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At age four and five respectively, my two youngest children are just beginning to show an interest in technology and electronic gadgets. I had been reluctantly allowing them to play with some of the gaming apps on both my iPod and iPad under supervision but these devises are not designed to be used by children and are far too expensive to replace if broken.
I don't believe children should spend their spare time playing electronic games but I do appreciate technology has a greater role in their lives than mine when I was their age and if they must use electronic toys then they should at least have an education value. After much research, Hubby and I decided to buy the LeapFrog LeapPad Explorer, an electronic child friendly tablet suitable for children aged between four and nine years old. We brought ours from Argos for £79.99 which doesn't include any accessories such as a carry case or headphones.
~~~ What Is The LeapPad ~~~
The LeapPad is a multi functional, portable device and much more than just a handheld gamer. It offers 2GB memory and combines a stills camera, video recorder, microphone, digital reading library, art studio, diary, interactive dictionary and progress chart all roiled into one. It's also a progress chart that records your childs learning achievements within the various apps although this is an element of the device that I have yet to fully explore.
The LeapPad looks like a cross between between an iPad and iPod. The design of which is basic but functional. Rather than being slim, sleek and fragile it's chunky and child friendly and works in much the same way as a standard tablet.
I was particularly impressed when we removed the LeapPad from the packaging because it was immediately clear it would be incredibly durable. The entire device is made from thick, toughened plastic and has a gentle curve towards the bottom to provide a firm but comfortable grip which is essential as some games are motion activated. To date it's managed to withstand the usual abuse children inflict on toys. Even the touch screen is toughened plastic so there's no need to worry the device will be too delicate to cope with rough handling.
The menu and applications are navigated and controlled using either a stylus (two of which are included) or by finger tapping and dragging across the screen whilst others can be controlled using the the round toggle button at the front of the unit.
Powered by either four AA batteries (you will need plenty of them) or a 9v power cable (neither of which are included when purchased) the device itself is smaller than a standard tablet measuring just 2.4 x 13 x 17.9cm. Because the dimensions are quite chunky it's perfect for little hands. The touch screen measures 14 x 18cm and any reservations we initially had that it would be too small to adequately display text was short lived. All writing is clearly visible meaning there is no need to strain when reading.
The LeapPad comes with pre installed software but to really get the most from the device it needs to be registered and synced to Leapfrog Connect which is basically a media centre that doubles as both an online shop for the downloadable apps and storage center to back up all the data stored on the device.
Registering an account is a simple procedure of connecting the LeapPad to a laptop/pc via the USB cable and following the on screen instructions. Here some of the software will be downloaded to the device and at any time the LeapPad can be reconnected to either purchase new apps, exchange rewards or back up data. It's all password controlled and because the device has no built in wi-fi children will not (unless you allow) be able to access the account online.
~~~ A Parents Perspective ~~~
The LeapPad's interface is incredibly child friendly, using bold, bright colours, cartoon graphics and poppy sound effects all of which are appealing and engaging to a small child. The only downside to the audio elements of the LeapPad is the American accent which often confuses my children. Likewise some of the terminology is American and not relevant to us Brits. However, I fail to see how any of this will capture the imagination of a nine year old. Personally, I think older children may find this approach a little immature and I don't imagine many nine year olds being interested in a device of this nature.
All the content we have downloaded offer children to develop a range of leaning skills including fine motor, language and cognitive and although each game has it's own skills target all require an element of discipline and concentration from the child. Some games are memory based whilst others require more hand to eye co-ordination and some are more motivational offering rewards that can be exchanged for treats to be used in Pet Pad. I think this is a great way for children to learn as all the games and eBooks have a degree of personal interaction with the child and offer an element of fun, so most children won't even realise they're learning whilst playing.
Whilst I was impressed with visual animation I find myself less impressed with some of the technology. For example, the camera takes pictures at 640x480 and without bright, natural day light the pictures are pretty grainy and dark and it's much the same story with the video which records for a limited time at 320x240. Again the footage is murky and dark and although I appreciate a children don't need to capture high resolution images, I do think they deserve better than this.
I also think that although the touch screen is quite intuitive, at times it's response can be slow. It's not enough to impede on my children's fun with the LeapPad but when a child has to tap the screen several times just to be able to draw a line it can become tedious. It doesn't seem to bother my children apart from when there in the middle of a timed game.
