Tonieboxes and Other Screen Time Alternatives for Young Kids

Once your baby is mobile, it can be a lot harder to check things off your to-do list for the day because you feel like you can’t take your eyes off of them. A lot of parents use screen time. And hey – to each her own. But if you’re looking for some alternatives to screen time to keep your kids entertained, engaged and educated, we’ve got some great information for you on today’s episode.

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Featured Expert


  • Tonies

    The Toniebox is an imagination-building, screen-free digital listening experience that plays stories, songs, and more. Buy a Toniebox Made for little listeners Designed to foster imagination and active play for children ages three and up, it’s everything a young explorer’s growing mind needs!

Episode Transcript

Natalie Gross 0:02
Once your baby is mobile, it can be a lot harder to check things off your to do list for the day because you feel like you can't take your eyes off of them. A lot of parents use screen time and hey to each her own, but if you're looking for some alternatives to screen time to keep your kids entertained, engaged and educated, we've got some great information for you on today's episode, so stay tuned. This is Newbies.

Natalie Gross 0:33
Welcome to Newbies, listeners. Newbies is your online on the go support group guiding new moms through their baby's first year. I'm Natalie Gross. I have a four year old boy and a baby girl. We've got a great show today talking about some screentime alternatives for babies and young kids. Now before we get started, I want to say that I would love for all of you listening to come join the fun over at our new membership club called Mighty Moms. That's where we let you all know about upcoming recordings and other New Mommy Media events. You can also connect with other moms in your same stage of parenting and continue the discussion of topics that we cover here on the podcast. And today I mentioned it's totally free to join, simply go to our website Click become a Mighty Mom to sign up. We also have a weekly newsletter you can sign up for on our website. And of course, your best way to stay updated with our content is to hit that subscribe button in your podcast app of choice. Now without further ado, I want to introduce our guest today we have drew Vernon, Director of Education at Tonies he will be joining us a little later on in the show as our featured expert for the day. But we also have moms Amberly, Elly and Alyssa, so thank you mamas so much for being here. I will turn the mic over to you all now and let you introduce yourself. So tell us a little bit about you and your families. So Elly, do you want to kick us off?

Elly Stacey 2:13
Absolutely. Thank you for having me. I'm Ellie. I'm a mom of 3 -- 16 ,Eight and six. All boys.

Natalie Gross 2:20
Boy, Mom.

Elly Stacey 2:22
Oh, yes. Oh, yes. it is chaos, but a lot of fun.

Natalie Gross 2:25
Very rewarding. Awesome. And Elly, where are you located?

Elly Stacey 2:29
Right now I'm actually in Atlanta, Georgia. But I'm currently in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, living there with my family for work.

Natalie Gross 2:36
Awesome. Well, thanks so much for being here. Amberly, what about you?

Amberly Miller 2:39
I have a lot of littles I have a step your stepson that's 12 years old. I have a five year old girl, a four year old boy, a two year old boy, a one year old boy and another one on the way. Not sure if it's a boy or girl yet.

Natalie Gross 2:53
Oh, well. Congratulations. And where are you located?

Amberly Miller 3:00
Eagle Mountain, Utah.

Natalie Gross 3:01
Okay. All right. All right. And Alyssa, tell us about you.

Alyssa Loring 3:04
Hi. My name is Alyssa Loring. I am a motherhood, lifestyle and family travel blogger at And I have three little kids. So I have a an almost six year old a son who is turning three this week and a seven week old as well. So I am in the thick of it.

Natalie Gross 3:27
Wow. Yes, you are in the thick of it. That's exactly what I was gonna say congratulations to you. Thanks. So today we're chatting about screen time alternatives, especially with babies and young kids. So what has been your experience with this topic? Has it been important to you to find alternatives to screen time and just noting this is a completely judgment free zone? So if you're like, Nope, we just pop on the TV all the time. That's fine. So Elly, why don't you go?

Elly Stacey 3:55
Certainly. As far as screentime for our family, I'm a gamer. So it's my husband and so as our teenagers so it's actually been really difficult. It's been a hot button topic in our family because it's hard to implement something that you're not exactly modeling for your kids. So we've tried to find alternatives for our kids and that's one really nice way that Tony box has come into play. So it has been really important for us to find alternatives to screentime where some parents might turn on the TV or might hand their child a tablet. We try to find alternatives we try to give our kids a Tony box or instead of putting on a TV maybe putting on a character Tony and letting them listen to content that's on there listen to a story or listen to some songs.

