Tablet Gaming: A SuperParent Guide

A parent's guide to gaming on the small screen.

“Are we there yet?” Every parent knows that phrase, usually spoken at high volume about five minutes after leaving the house. Tablets are a tried and trusted way of keeping kids busy, and most importantly quiet, during long journeys or rainy vacation days. But with so many on the market, choosing which one to buy can be a bewildering task. Don’t panic – here’s our guide to the pros and cons of the different options…

iPad and iPad Mini

The most expensive option, but also one of the most reliable. Apple’s touchscreen tablet was a literal game-changer when it launched in 2010, and each new iteration adds more features and better technical specifications. The iPad Mini, in particular, is a good fit for smaller hands -- but you'll want to invest in a robust case to keep it safe from accidental drops and bumps. Apple offers a strong selection of parental controls, limiting what children can view or download, and you also have the security of knowing that all apps sold via its App Store are tested and approved by Apple. This means piracy and viruses are virtually unheard of, although you want to be aware of any personal data you're sharing with an app. 

As the leading mobile platform, you can also be sure that every app your kids want to play will almost certainly be available. It's possible to save some money by picking up an older model, or a secondhand iPad, but be aware that the older the machine, the slower it will run -- especially with the latest software. A brand new iPad is a considerable expense, but will be a long-term investment and a device that will not only run all the games they want now, but will remain useful and relevant for several years. 

Parental features: Content restriction by age, disable camera and microphone, disable purchasing, disable location services, limit audio volume

Most popular apps: Minecraft, Roblox, Toca Boca

Price: from $154.99 (http://a.co/cX70rs9) to $354.99 (http://a.co/fN0T0Xx)

Amazon Fire 

If you’re on a budget, Amazon’s range of Fire tablets is an excellent choice. Available in various screen sizes, there’s even a specific version made for kids with a chunky plastic frame to minimize damage. Even better, Amazon offers a no-quibbles two year replacement policy for the Fire Kids range, so you can rest easy knowing that even the roughest treatment won’t leave you out of pocket. Amazon also throws in various perks, including a year of free access to FreeTime Unlimited which offers over 15,000 apps, videos and e-books from companies like PBS Kids, Nickelodeon and Disney.

Most popular kids games are available on the Fire tablet, which runs a custom version of the Android operating system. That includes obvious choices such as Minecraft, but Amazon’s app store is not as popular with developers as Apple’s, and you can't easily access the official Android app store. That means there's a small risk that the next “must have” app won’t be available immediately. Even so, with prices that are around half that of the iPad, and lots of bonus extras, the Amazon Fire is a smart choice.

Parental features: Content restriction by age, disable Wi-Fi, web browsing and email, disable purchasing, restrict access to Prime Video and saved media on a file by file basis.

Most popular apps: Minecraft, PAW Patrol Air & Sea, Lego Star Wars: The New Yoda Chronicles

Price: from $99.99 (http://a.co/8yBOCvx) to $129.99 (http://a.co/cYaGvUT)

LeapPad

If you’re looking for something suitable for very young children, then the LeapPad range is custom-designed to be an ideal first tablet for kids. Pitched as “kid-safe, kid-tough and kid-friendly,” like the child version of the Amazon Fire it has a colourful plastic case that will withstand the rough and tumble of any school bag or bedroom floor.

What it doesn’t have is a large range of apps. You can only download titles from parent company Leapfrog, from a range of just over 1,000, and few schoolyard favorites are available. You can also buy games on physical storage cards for some LeapPad models. That may not make LeapPad the cool choice from a kid’s perspective, but it is a sensible one for parents, as every app and video has an educational slant. Add in the airtight security of a tablet that is locked down for children, with none of the online functionality and social media temptations of its rivals, and this is the safest choice. Just don’t expect it to remain appealing beyond their 10th birthday.

Parental features: No open access to the internet, all content is curated by educators.

Most popular apps: Finding Dory: Mathematical Memories, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutagen Mania, PAW Patrol: Ready for Action

Price: $69.99 (http://a.co/7jpuFfb) to $174.99 (http://a.co/8K6fV6b)

Samsung Kids Galaxy Tab E Lite

That name is a bit of a mouthful, but if you want a device that has brand name quality, but with a kid-specific build and content, then Samsung’s entry into the kid tablet market is worth your time. Running the Android operating system, this is a solid mid-range tablet that has been specifically built for kids to use. That means no “wild west” unregulated app store, a common problem with adult Android devices, and no ads or in-app purchases. Instead, there’s the subscription-based Samsung Kids service – you get three months free access to start – which offers selected apps, games and other content developed with the STEM and Common Core US school curriculum in mind. If you want to use the device as a standard tablet, a password takes it out of “Kid Mode.”

Parental features: Option to limit time spent on the device, as well as a parent dashboard which shows what apps are being used and for how long. Comes with three months access to curated and STEM-focused Samsung Kids content service.

Most popular apps: Sesame Street, Lego Ninjago, Thomas and Friends.

Price: $116 (http://a.co/5SK0rvt)

If you want to make the investment, then the iPad is the market leader and a device that can grow alongside your child. You will need to be more pro-active in how you control what gets downloaded and viewed, but no kid is going to grumble if they’re given Apple hardware. If you’re looking for the best combination of price and function, then Amazon Fire is hard to beat, and the robust kid-specific model is a superb entry-level option. If you have very young children and want to be absolutely confident that they’re only playing content you approve of, without worrying about breakages, then the LeapPad will keep them happy and busy until they’re old enough to be weaned onto a more open device. Finally, the Samsung Kids Galaxy gives the best of both worlds, with its password protected “Kid Mode.”

What questions do you have about tablet gaming for kids? Let us know in the comments section below.