TV for Toddlers? (Or, why I love the Roku)

TV for toddlers?Roku3

In our case, it’s a YES.

A Yes that we are aware of the “no screens” philosophy.  A Yes that as first time parents, our toddler likely watched less than 80 hours of television during his first three years of life.  And a Yes that we have now loosened the reigns, and allow him to watch (probably way too much) more.

And, after much indecision, a HUGE Yes to the Roku 3 and the Roku Streaming Stick.

Until 6 months ago, we enjoyed the granddaddy of cable packages with DirecTV.  Truly – more channels than we could ever watch nor even want.  Once the kids went to bed, we would flop on the couch in our zombie-like state, and flip through channel after channel, staring at (but not really watching) the screen.  Trash reality TV for me, cheesy sci-flicks for the hubby, and international home buying programs for the both of us.  Fun stuff.

Alas, our contract was coming to an end and in our new spirit of minimalism, the price increase was steep.  In fact, the price we had already been paying was steep.  Considering the fact that with two young kids, our time spent watching television had dwindled to mere minutes a day, it just didn’t make sense.

But we hemmed and hawed.  We were not the Cable Cutters type!  That seemed a bit extreme.  Hippy-ish.  Tree-Hugger-esque.  Millenial-like.

But the savings were attractive.  I’m talking over $100 a month.  Plus it might be cool to put our super high-speed ISP to the test.

So we bit the bullet and cancelled, ultimately opting for the Roku 3 as our replacement.  We looked at Apple TV, Fire TV, and Chromecast but a few things about the Roku 3 stood out.  First – it’s performance.  They’ve been doing this a while now, and have got the speed and issues mostly figured out.  Apple and Fire were still a bit buggy, and Chromecast doesn’t really achieve the same purpose (although it is definitely the best choice for screen mirroring and casting).  Secondly, I am not completely committed to the Apple eco-system, which would have made it tough to go with Apple TV – especially considering the fact that their programming was much more limited than Roku.  Where it got difficult was deciding between the Roku 3 and Fire TV.  Because – unlike with Apple – I am completely committed to the Amazon eco-system.  I am a happy (make that thrilled) Prime member, I spend a significant portion of my shopping dollars on their site, and I simply love their Kindle Fires for media consumption.  At first blush, Fire TV was the leader of the pack.

But it was still so new.  We could live with that, but there was one thing we couldn’t accept.  Amazon’s Fire TV didn’t have a clean option to display Prime titles on the device.  In other words – we couldn’t search or filter by Prime only.  WTF?  Free media content is one of the best things about our Prime membership, but to not allow filtering capability on Fire TV basically eliminated the edge that Amazon had.

Fortunately, Roku DOES provide Amazon Prime filters.  And that was the tipping point.  We purchased both a Roku 3 for the living room and a Roku Streaming Stick for the bedroom.  Difference between the two, you ask?  Really not much.  I do think the Roku 3 is marginally faster (although not enough to really notice unless you were comparing the two); and I like that it allows for an ethernet connection – an option we do take advantage of.  But if you have a strong wifi signal throughout the house, save yourself the $50 and get the stick.  An added bonus is that the stick is portable – plug it into TVs in hotel rooms, friends’ homes, etc.  Easy peasy.

Both units come with a separate remote (different than the Chromecast, which uses your phone as the remote), although you can download the Roku app for your phone/iPad to control the device that way.  The remote is nice and surprisingly easy to navigate.  I had been worried about typing out titles in the Search box, but it is quick and easy.

Set up took all of 5 minutes.  Plug it in, enter your network details, and wait for the initial load.  Boom – you’re ready to go.  Begin adding channels offered on the device and also do some Google searches for the so-called “Secret Channels” you can add as well – there are hundreds if not thousands; something for everyone.

What about the paid channels?  In our case, we already had a Netflix subscription at $7.99/month, so we kept that.  We also already had an Amazon Prime membership, so kept that.  The only paid channel we added was Hulu Plus, at a cost of $7.99/month.  Not sure if we really needed it, we took advantage of the 3 month trial and found that we did like the programming offered.  Even better, new episodes of popular shows become available the day after initial broadcast, so you can stay current with all your faves.  The downside is that there are commercials.  BUT there are only 1-2 commercials at a time (rarely 3) between segments, far fewer than regular television.  You can’t fast forward through them, but we don’t really mind.  It is not as big a deal as we had anticipated.

Between the three paid channels, the additional free channels we’ve selected, and some of the secret channels we’ve added, we don’t feel as if we’re missing much.  The only exceptions for us would be HGTV (we are admittedly a bit obsessed and Hulu Plus doesn’t yet offer the shows we’re most interested in), certain sporting events, and some local programming.  As far as the sporting events and local programming go, we have been able to mitigate much of that impact by purchasing a Mohu Leaf 50 Indoor Antenna, which picks up over 250 additional channels in our area.  Well worth the extra cost.  So overall, I would say we have replaced about 95% of what we would normally watch – at a savings of over $100/month.  Definitely a good trade-off.

Now – how does this all relate to our toddler?  As far the TV-sphere goes, we have realized some amazing unanticipated benefits of making the switch:

  • No Commercials.  Let me repeat: No Commercials (exception being, of course, Hulu Plus).  This isn’t about us worrying about our toddler’s impatience as 30 second ads flicker across the screen… It is about zero marketing.  No commercials for toys, movies, sugary cereals, junk food, or annoying cartoon characters.  Nothing for him to ask for, beg for, throw a tantrum for, or to even realize is available.  It is wonderful.  We select a show, he watches the show, and all is good with the world.
  • The free channels alone have more childrens’ programming than we could ever want or need (I’m talking to you, PBS Kids).  Free TV!
  • When we want something different, Amazon Prime and Netflix both offer a plethora of shows just for kids.  Seriously – anything that anyone could ever want.  And again: No Commercials.
  • There are many shows that are less than the standard 30 minutes slotted for regular television programming, and they tell you how long the programs run upfront.  Shows for 6 minutes, 12 minutes, 8 minutes.  This is great for us as we are in the midst of potty training, and unabashedly using the TV as the mega-award for going #2 in the potty.  Since mega-award doesn’t mean I want him plopped in front of the TV for 30 minute intervals at a time, it is great that I can select a short cartoon of 7 minutes to reward him and then move on.
  • Control.  The ability to truly control what he is watching.  With traditional television, you’re pretty much stuck with whatever they’re broadcasting at the time you start watching.  But with the Roku, we consciously pick everything we and the children watch.  Which means there is no more mindless vegging in front of the TV.  And, for the toddler, means that I can at least try to select the most educational options available.
  • Wifi issues.  I know this doesn’t sound like a perk, but hear me out.  Until we connected our living room Roku via ethernet (using Powerline – which I highly recommend as long as you remember to encrypt it), we were having some intermittent wifi issues in that dead zone area of the house.  Definitely annoying.  But our son, not knowing any better, began to simply accept that sometimes “the TV is not working.”  And move on.  Yes – a toddler – accepting and moving on.  Suffice it to say that that since we have picked up on this, there may be times we use this to our advantage… “sorry Honey, the TV is not working right now….”
  • The other cool things you can do with the Roku.  We’ve downloaded our Pandora stations (including the kiddie stations, which the boys love), our YouTube channels, and other media for a more personalized experience.  It’s nice to have everything consolidated in one place on the “big TV”, leading to more than just television watching.

So for all these reasons and more, I give an enthusiastic Thumbs Up to the Roku (the 3 or the Streaming Stick).  More conscious television watching, limited to no marketing, a personalized media experience, and a significant cost savings make for one happy mama – and little guy.

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