Sunday, January 9, 2011

Review: Leapfrog's Tag Reading System

As I've written before, Kitty is really interested in learning to read.  We're working on getting her there, but she's three and obviously it's going to take some time. This means that for now we are still reading her any book she's interested in.  We read to her A LOT, and while it's really hard to say "no" to a kid handing you a book, sometimes it's just not practical to take the time to read (like when I'm cooking, going to the bathroom, or I've just read her five books and she's begging for number six).  So when it was time to start thinking about Christmas presents for this year, Leapfrog's Tag Reading System was appealing because it would read the books to her.

LeapFrog TAG Reading System - Green
Note: product does not stand on its own.

Leapfrog offers a Tag Junior which is suggested for ages 2-4, and the Tag Reading System is suggested for ages 4-8.  With Kit being three months away from her fourth birthday we opted for the more advanced version. The Tag Junior books seemed like they'd be more interesting to Kitty, and they are board books, which would have been more durable, but we decided the bigger age-range of the Tag Reader ultimately made it the better option. We found a purple version of the reader on closeout for $20 (Score!  They system usually retails for about $30).  It came with The Cat in the Hat and we purchased additional books featuring The Little Mermaid, Tinkerbell and Scooby-Doo.  Aunt Karen knew about the purchase and picked up Tangled to round out her collection.

The Reader looks like a chunky pen, and connects to a PC with a USB cable.  Leapster's Connect software has to be installed on your system, and the content for each book has to be downloaded onto the pen.  The pen can hold up to ten titles at a time, though inactive titles are stored on your system and can be quickly swapped out.   This was the only clunky part of the process, but we had to load five books at once and Kitty was pretty excited about getting started.  The reader also uses to PC to access the "Learning Path" which allows the parent to track their child's progress.  The pen also occasionally asks the child to have a parent connect to the software to access online "rewards" thay they earn from working through the books and their games.

To quote Arthur C. Clarke "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic", and the Tag is a pretty good example of that. The books look and read just like a normal book, with the exception of a few small symbols in the bottom right hand corner of each page.  Touching these symbols allow the child to have the page read to them or to play short games which are available on most pages. Super-Dad and I were amazed at this tiny thing's ability to know exactly what point you were on in any given book without any additional hardware. The pen has an optical sensor and each page on the book has an almost invisible dot-matrix that the sensor uses to find its place. It will read the story, read the page, or read each word.  Each picture has sound effects or dialogue.  It's pretty slick. The speaker has good volume for its size, and Leapfrog has also included a headphone jack, which I am immensely grateful for. 

Unlike its predecessor, the bulky Leap Pad, (which required a large pad, a book, a cartridge and still needed the child to push a specific spot on each page to "activate" it) the Tag needs nothing but the pen and the books. It will also read any title you own aloud without the book, a really smart feature that we've used at bedtime and when the books were forgotten at home on a long car ride.


Leapfrog Tag Kid Classic Storybook Walter The Farting Dog Goes On A Cruise
Is Walter the Farting Dog a classic? That's for you to decide.
The production quality of the books we've tried has been phenomenal. The voice acting is great, as far as I can tell they use the same voice actors as the movies the books are based on.  The books are nice to look at and are long enough to be entertaining.  The MSRP on the books is about $14, but they are frequently on sale.  If you avoid character products the selection may leave you disspointed.  I think every book I've seen in stores is a licensed product, though there are several children's "classics" like Olivia , Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and The Little Engine that Could available. The Leapfrog website and Amazon (and occasionally stores) also carry learn to read kits with phonics based readers.  The website also offers a few interactive maps, some activity-only books and some game boards.

My only real complaint is that clicking on any picture plays an accompanying sound clip, which totally distracts Kitty from the actual story.  She will spend a good amount of time dinking around with the pictures and totally ignore the "read the page" icon.  That really is a small complaint, though.  Kitty finds the entire experience very entertaining.  We were worried that because she was on the low end of the suggested age group that the system would be too complicated for her (we remembered it taking Nate a few months to get into the swing of using the Leap Pad when it came out).  I am happy to report that she has absolutely no problem using the system.   Even Nathan enjoys it, and I have found them snuggled in bed "reading" together several times since Christmas.

The verdict?  The Tag Reading System is totally worth the $30 price tag.  It's portable, streamlined design makes it HUGE step up from Leap Frog's previous attempts and it manages to be both fun and educational. It's easy to use with features that make it both child and parent friendly.  Most importantly, it buys me 15 minutes of uninterrupted shower time.

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