Natalie Gross 4:41
Awesome we're gonna be definitely talking a lot more about Tonieboxes with Drew today. But Amberly what's kind of your situation with screentime in your house? Do you look for those alternatives?

Amberly Miller 4:50
Yes, I do. My five year old somehow got obsessed with YouTube or auntie gives her everything she wants because she was the first one the first girl. And so if she ever made a noise that was kind of my sister's go to was to just give her the phone. And it really bothered me. But I tried to just had an on people pleaser, so I just kind of rolled with it. And it really bothered me there were just like, the weirdest shows and things they were saying. And I'm like, why are you watching this and I noticed actually a huge change in her attitude whenever she has an iPad, even if it's just for a little bit. And so like I told my sister, no more of that. And so we'll watch you know, like the princess shows. And she loves the princess shows. So she likes to sing all the songs. So the Tony box, we just got introduced to it last year. And it was a huge game changer for us. Because we also Mote kind of the similar time to a pretty big house, where we we're all on the same level, until we moved into the new house and they have a playroom. So when they go up to their playroom, it's too quiet for them. And so they could just grab a Tonie, put it on there, and listen or just play. And that's also been a huge game changer in the car, we have a lot of family that we traveled to. And so it keeps them entertained in the car without having to have the iPad or the film.

Natalie Gross 6:20
That's awesome. Thanks so much for sharing. All right, Alyssa.

Alyssa Loring 6:24
Obviously having you know, a newborn, and then two older kids, we are always looking for something to entertain the older ones when we you know, either need to make dinner or if I need to feed the baby or whatever is going on. We also do, you know, like a lot of families take long car rides. And so being able to not have an iPad, or a screen that's put in front of them is is a big deal to me, we actually didn't introduce screens to the kids until well, at least with my older one until she was probably you know, a year and a half. And somehow we've managed to never have to use screens on you know, a car ride that is shorter than four hours, which is great. I also make a rule about no screens at the table. So whether that's at a restaurant or at home, it's just really important for my husband and I to have you know that quality time with the kids. So obviously all that being said, there are a lot of situations where you need something that might take the place of a screen. And you know being in that kind of motherhood blogging space I'm always looking for in hearing about like the next best thing or the you know, the latest and greatest. So I had heard about the Tony box for a while before diving in and buying one for each of my older kids. Again, older in quotes being five and three. And they really took to them I was really surprised about how much they love them. But you know, before that it was books, it was magazines, it was you know, anything we could do to to not have them just staring at a screen. So yeah, it is something that's been important to us as a family.

Natalie Gross 8:12
Awesome. Thanks so much for sharing. I'm excited to chat more with all of you a little bit later. But first, you know, we've started talking about Tony boxes. So let's get into it. After a quick break. I'm going to be talking with our expert, Drew Vernon. Stay tuned!

Natalie Gross 8:29
Today on Newbies, we're talking about some alternatives to screen time. And you've already heard our guests talk about the Toniebox. Well our featured guest today is Drew Vernon, who leads Tonyies education partnering with schools, museums and libraries to promote screen free education for children. Prior to Tonies drew lead the US preschool business for LEGO and also started Connecticut's first state licensed drop in daycare center. So Drew, thanks so much for being here today. Welcome to Newbies.

Drew Vernon 8:54
Thank you for having me. It's great to be here.

Natalie Gross 8:55
Absolutely. Well, Tonies is the company behind the very popular Toniebox that we've already been chatting about. Tell us more about this product and how it works.

Drew Vernon 9:03
Yeah, the Toniebox is a screen free audio system for kids. It's about a five inch speaker. There's a layer of foam around the speaker and it uses figures called Tonies to play different types of audio content. So you put a figure on the box and it will begin to play a song or story that's associated with that character.

Natalie Gross 9:23
Okay, awesome. And so how is this beneficial for promoting literacy and speech development for kids? I mean, obviously reading stories to our kids, but how does listening really help with this?