~~~ A Childs Perspective ~~~
I found I didn't need to intervene too much to set up my children's accounts and assist them with navigating the menus. Both my children opted to plunge feet first, finding their own way around the menu using trial and error. The great thing about this device is you can allow children loose reins safe in the knowledge that any settings they alter can be easily rectified. Both my children were happy to adopt this method because it allowed them to familiarise themselves with the LeapPad in their own time as well as work out the best ways to control it.
The first thing both my children wanted to do was personalise their own accounts by taking photos and creating their own backgrounds and wallpapers. Their diaries allow them to input their own data, just simple things like their birthday, things they like, the mood their in etc. This section is a bit like a scrap book and is a great way for them too really put their own stamp on their accounts which gives them a sense of ownership. Certainly from my perspective, personalising their own accounts seems to add an element of healthy competition as both my children want to impress both me and hubby with the best drawings, writing, pictures etc and it's much the same with the games as each one wants to complete levels first or with highest scores.
My daughter particularly enjoys the language apps and since I have been teaching her basic Spanish since she first started learning to talk, the Spanish learning app has proved very useful. I have noticed an improvement in both her pronunciation and understanding of the language. Spanish, like most of the word apps teaches children visually but also with phonics, a method she is already familiar with from school so I find she picks things up very quickly. She is certainly more confident and motivated and this method of teaching has also been helpful to my son who is just beginng to read and write.
Now my son is beginning to write his own name, something he has been learning at nursery, he finds the LeapPad a far more interesting concept than plain old pen and paper. The LeapPad offers exercises that help him utilise the stylus in the same way he would a pen, visually demonstrating how to co-ordinate the stylus to write individual letters whilst the audio encourages his efforts. At times I feel my role is a temporarily redundant however, I can see why the cute little characters offer him a greater interest.
~~~ Apps And Software ~~~
The LeapPad comes with pre installed software including an art studio and Pet Pad, an interactive pet similar to a Tamagotchi but without purchasing additional apps the LeapPad has limited use. Thankfully, if you do own cartridges for other Leapfrog devices such as the Leapster they are compatible with this LeapPad otherwise you need to download apps through the app centre.
LeapFrog boast more than one hundred apps can be found online consisting of eBooks, games and language courses. Each app has it's own targeted age range so there is plenty of variation to suit pre schoolers and older children and the apps have an educational value. Some to familiarise with letters, colours, shapes and numbers whilst others are more game based for co-ordination and memory.
A disappointing aspect of the LeapPad is the ongoing expense of the apps. Basic apps start at £5.00 which I think is reasonable whilst others are more expensive at £10.00 - £15.00. In our experience the basic and cheaper apps have limited use. I was impressed with the quality of the apps although some of the cheaper ones do lack content.
The content of the higher priced apps is extensive and they provide a valuable learning experience but I can't get my head around the prices. after all, I can buy educational games from Apple's app store that offer fantastic graphics, sounds and longevity of play for just 69pence and download eBooks for my kindle substantially cheaper than LeapFrog's offerings.
For anyone looking for free games it is worth occasionally doing a Google search for free codes which can be submitted at the online store and downloaded directly to the LeapPad. Back in January I downloaded the following two apps. 5813 1140 1518 1413 (The book of super awesome stuff) and 5810 0790 4610 4973 (alphabet soup game). I'm not sure if either code is still valid but they are definitely worth a try, particularly the alphabet soup word game.
~~~ Final Thoughts ~~~
To date, I don't think we've utilised the LeapPad to it's full potential as there are so many elements to be explored and certainly for the money it's content is extensive. Both my children enjoy the LeapPad immensely but without the option of new apps they do lose interest quickly, particularly when they have fully completed a task or game.
So far we have spent an additional £60 in apps (2 x £15 and 6 x £5) which I think is horrendous, especially considering apps have only been purchased as a reward. From a financial aspect, I'm disappointed at the amount of money that needs to be spent after the initial purchase of the device. I do feel, impressive as the apps are they are too expensive and unless you are prepared to buy the apps, a child is not going to use the LeapPad to it's full potential and will quickly become bored. It's a catch twenty two situation.
I should also point out that the LeapPad consumes battery power like it's going out of fashion. We invested in good quality rechargable batteries and we still only get four hours of continual play if we are lucky. The only other option is to power from mains electric which means the LeapPad is no longer portable. It's annoying that the LeapPad can't be recharged any other way. It's another example of the ongoing expense of this device.
