Rarely does a toy come into our house and seize everyone's affection, but in an unexpected swap for a doll house Ranger acquired the (now discontinued) LeapFrog Learning Hoops basketball game. This serendipitously- acquired game reinforced Ranger's burgeoning interest in letters and numbers. Unlike most battery-operated toys, this one quickly wormed its way into all our hearts and became a regular, often nightly, family activity.
When LeapFrog recently offered us a chance to try their new Tag reading system, I hesitated. The recommended ages of 4 to 8 seemed so much older than 2.75 year old Ranger that I pictured the device as a recipe for frustration. But the three blinking eyes of the beloved basketball game stared me down, and I decided we could use it without our alternate testers (ages 5 & 7) if it sent Ranger into a tailspin.
LeapFrog sent us the Tag reading system ($49.99 retail value, which includes the Tag Reader, Learning Connections software, a USB cable, and their self-developed soft cover book, Ozzie and Mack) and two additional hardcover books (retail value: $13.99 each) which were already among Ranger's favorites (The Little Engine that Could and I Spy: Imagine That!).
Please note: the Tag requires 2 AAA batteries (not included) and a USB-ready computer (XP, Vista, or Mac OS X 10.4+) with an Internet connection if you plan to use any book or accessory other than the preloaded Ozzie and Mack or use any of the system's Learning Path tracking features. The software is uncomplicated to load and easy to use. Downloading new books is also very easy.
The Tag (with 16MB on-board flash memory) can hold up to 5 books or activities at one time. The audio download for each book is stored locally on your computer, so even when you unload a book from your Tag Reader, it stays on your computer for fast re-installation later.
So what did Ranger think? It was love at first sight. He seized on the Reader (which I call a pen and he calls a temperature because it looks much like a fat digital thermometer). This similarity may have bolstered his interest as he used to carry a digital thermometer EVERYWHERE we went (here it is visiting a local pumpkin patch last October). Maybe he's just a futurist. Either way, I can't help but imagine that I may eventually find him frustrated sitting on the floor with a digital thermometer surrounded by books.
I started him with I-Spy, thinking an activity book might be better for his young age. He loves pointing at words and images and hearing them voice or illustrated with sounds. He soon figured out how to get the reader to read entire pages. He loves the sound effects and music from clicking on the pictures.
In many ways (for kids under 4) the Tag is a far more compact and successful version of the Little Touch LeapPad. It's a big improvement because Ranger no longer needs to hit go when he chooses a new page and doesn't get the wrong sound because a page is bent or laying improperly on the reader. There's no book cartridge for him to unseat, so it requires far less parental maintenance during use.
I love the Tag Reader's compact size. At 6.5 inches by 1.25 width" and 1.25" depth, the Reader easily fits in my bag (as do the 6.5" by 9.75" storybooks) and the Reader can fit in many pockets. It is lightweight, durable, and not much bigger than a cell phone. The Tag easily entertains Ranger during medical appointments and restaurant dinners.
The Little Engine That Could regularly delights Ranger with its excellent voice acting and great sound effects. We've read this book to him for over a year, so it's household classic. It's great to see him interacting with it on his own terms. It's funny how much he likes repetition of certain phrases and scenes.
I had originally discounted Ozzie and Mack's ability to interest Ranger. It struck me as the somewhat limited game that inevitably comes with the new video system but really isn't a killer app. Ranger has since schooled me on judging a book by its bundling. Ozzie and Mack is designed to showcase the abundant features of the Tag's dot pattern based reading system. It has lots of great incidentals that exceed the limitations of a classic story like The Little Engine That Could or even an activity based book like I-Spy. From the title pages' awesome alphabet to the hidden knock-knock joke in periphery of page 25, Ranger is constantly delighting in discovering new ideas. He's excited to learn on his own and loves showing me what he's found, and I love seeing his revelry in independence and information.
He really likes the control the stylus-type reader offers him to focus on HIS interests, and it works well with the developing agility of a toddler (better in my opinion than the Little Touch).
Being a random button pusher, he's found a combination that causes the reader to instruct him to "Tell your parents..." to connect to the software and how to download other books. We don't really like our toys telling our kids what to do; somehow it's just reminiscent of Saturday morning commercials instructing kids to pester their parents for products.
We're also not fans of the interruptive battery replacement warning. The warning starts long before the batteries are drained to non-functioning levels (so far, it's been ongoing for 3 days prior to battery failure), and we hate the thought of replacing any battery that still has life. I'd really prefer a small periodic warning flash in the on/off light to a message that interrupts play. Even the traditional notification of battery death (the toy not working) is preferable to an audio message. I'd like to an option to turn this notification off in future versions (or updates of this reader's firmware).
One of Ranger's best random button pushing discoveries is that the Reader can play the stories in full without the books. When Ranger accidentally discovered this cool feature during a car trip to a nearby town, both he and Jim enjoyed listening to his newfound book-on-Tag. The quality of the storytelling and voice acting really makes for an enjoyable listening experience.
We plan to get a lot of travel and waiting room use out of the Tag on top of normal at-home play. The books are high quality; Ranger recently water-tested Ozzie and Mack with accidental baptism at lunch on Father's Day. The dried pages still function properly. He sometimes jabs the books with the Reader- leaving impressions of the tip in the page, but those haven't affected function of the stylus or the books.
With an almost 50 dollar price tag, I was skeptical that the Tag could offer enough utility and value to meet its cost, but it is a flexible, well-designed, creatively-engineered system that really does much more than read words off a page (as if that's not amazing in its own right). This isn't another rote recitative Teddy Ruxpin because it puts the excitement of self-guided learning in your child's hands (demo).
And LeapFrog has generously offered to give 5 LeapFrog Tag Reading Systems prize packages away to Baby Toolkit readers!
To enter, send an email with the subject LeapFrog Tag to babytoolkitcontests [at] gmail [dot] com. One per household. U.S. readers only. Five winners (selected by random number generation) will each receive a Tag Reading System and one additional Tag book (prize package value: $64).
Entries will accepted through 11:59 PM CDT June 24, 2008. Winners will be notified by email; prizes not claimed within 10 days of email notification will be forfeited.
General disclaimers regarding contests on Baby Toolkit: we'll do our best, but we can't guarantee prize delivery. If a prize item were to be lost in the lost in the mail, we would take it as a message from a higher power that the situation was simply not meant to be (no compensation or replacement will be issued). We will use a random integer generator at random.org to determine winners. Jim, Adrienne, their parents, and Ranger are not eligible for this contest. We respect your privacy and will not use your personal information for any purpose beyond determining a winner and sending prizes. Prizes are supplied by and will be shipped from LeapFrog.