Drew Vernon 9:34
If you take a look at literacy, the first step to becoming literate is to listen to someone read to you so to have an on demand. A storybook Player allows the child to immerse themselves in the world of stories before they can even read words or even letters on a page. So that combined with the fact that there's no visual stimulation really allows the child to focus on the the audio and the tactile play elements of storytelling.

Natalie Gross 10:02
Tell me a little bit more about that tactile play. You mentioned these characters, what kind of characters do you have what's available out there for kids.

Drew Vernon 10:08
So we licensed with all of the best entertainment and education companies ranging from Disney to yarn, universal, Paramount, Dr. Seuss, National Geographic, PBS Kids, the list goes on. Basically, we will take a well known character, and we will either use existing content for that character like for a Disney figuring it might be the story of Mallanna with the songs from the movie, or it might be a literary character, like Horton Hears a Who from Dr. Seuss. So whatever the character is, we combined the audio and we make it into a figurine that can then be played on the box.

Natalie Gross 10:44
Okay, that's neat. How can the Toniebox be useful to introduce the types of learning tools to babies as well, because our audience consists mostly of new moms. So I want to know how it can be used at this young age. But on the flip side, how much might be too much for this? Sure.

Drew Vernon 11:01
Yeah, so the Toniebox, as I mentioned, a screen free. And we do have a lot of content that is for older children, but it's actually a great tool because it can start with infancy. And so if you're planning on getting a white noise machine, you may just consider getting a Tony box because we have white noise Tonies we have lullabies, we have bedtime stories, content that is suitable for infants and helping them sleep and then gradually getting them into kind of more stimulating complex stories as they grow older. You mentioned overstimulation, the fact that there's no screen helps to not overstimulate the child. So it is mainly about audio as well as touch. And in the younger ages, you know, may not be appropriate for kids under three to be using the box on their own. And so that's where it would probably be on a shelf or on a dresser out of reach. With the primary purpose being just having the child listen to the audio.

Natalie Gross 11:58
Well, when babies and kids are using the Tonies, how can parents play an active role in the whole process, as opposed to you know, just kind of using this device as a babysitter?

Drew Vernon 12:06
Yeah, I think it's important for kids to have both time alone to explore independently as well as to have time with other children as well as parents and caregivers. And so that the caregiver parent experience is to help explain the different features of the character to introduce the characters to the children and to show them how to use the box. Because without a screen, the navigation all comes down to touch. And so if you want to select the next track or story, for example, you actually have to hit the side of the box. And it's kind of tactile, where the child will learn how to do that on their own. And they can also tilt the box at a 45 degree angle to fast forward. And they can adjust the volume themselves by pinching the ears. So that is the basic use of the Toniebox. And the parent or caregiver experience comes in to assist with that at the young ages.

Natalie Gross 12:59
Okay, and I suppose also sitting down with them and listening to the story and getting involved in that is probably not a bad thing, either.

Drew Vernon 13:05
Yeah. And I think you can also learn from the stories that you listen to. So if it is a co listening experience, then the parent can play the role of, you know, comprehension and say, you know, who is the main character of the story? What challenge do they have to face and what was the result? And that can really help retention and that can help child learn, you know, how to listen to stories to actually learn from them?

Natalie Gross 13:28
Okay? Well, of course, a lot of times we parents need to keep our babies and children entertained, like I mentioned at the beginning, so we can actually get things done. And screentime, of course, has its place. But given your years of experience working in this space, you know, with Lego and other companies, I'm curious if you have some other suggestions as well for screentime alternatives.

Drew Vernon 13:46
Yeah, I think that it comes down to the stimuli that you give your kids you know, we talk a lot about social media and digital media. And we saw through COVID, skyrocketing screentime use among children, we you know, daycare shutdown, school shut down for a time we gave our kids, our iPhones and our Netflix shows and now that things have gotten back to normal, some of these bad habits have persisted. And so instead of looking to digital media, I look to you know, different types of media. The meaning of media or medium is some sort of substance through which you express yourself or some sort of substance through which you know, you give an impression so, for that you could give crayons, markers, Lego bricks, you know, give your child different media to express themselves and that can help get them off of screens.

Natalie Gross 14:35
Thanks so much for sharing drew when we come back moms Amberly, Elly and Alyssa will be joining us again to share their perspectives. We're continuing our discussion with Drew burnin of Tony's and bringing back moms and Tony boxy users Amber Lee, Ellie and Alyssa. So moms as users of the Tony box in your household, you know what we just talked about? If you have any thoughts on what we've just heard from Drew.