I do think overall the LeapPad is worth the money but I do wonder if the manufactures have been a little optimistic with their age range. I certainly can't see either of my children being interested in the device when they are nine but overall the LeapPad has been a hit with the children and has been used consistently so the use has, to a certain degree justified the money we spent.
I think the LeapPad is a great little tablet for children and if a few minor adjustments to the software I would easily award it five stars. As it stands the LeapPad receives four stars from me.
I bought the LeapPad Explorer from Boots for my son's 4th birthday. It cost £79.99 and is suitable for children aged 4-9 years old. We got the green coloured one but it's also available in pink. I was drawn to this straight away because we've had a lot of LeapFrog products before and they've always been very good. It's also compatable with other Explorer games which was a huge bonus for us as it saves buying the same games again. It uses 4 AA batteries, which I thought was fine, but later discovered it eats them like mad so we decided to buy some decent rechargeable batteries. The LeapPad has a 5 inch touch screen and stylus, 2gb storage and a built in camera and video recorder. It comes with apps (see below), a USB cable, installation CD, instructions and a spare stylus. We decided to buy a screen protector, gel skin and carry case for it seperately.
Before you start playing with this it needs to be connected to a computer and set up (the installation CD and instructions are included and I found them very easy to understand and follow). It can take a good half an hour to set up so if it's a present it might be a good idea to do it the night before. You can create up to 3 user profiles, which is great if you have more than 1 child. These individual profiles allow you to follow the progress of each child. Once you've completed the registration you can download games, eBooks or videos. Our LeapPad came with 4 apps included (Pet writing app, Story Studio app, Art Studio app and a free downloadable app).
There are hundreds of games, eBooks and apps available from £3.50 up to £19.99. Most of them are educational and my children (even my 7 year old) loves playing them and enjoys learning. Most of the eBooks and games can be adjusted to suit your childs ability. For example, on an eBook starting at level one each page only has short sentences with words that can be sounded out using phonics. As the child's reading ability grows then you can change the reading level so that the sentences are longer and the words are trickier and more descriptive. I really do like being able to follow their progress and see where they're improving and where they might need extra help. I think the best thing my children love about the LeapPad is the camera and video recorder. They take photos and edit them, adding funny stamps and pictures.
As a family, we all love this and the only reason I didn't give it 5 stars is because it does eat batteries and there is no way to charge it up like you would a DS.
We bought this as a Christmas present for our 4 year old daughter, together with a game based on the Tangled movie and a Dora the Explorer game.
It seems solidly built and well able to cater to the demands little hands will place on it. I was initially concerned about the stylus being used to stab the screen too aggressively but it all seems pretty robust. We got the special auxillary headphones too so we could let her use it while we controlled the volume when the unit was used in public spaces and no complaints with those either.
I judge this purely on the basis of the fact my 4 year old knows how to use it without any reference to an instruction manual. Whoever designs the interface on these is very clever and knows exactly how little minds work. That level of intuitive design is impressive. I'm assuming the games have to go through some LeapFrog QC too because they all follow the same theme of simple design, fun interactions that have just the right level of graded complexity and reward, and are very easy to use.
Battery life on rechargeables seems decent too.
An example would be a game whereby the child traces out letters - they have to follow a sequence of dots and they get rewarded with a little animation when they get it right. We do this with our daughter on sand and paper so it's an extension of that process and something she enjoys. Simple to use, fun, and it seems to be helping her to learn to write too...
...but this is also where my one gripe with the unit comes in. The accent is very American - it may be that I've just not found how to change it yet but some intonation is slightly frustrating. That might seem petty but it's simple things - e.g. for O (said as "Oh" not the "o" phonetic generally taught in the UK) the animation is then accompanied by what sounds to my ears like an "O-o-p-s...WHOOPS!" which is a little confusing.
A relatively minor gripe for what is overall a very good tool for children to learn thought.
Toys are getting more and more like adult gadgets, with the must have toy for Christmas, 2011, the LeapPad Explorer, being no exception. The LeapPad, as the name implies, is a junior version of hand held tablets like the iPad aimed at the 4-9 year old market.
My 3 and a half year old was bought a LeapPad for Christmas, and has taken to the technology like a baby takes to drinking milk. This system with its touch screen technology is very intuitive for even a small child to get their head round.
