“Awexa, play songs from Moana.” If you have an Amazon Echo in your home and you also have kids, you’ve probably heard a variation of that phrase uttered before. Today, Amazon is making it easier for both kids and parents to integrate Alexa into their routines with the new Echo Dot Kids Edition and FreeTime services for Alexa.
The Echo Dot Kids Edition follows the formula of Amazon’s popular Kindle Fire Kids Edition tablets: it is a standard Echo Dot bundled with a protective rubber case (available in red, green, or blue), a year’s subscription to the FreeTime Unlimited service, and a two-year promise from Amazon to replace the device if it gets damaged, no questions asked. It sells for $79.99 — a $30 premium over a standard Echo Dot — and is available for preorder starting today, with shipments starting on May 9th.
In terms of technology and features, the Kids Edition Dot is the exact same thing as the standard Echo Dot that’s been around for nearly two years. It has seven far-field microphones for picking up voice commands, a built-in speaker for playing back Alexa’s voice responses or music, and the ability to connect to a larger speaker via Bluetooth or an audio cable.
What makes the Kids Edition unique is the new FreeTime service that comes preactivated with it. The service, which can also be enabled on existing Echo, Echo Dot, and Echo Plus devices, adds parental controls, kid-friendly content, and an optimized experience for kids to Alexa. (As is the case with many Alexa services, it’s not clear if or when FreeTime will be available on third-party Alexa devices, such as the Sonos One. The company did say that it won’t be available on Alexa devices with screens, such as the Echo Spot and Echo Show.)
FreeTime on Alexa is broken into two tiers: the basic free service, which includes the parental controls, and the FreeTime Unlimited service, which adds access to “over 300” kid-appropriate Audible audiobooks; ad-free, kid-friendly radio stations from iHeartRadio Family; premium Alexa skills from Disney, Nickelodeon, and National Geographic; and custom character alarms from Disney, Nickelodeon, and others. A year of FreeTime Unlimited is included with the Echo Dot Kids Edition and the Fire Tablet Kids Edition. It can also be purchased separately starting at $2.99 per month per child for Prime customers.
The basic FreeTime on Alexa service blocks out certain Alexa features, such shopping, news, and third-party skills that require linking external accounts (such as Uber or Domino’s). It also allows parents to set time limits on when and how much Alexa can be used in a day, as well as pause access to Alexa for periods of time. The Parent Dashboard displays which songs, skills, and Audible books are accessed on Alexa, and it allows parents to delete any voice snippet recordings. Subscribers to Amazon Music will also be able to block explicit songs from playing via Alexa.
Joel Sherman, Amazon’s head of FreeTime, says that the company has developed a number of optimizations for Alexa to improve the FreeTime experience for kids. It optimized the assistant’s voice detection for kids’ voices, which are often higher pitched than adults, and common mispronunciations (such as “Awexa”). When FreeTime is enabled, Alexa provides more context for questions asked, instead of giving only a direct answer. It also provides an intercom feature, which allows Echo devices to call from room to room within a house, but not out to the outside world.
Sherman also says that parents have been asking the company to add features that help children learn manners, which has been a point of discussion around interacting with virtual assistants. The FreeTime feature “Magic Word” — which provides positive reinforcement when kids use the word “please” when asking Alexa to do something — was built in response to this request. Magic Word can be combined with the recently released Follow Up feature, which provides an opportunity to thank Alexa after it has completed a task or provided an answer. The positive reinforcement for politeness is only available Echo devices that have FreeTime enabled on them, but Sherman says that Amazon plans to evaluate whether or not it’s something people want on the main Alexa experience.
Amazon says that the FreeTime on Alexa experience is tailored for kids ages five to 12, and most of the skills and features are appropriate for ages five to nine. Toni Reid, Amazon’s vice president in charge of Alexa and Echo devices, says the company is taking privacy and security very seriously with the FreeTime service and noted that it does not share customer info with any of the developers of FreeTime skills.
Enabling FreeTime on an Echo device will instantly block a number of Alexa features, such as shopping, adding items to a shopping list, third-party music services like Spotify or Pandora, and smart home controls, so it’s not ideal for a shared device that’s used as much by adults as it is by kids. The feature cannot yet distinguish between individual voices, so it’s not possible to only limit those features when it hears a kid’s voice asking for them. But if your kid already has an Echo in their bedroom, the new FreeTime service might be the thing to make it both easier for them to use and give you a little peace of mind.
Photography by Dan Seifert / The Verge