Alyssa Loring 14:59
This is Alyssa. I do. So I think every family kind of acts a little bit differently how they handle screens, and especially during the COVID pandemic, when you had, you know, two parents in the household who were trying to work and children who were at home and just trying to figure out what what you are going to do. Screens definitely became a bigger part of everyday life. I do like how Drew was talking about Tony's allowing kids to focus on the storytelling versus, you know, the visuals that are in front of them, which I actually see a lot with my five year old, who will actually stop a Tony, to tell me what's happening in the story. Even if it's a sky from Paw Patrol, Tonie, that she's listened to about 900 times, she always stops it at certain parts to tell me something that's like really exciting in the story. I do like the idea of kids being more involved in the story versus just something that's flashing in front of them. So I'm kind of a nerd when it comes to, you know, data on like, what I should and shouldn't be doing with my kids. And I had read some statistics about certain specific TV shows, so everybody makes fun of me, but I don't allow cocoa melon in my house. And it's partially because I feel like there's not a lot of educational value, there's a lot of stuff just flashing on the screen, and the kids don't really have an opportunity to have any interaction. And that's one thing that I think Tony does really well is that the kids can interact with the box in a way that's kid friendly. They can choose their Tony, they can stop the story start a different story, they can fast forward or rewind or whatever. And so I think that the Tony box as a screen free alternative has worked really well for our family. And, you know, obviously, there are a million other things that kids could do drawing or crafts or whatever. But it's something that has, I think, really benefited my children in a way of doing something that's, you know, kind of constructive, that's outside of just you know, sitting in Bejing in front of the TV.

Natalie Gross 17:19
And I know you mentioned you got the Toniebox relatively recently, Alyssa, but did you notice any sort of speech development or, like you mentioned comprehension that was enhanced by using this?

Alyssa Loring 17:29
So we got them at Christmas, actually. So we've had them now for six and a half months? I don't know that speech and comprehension is something that I've particularly noticed. I think it's you know, there's, obviously there's some development that happens with age anyway. So I don't know how much is attributed to you know, Tony box, or the stuff that my kids do extra curricularly versus just their natural development. But I do like that, you know, like I said, My daughter will stop a Tony and tell me what's happening in the story. And I like that because obviously comprehension wise, she's paying attention, she hears what's going on. They'll tell me about their favorite Tony stories, and they'll fight over certain Tony's which I probably should have duplicates of at this point. But you know, with each of them having their own box, if we're on a long car trip, they'll put their headphones on and so they can hear it, but we can't, which is, you know, nice to give us some time for adult conversation. But yeah, I mean, with story comprehension, I can tell that my at least my five year old knows what's happening in the story. She can follow along, even if she's coloring or doing something else at the same time. And I think for my three year old, who is just turning three this week, it's more of you know, he's very entertained by looking at the Tony. Hearing, you know, the voices Mickey Mouse is his favorite. And I don't know how much he's really comprehending what's happening in in this, you know, 45 Minutes story, but he's entertained and, and he likes it. So, you know, it's worked well for our family.

Natalie Gross 19:19
Yeah. Amberly or Elly, any thoughts along those lines?

Amberly Miller 19:22
I have some thoughts on that. My two year old was very delayed and speaking. He has a five year old sister and a four year old brother that kind of just know what he wants. So he'll just kind of make a noise and they're like, Oh, Mom, this is what he wants this. What do you say? And the ones that my kids actually like more or just the songs so there's just like the children's favorite songs or their favorite right now is the elemental piece, which they have a whole book series on. But the songs are what entertainment gets the most. And it's songs that my mom said preschool teacher. So she'll sing them songs, they recognize that they have heard that song before. And they sing along to it. So my two year old ifl has has helped him in talking a little more, because he'll sing along to the songs, or there's a few that follow the books like the elemental piece, Chicka chicka, boom, boom, where it will read you the story, and we kind of just follow along with the book. But it's hearing someone besides mom reading to them. And I feel for him, it's really helped just him talk a little bit more.

Natalie Gross 20:31
Nice. We're big Chica Chica Boom Boom fans. Elly, what about you?