My son had not asked for this toy, but when my mum asked what she could buy him for Christmas, I suggested it as I know he is just starting to get into computers a little bit more, and enjoy playing games. He had also had a Tag reading pen before and found that enjoyable to use. Seeing the adverts for it on the telly, and knowing it comes from such a reputable brand for learning toys, I knew it would be good. He was familiar with touch screen technology already as he has a nintendo DS lite, but the games he has for that were either a bit too babyish, or too hard for him to do himself. The LeapPad is at a big advantage here as the content is more adaptable to children as their ability level improves due to the online support that comes with the package.
I'll start with the basics. The device is a battery operated hand held tablet computer, which operates on 4 pencil (AA) batteries. We have found that a standard set of batteries will not even last one day, so we have invested in a decent set of rechargeable batteries, or you can also invest in a 9V power supply adapter to run it off the mains at a cost of £11.99. Personally we haven't gone this way as it is meant to be a portable gaming experience, and I feel it would spoil it a little.
The size of the tablet is 16cm wide, 22cm high, and 2cm in depth, which is a little smaller and thicker than my amazon kindle to give you a feel for the size. It comes with a stylus to use with the 14cm x 8cm screen, which also responds to finger touch.
The front of the tablet is a bit sparse in terms of buttons. There is a on/off button at the top left of the screen, buttons for volume up and volume down at the top right of the screen, a joy pad in the middle of the screen at the bottom, and a green home button to take you back to the start page on the bottom right. A speaker is to the left of the joy pad.
Extra features are the camera lens, located on the rear of the tablet, speaker, power and computer connection ports, and a microphone in the top of the tablet round the side. It is consequently shaped the full thickness of 2cm at the top, but at the bottom, the tablet is rounded off to sit more comfortably in your hands.
Just like an adults tablet, this LeapPad features a camera and also has video recording capabilities. While this is not as high resolution as I get from my own digital camera, the results are pleasing. I can't find anywhere the capabilities of the camera, only that the screen has a resolution of 480x272. I would say it is as good as the vtech kidizoom camera we have. The pictures are reasonably clear. The videos less so, but to be honest, this is as likely technique as low resolution on the camera lens.
Starting out with the LeapPad:
The LeapPad arrived in a box, but didn't come with any batteries, so task one is getting the batteries in. There are two battery compartments on each side of the tablet. Once we worked out that you get in by putting the stylus in the gap to depress a button, we were off. The batteries are also a little tricky to get in place. They are certainly held in firm.
The leapfrog devices allow you to personalise the toy. In this case, we added our son's name to the start up page, and there is room to add on several more names, or allow someone to play on the tablet as a guest.
It came with some applications already on the tablet. One of these was a pet game. You can choose yourself a pet, then you have to look after it by feeding it, bathing it, playing games with it, and teaching it tricks through the child tracing letters. My son really likes this, but once he had bathed his pet monkey once, and fed it twice, he was out of treats and then frustrated as you need to hook it up to the leapfrog connect online stuff to get more things to use. The game was rather like the DS and reminded me of games like Thomas the tank engine and Peppa pig, where you need to select the water and the soap to wash objects. There is also a bit where you blow into the microphone to blow dry your pet, and this is like Toy Story 3 for the DS.
You need tokens to buy pet supplies, but these are earned through playing on your LeapPad, so there is a reward system in place for playing and learning.
Setting up the Leapfrog connect:
Luckily, the LeapPad comes with a USB cable to connect your tablet to your home PC. This is the simple part of the proceeding, with a port on the tablet at the top right hand corner.
This, was more tricky than I remember it being when we set up the leapfrog tag reader system a couple of years back. I logged into my leapfrog online learning pathway, and tried to download the LeapPad software onto my home PC so we could download applications onto the tablet. For some reason, my firewall was not very happy, and it took a lot longer than I thought, having to change some of the computer settings so it was allowed to run. I think it might be common for problems as there was customer help if you were having trouble connecting the device to your computer, and there were help sheets for every virus software I know of.
Once we were in, we then needed to download the applications that came with the tablet. 2 were prescribed - art studio, and story studio. We could then choose an extra application from a list of about 5, of which we picked a video application as it was aimed at 3-6 year olds and looking at phonics, whereas the other applications were games and stories aimed at 4+ so we felt this was better for our son.
Story studio is an application which gets the child writing their own stories. The first one it takes them through is writing a story all about themselves, where they can add a picture of themselves using the camera, and write in details about themselves.
