Gone” from the Cars soundtrack over and over and over, but before it truly threatens to break us we’ll just “lose” that particular Tonie in a drawer for a couple of weeks and reintroduce it when we’re ready to move on.

What we didn’t love about Toniebox

A couple of quibbles: First, the Creative Tonies are a little tricky to figure out, especially on the MyTonies app. Logging into MyTonies on the Toniebox website made the process make much more sense to us, and we had about 40 Beatles Mp3s loaded onto our Creative Tonie in no time at all. That being said, if you don’t have MP3s or other compatible audio files—say you’re a streaming family, for instance—then it might require a little finesse.

Second, though it’s awfully sweet that you can share access to the Creative Tonies with family members should Grandma in Ohio want to record a song or story, actually explaining the process to someone without the box in front of them or with limited technical knowledge could prove a little challenging.

Lastly, the library. Because Toniebox is from Germany and is a recent import to the US, the options for available Tonies are somewhat limited. As of right now, there are only 24 different preloaded Tonies available, including eight Disney Tonies, those three Sleepy Time Tonies, and four Julia Donaldson Tonies.

There are other Tonies available on eBay and on the UK and German Tonies shops, but—ignoring the fact that our kids don’t know German—shipping and exchange rates makes importing Tonies astronomically expensive.

We don’t doubt that Toniebox will release more Tonies in the months to come—there’s a Halloween Song Tonie in Europe, for instance, that we’d love to see in the states—but the rollout is a little limited so far, especially if you’re a parent who, for whatever reason, tries to avoid brands like Disney.

We’d love to see an expansion into more beloved American authors, brands like Sesame Street, and maybe even popular bands and musicians, but hopefully that’s something Tonies can explore in the near future.

Is the Toniebox worth it?

All the above caveats aside, we’d heartily recommend the Toniebox, particularly for kids who love music and reading. Even in the short time we’ve had it, the Toniebox has brought our kids hours of joy and brought us parents hours of serenity. Our kids tend to focus and quiet down when they’re playing with the Toniebox, and we think their listening skills are even getting better.

Beyond that, it’s cute and compact and, by using the Creative Tonies, the possibilities for what we could put on the box are almost endless. Used cleverly, the Toniebox could become a tool for self-guided learning, as well as musical and literary exploration. It’s a nifty little invention, and one that, in its own way, certainly has the potential to make any kid’s world a more interesting place.

Get a Toniebox on Amazon starting at $99.99

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