One of my favourite things to do with my children is read aloud to them. Listening to stories is an immensely beneficial experience for young, malleable minds. Exposure to a broad vocabulary enhances emergent literary skills, as the words children hear in a story are generally not ones they encounter in conversations with family or friends. Reading aloud is the catalyst for a child wanting to read on his own, and nurtures the child’s listening comprehension. Indeed, in an international study of 150,000 fourth graders, researchers found that students who were read to ‘often’ at home scored thirty points higher than students who were read to ‘sometimes’. The more often a child is read to, the more words are heard (leading to greater understanding), and the more likely it is the child will associate reading with a daily pleasure experience.
Whilst reading books is fulfilling and enriching, it is time-consuming. The vicissitudes of life – laundry, cooking, tidying up toys for the umpteenth time – tend to get in the way of sitting down with a story. I’d slipped into the habit of passing my elder daughter the iPad when I needed to get things done, rather than reading to her, and began to explore options to keep her engaged sans screen.
I considered cassettes or CDs, which were the media through which I had consumed audiobooks and music as a child in the early ’90s, but my girls are too young to operate such antediluvian technology. An iPhone loaded up with children’s audiobooks from Audible and Spotify was a passable solution, but entailed screen time, and didn’t allow my children to make totally autonomous decisions about the material they were consuming.
Luckily, I discovered that I was not alone in my desire to provide my kids with an easy way to listen to stories and music without screens, scratched CDs or tangled tapes. The conundrum had also vexed two dads in Germany – Patric Fassbender, a graphic designer, and Marcus Stahl, an engineer. “I didn’t want CDs lying around all over the place. But I also didn’t want any displays in the children’s bedroom. After all, the children were supposed to listen and keep on playing at the same time, not stare at any screen,” Fassbender explained. The pair, who met at their childrens’ school in Düsseldorf, realised that they had found a gap in the market.
Coalescing their professional expertise, Fassbender and Stahl created their own digital audio player for children – the Toniebox – an ingenious device that combines with magnetic characters (called Tonies) to play stories, songs and self-generated content. The Toniebox itself is a robust, soft-padded cuboid speaker covered in durable material with two rubber ‘ears’. It is shockproof, sturdy, rather reminiscent of a large soft building block, and currently available in six vivid colours. It is also – mercifully – easy to wipe clean: my elder daughter is a fan of listening whilst eating and is constantly pawing the box with grubby little fingers. I have even managed to remove some deeply engraved biro marks. Tonies are individually, intricately handmade whimsical figurines, and compellingly collectable. They also make great playthings – my elder daughter concocts elaborate games with them – and it reminds me of the fun I had accumulating small ornaments when I was a child. Happily, they are sturdy little things and waterproof to boot; ours have survived a battery of endurance tests that my one year old has put them through.
Operating the Toniebox is, quite literally, child’s play: place a Tonie on the box, and it begins to tell its story or play songs. “The development of products for children is often thought out in a parent-like approach,” says Fassbender. “Most devices will have play and fast-forward buttons just like those of adults.” Instead, the inventors of the Toniebox tried to think simplistically. To rewind or fast forward you simply tilt the box one way or another; to skip to the next chapter, just tap the sides. The volume is controlled by squeezing the rubberised ears. The product naturally contains a lot of technology: a near-field communication (NFC) chip for communication between the figurines and the box, robust motion sensors, and a cloud architecture in the background. The genius of Fassbender and Stahl is that the ingenuity is imperceptible. There is no touch display, Alexa or Bluetooth. And it’s precisely this lack of technical fuss that seems to make the product so attractive to scores of parents and children (there are over 1.5 million Tonieboxes and 11 million Tonies in homes across Europe).
Underpinning the magic of the Toniebox is a cloud-based system. During initial setup, you create an account for your Tonie Cloud, which is connected to the Toniebox via Wi-Fi. When you put a Tonie on for the first time, the Toniebox recognises the character on top via the NFC chip on the bottom of every Tonie, and unlocks the relevant audio files and the story will download directly onto the Toniebox. The audio starts playing immediately, however the LED on top of the box will flash blue until the entire audio file has been downloaded. Once the files are stored on the box’s internal memory, the LED reverts to a steady green. The Toniebox only needs to be connected to Wi-Fi when files from a new Tonie are being downloaded, or when you have updated the content on a Creative Tonie. Aside from this, the Toniebox is entirely portable, and doesn’t require an internet connection. Helpfully, the box charges quickly, can be used for up to seven hours and has a headphone socket, so it is an ideal companion on long journeys.
There is a broad, and constantly expanding array of Tonies, including many of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s works (narrated and sung with aplomb by Imelda Staunton), in addition to fairy tale compilations. There is also a variety of options for older children, such as The Little Prince and TKKG Junior stories. The ‘How and Why’ Tonies are enthralling for adults as well as children; I have learnt an astounding amount about marine biology from the Whale Tonie. In addition to the pre-recorded material, there are also Creative Tonies, which offer limitless opportunities to create up to 90 minutes of customised content. I am not particularly tech-savvy, but I can vouch for how easy the Tonie app is to navigate. I record myself reading stories via my phone, then upload the audio files to the Creative Tonie via the app. You can also add MP3 files, and, if you like, you can give family and friends access to your Toniecloud to record messages or stories.
For the founders of Tonies, a key objective, besides creating an immersive, wondrous experience for children, is to foster a community amongst Toniebox owners. One of the ways that this is achieved is via the brand’s strong social media presence. In the UK, Tonies recently raised a remarkable £60,438 for the charity NHS Charities Together through its NHS Record and Share campaign, which involved actors and celebrities reading their favourite story or poems. Rupert Everett, Cressida Bonas, Suki Waterhouse and Simon Callow participated, amongst many other personalities. Tonies is currently running a #mytonietip competition on Instagram to encourage Toniebox owners to share their favourite ways of using Creative Tonies, encouraging engagement and cultivating a sense of community amongst Tonies fans.
In sum, the Toniebox is a perfect symbiosis between listening and playing. It is that rarest of things: an educational toy that obviates the need for screens and blurs the boundary between playful storytelling and instinctive play. The Toniebox is so intuitive to use that my younger daughter had it sussed at ten months. It is without question our family’s collective favourite imagination-building toy: it is enchanting, engaging, and enriching. There is no other item that my girls use multiple times each day, in a variety of different ways. I cannot recommend it highly enough as a way of building kids’ imagination through listening and active play.
For further information, and to purchase your Toniebox, please visit: https://tonies.com/
Elisabeth Rushton is a former banker who swapped her career in equity sales for journalism and has over a decade of experience as a luxury lifestyle and travel writer.
Photographs courtesy of Tonies®
 Jim Trelease, The Read Aloud Handbook (Eighth Edition), p14.