Art studio is a bit like paint, with ability to use stamps, brushes, pencils to create pictures. The LeapPad is supposed to let the child create their own basic animations through creating flickbooks, but we have not got as far as trying this yet as it is more skilled than my son is capable of at the moment.
Growing with The Child:
So far we have not really had the opportunity to use this tablet to its full extent. While we got some games with the tablet from santa, we do need to get some books to be used on the ereader part of it. The games you can buy for this device are also compatible with the leapster explorer console. The games are between £10 and £20 and are cartoon themed, from Ben 10, to Scooby Doo, to Sponge Bob, to Disney Princesses and Cars. This does seem a lot, but the games from what I have seen so far, are worth what you pay. We have a penguins of Madagascar game which has animal facts and multi choice questions, and a Ben 10 game which involved mapping co-ordinates, looking at strands of DNA, plotting a route on a world map, amongst many things, alongside cartoon strip stories and a platform based game. I have been quite impressed.
The games are small cartridges that fit in a slot at the top of the LeapPad, which look very insubstantial compared to the size of the packages, but contain a lot of information.
Alternatively, you can buy a card with credit for downloading applications. A £15 card is meant to be worth up to 4 games or books.
The device has 2MB of internal storage. At the minute, we have used less than 0.5MB putting on the applications that came with it, and storing a few pictures and videos that my son made.
The Child's Opinion:
At first my older son had more fun with this toy than my 3 year old. At 5, he is very keen to get on playing with the games, and was treating it just like the DS. It is only when I got chance to spend some time alone with my younger son, and showed him how to use it himself, then we saw the delight in his eyes.
He gets a lot of pleasure in following the dog round filming him, or me, or getting me to record him singing nursery rhymes he has been singing at school. I was in stitches listening to him.
'Come on Murphy, I'm filming you. Now do something exciting.'
There is some basic photo editing like you get with the kidizoom camera, so he tried giving me purple hair and a moustache. These things never seem to get tiring for little ones.
He also managed to take a picture of himself thanks to the 5 second timer on the camera.
The Nintendo DS is quite frustrating for him, as he finds it hard to get the games to do what he wants. I'm also watching him constantly as he is too rough really and has broken a DS by snapping the 2 parts in half completely. With this, he is free within reason to wander around as there is nothing to snap off, and it is reasonably tough with normal play.
You can buy accessories for your tablet, which I am intending to do, but the price is a bit off putting. You can get a neoprene skin, and a case for your tablet, but prices are all over the place with this item being fairly new. The case I have seen at Smyths toy store for £15, but it is nearer £23 on amazon. The skin is £9 and £4 postage.
I can see why this was a must have toy for Christmas this year. It is very attractive for kids as they can be just like adults and have a camera, video camera and games console all in one device. The price tag (of £80 from most reputable sellers, but up to £120 from some places at the minute) is a lot, but it is worth it for something that will build confidence and support early learning without the child really knowing about it.
Playing the games is a lot easier for him compared to using hand held consoles like the DS. When I saw the advert on the telly, a driving game requires the child to move the tablet like you would a steering wheel to make the car go in the direction you want. One of the games we played, he had to shake the console to make a character fly as far a possible in his pet game. Alongside the use of the stylus, he has had no problems manipulating the games suitable for his age range. Some games are a bit harder, but we will just let my other son play on those ones.
As a parent, I am glad that it was bought for my son earlier in the age range so he will get plenty of use out of it, and enjoyment. £80 is not so bad if it will be played with a lot. It doesn't look babyish, so I think it will still have some appeal at 7 and 8.
I could get a lot more use out of the learning path online than I have. I can look at how he is progressing in certain skill areas such as problem solving. My issue with this is that we have let both of my kids play the games, so it is saying he is doing things in the 5-6 age range, when this was infact my 5 year old playing on it. You must be able to get round this through letting them only play on their own user areas, but to be honest, I am not going to sit there every minute with them when they play unless I want or need to. While this information is interesting, I am not looking at educating my children with the leapfrog learning pathway. I can see this aspect might be useful if you are tracking a certain skill or you are home educating, but I see this as a fun device for them to play with, indeed a toy, and not a teaching tool. Learning will happen as well, but I don't want to force it and make it not fun any more.
There is enough variety of applications and games to keep this interesting for a long time to come, and I don't feel that the add on games are prohibitively expensive for me to buy a couple a year for him to keep his interest going.
I think it is a well thought out system that works very well and it has captured the attention of both of my children through the use of their favourite characters, so it has to have a 5 star rating from me.