Elly Stacey 20:37
Um, I really agree with a lot of what Drew said, I definitely think that bad habits were established definitely in my household, you know, during the pandemic, because we were so limited in what we could do, where we could go. And you know, you've got kids who are climbing up the walls, because there's really not much of an option for other activities. So I appreciate that. It was kind of thing it was kind of around that time that we became familiar with Tony's maybe a little later. I know it was prior to my kids starting school. And they would actually take the Tony figures and build like a Lego house and then put the Tony figures in the Lego house and start playing with them in the Lego house. So that's definitely been a fun kind of branching out to other screen free things like druid said, I noticed that my kids had better like letter recognition and could follow along like Amberly said, with books, there were more interactive Tony's such as I believe Cookie Monster, where Cookie Monster would ask you a question, and my kids would yell back at them. And it really helped kind of with a dialogue. It helped with the word recognition. There are some Tonys in different languages. Some have Spanish, so I know that dragons love tacos, has the books, read by the author in English, and then read by the author and Spanish. And so my kids have actually really enjoyed listening to that, and seeing if they can follow along.

Natalie Gross 22:08
Awesome. Moms, any other thoughts on screen time alternatives that you've used in your house that we haven't already touched on?

Elly Stacey 22:16
Actually, the creative Tonies have been a really cool factor for us. I don't think anybody has mentioned them yet. But you can actually put your own content on them. Tony's has a wonderful app, and also a website and you can add content from them, and put them on your creative Tony's to play for your kids. And I know that they release content for holidays content about important historical figures, animals songs. And that's actually been a really neat feature to put on for my kids. We have family that lives very far away. And so they've been able to record little messages or maybe reading a favorite book. And they've sent those files to me. And we've been able to put that onto a creative Tony. And it makes my kids absolutely ecstatic to hear, you know, a new message from grandpa on there, Tony.

Alyssa Loring 23:04
That's really cool, that I could see that being a huge thing for family far away. I've also heard of people using the creative Tony's to make to do stories that their kids love that they don't currently have a Tony for, which is kind of cool, too. But I think for us in terms of other screen free alternatives for my kids, we do a lot of just, you know, coloring and building with Lego and doing other sorts of more like physical activities, I guess where you know, you're not just passively enjoying something, you're actually doing something. So I don't think there are any screen free alternatives I can think of that are more of like a passive activity that my kids currently do.

Natalie Gross 24:01
I'm curious if anybody else has any related thoughts.

Amberly Miller 24:05
So I have heard of, I think it's called the Yoto box, which is similar to the Tonys. It's just kind of you put the card in the machine. I just have little kids. So I just figured those would get ruined pretty easy, versus the figurines, but I've heard that as well.

Natalie Gross 24:23
Drew any last thoughts to wrap up our discussion here?

Drew Vernon 24:29
Yeah, I usually like to wrap up just with just saying that it matters. The amount of time that kids are in front of screens, that's a very formative time for childhood. And it changes your chemistry. When you're glued to a screen it changes your behavior. We're seeing that more and more increased social anxiety increased, you know, ADHD, inability to focus. So whatever you're using, whether it's a Toniebox or something else, I would just encourage parents to be mindful of it and to try to reduce the amount of screen In time they're giving especially to young kids.

Natalie Gross 25:02
Well, thank you so much drew for sharing all of this great information into our moms Amberly, Ellie and Alyssa. Thanks so much for joining us for this episode today. And be sure to check out the Tony's website at Also check out our website new mommy where we have all of our podcast episodes plus videos and more.

Natalie Gross 25:31
That wraps up our show for today. We appreciate you listening to newbies. Don't forget to check out our sister shows Preggie Pals for expecting parents, Parent Savers for moms and dads with toddlers, the Boob Group for moms who get breast milk to their babies, and Twin Talks for parents of multiples. Thanks for listening to Newbies, your go to source for new moms and new babies.

Disclaimer 25:56
This has been a New Mommy Media production information and material contained in this episode I presented for educational purposes only. Students and opinions expressed in this episode are not necessarily those of New Mommy Media and should not be considered facts will such information and materials are believed to be accurate. It is not intended to replace or substitute for professional medical advice or care and shall be used for diagnosing or treating healthcare problem or disease or prescribing any medication. If you have questions or concerns regarding your physical or mental health, or the health of your baby, please seek assistance from a qualified health care provider.

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