Kindle FreeTime is, hands down, the most sophisticated and easy to use parental-control tool available in the tablet market. Read on as we show you how to set it up, access the vast FreeTime Unlimited media library, and set time limits for your kids.
What Is FreeTime?
FreeTime is Amazon’s version of parental controls (tools available on computers and mobile devices that allow parents to restrict and filter content to protect their kids from mature material, stop them from messing around with the device’s settings, and otherwise getting into trouble). FreeTime is, by far, the most sophisticated and comprehensive parental control suite available for any tablet. FreeTime is available for all Kindle Fire tablets in the HD and HDX lineups.Unlike other parental controls, such as those available on the iPad and other iOS devices, FreeTime isn’t just about locking a kid into one app, locking them out of other apps, or keeping them from accessing the device’s control panel. FreeTime outright reskins the device and turns it into a completely self-contained and kid-friendly tablet that offers an easy to use interface, a totally separate application and media list just for the child, and individual profiles so each child in your household can have their own age-appropriate dashboard: the toddler can have toddler friendly games and read-aloud apps and the middle-schooler can have more advanced games and their own media library, for example.
Further, with the addition of the very inexpensive FreeTime Unlimited ($2.99 a month for one child, or $6.99 for a whole family with an Amazon Prime account, $4.99/9.99 without), you gain access to a massive library of hand-curated movies, television shows, and books that are constantly updated and require no extra effort from the parents to maintain or curate.
While we appreciate any effort a company provides to help lock down a device or make it kid-friendly, we’re absolutely delighted with what a comprehensive job Amazon has done with the FreeTime. The minor criticisms we have of the new HDX tablets, for example, are completely overshadowed by how impressed we are with how well FreeTime turns the Kindle HD and HDX tablets into the best kid-friendly tablet around.
Turning FreeTime On
If you just fired up your Kindle Fire, FreeTime should be front and center in the application dock. The icon is labeled Kindle FreeTime and features a child running with a kite–as seen in the center of the screenshot above. If you’ve done a little rearranging since you purchased your Kindle Fire, you’ll have to open up your application list to find FreeTime again.
To set up free time, simply launch the application for the first time. Tap “Get Started” on the FreeTime splash screen. At this point you’ll be prompted to enter a Parental Controls password (note: if you have previously used the general Parental Controls features on the Kindle Fire prior to activating FreeTime, the password is the same. Otherwise, create a brand new one).
Next, create a profile for each child. Even if you have multiple children that are in the same general age group (say, a fourth and a fifth grader) we still recommend creating a unique profile for each child. Not only does it give each child their own unique experience with the Kindle, but the granular tracking/reward tools work best when they are applied to each child (more on these tools in a moment).
After you’ve created the profiles for all the children, click Next. Here you will be prompted to select a profile and then share the content on the Kindle you wish to give the child access to:
Tap on the profile for each child to add content. On the content screen you’ll be able to select from all the books, apps, and media in your Kindle Library:
By default, FreeTime suggests known kid-friendly titles in your library. You can see here how it picked out kids’ joke books, picture books, and Angry Birds (among other suggestions). You can check off each bit of media you want, blanket select all of the suggestions with “Add All Kids’ Titles”, or if there is an app you know your youngster likes but that isn’t on the list (like an astronomy app that isn’t classified as a children’s selection), you can tap the drop down menu “For Kids” to access the rest of your library.
Once you’re done selecting titles, click “Done” in the upper right hand corner. You’ll be returned to the Manage Content & Subscription menu:
Under the profile for the child whose content you just selected, you’ll see a summary of the number of books, videos, and apps you’ve added to their content library.
If you only want to add content from your personal Kindle Library, at this point you’re done managing the content. If you want to enable FreeTime Unlimited, Amazon’s subscription service for kids, you need to scroll down to the bottom of the Manage Content & Subscription window and click on the big Kindle FreeTime Unlimited button under the Use our Content header.
You’ll see a menu like the one below. Here you can make two choices: the age group of the child and whether or not you want a single subscription ($2.99 a month for one child) or a family ($6.99 for up to six children).
The first month is free, so if you find the service doesn’t fit your family, you can cancel with no out-of-pocket expense. We think you’ll be pretty blown away by the mountain of great content, however.
Whether you subscribe to FreeTime Unlimited or tap “No Thanks”, you’ll be sent back to the main Kindle FreeTime profile page:
This is the default view you will always see when launching FreeTime. Before we actually launch FreeTime and take a tour, however, let’s look at one last configuration option you may wish to enable: Daily Time Limits.
Go ahead and tap on the Daily Time Limits icon now.
By default, the time limits are completely off. Tap on the child’s profile to enable them. Toggle “Set Time Limits” from off to on, and the following sub-menu will appear:
Here you have two options. You can limit the amount of time the child uses the device with a daily Total Screen Time limit (seen on the left-hand side) to between 1-6 hours. Or, you can limit using Time by Activity which allows you to set limits on Reading Books, Watching Videos, and Using Apps, with values between 1-6 hours before it jumps to Unlimited; you can also toggle the value to Blocked if you don’t want your child accessing one of the categories at all.
By default it’s one hour of videos and apps, with unlimited reading. You can adjust it to fit your needs. Tap the back button on the right-hand navigation bar to return back to the main profile page when you’re done settings up your Daily Time Limits.
Note: As of this review, the week of 12/23/2012, Amazon has announced but not fully rolled out an upgrade to the Time Limit function that allows you to set specific hours of use (e.g. no FreeTime between 8PM and 8AM) and set educational goals wherein pure entertainment (e.g. Sponge Bob videos) are blocked until X amount of time is spent reading, using educational apps, or other parent-approved activities. These expanded features should be appearing on your Kindle around Christmas or shortly there after.
Now that we’ve finished setting up FreeTime, let’s load the child profile and take it for a spin. At the main profile page, tap on one of the profiles you just created.
Inside Kindle FreeTime
Once you launch FreeTime and select your child’s profile, the Kindle doesn’t just superficially become their tablet, it actually completely locks itself down. The lock down process is so thorough in fact, we were surprised at what a complete job it does. FreeTime even unmounts the local storage that contains the media downloaded/generated by the adults using the device so that even if you have a particularly clever child that plugs the Kindle into a computer via the USB tether to explore its contents, they won’t be able to open the folders containing pictures taken by mom and dad, music, movies, or other content on the device.
What the child will see is the screen above, a carousel of media. This carousel by default displays all the (approved) books available in the Kindle owner’s immediate library. As the child uses the device, the carousel will update to include the most recently used media (books, apps, and videos), just like the regular Kindle interface.
If you tap on the books shortcut, you’ll see all the books on the device as well as all the books available via FreeTime Unlimited (if you’ve activated the subscription):
The same layout repeats itself for videos and apps. In any of the sections the child can tap on a book already in the library or select a suggested title that isn’t stored locally on the device yet to download it from Amazon. All the media (books, videos, and apps) offered in FreeTime are completely free. There’s no chance your child can click on anything offered through the service and accidentally purchase anything.
The last navigation screen, and one we think is particularly clever, is the Characters screen. As any parent can tell you, kids attach themselves to characters. Be it The Cat in the Hat, Dora the Explorer, or just a general love of dinosaurs, kids develop specific tastes.
In the Characters menu they can easily find content they’re looking for by selecting a character (like the Cat in the Hat) or a general topic (like dinosaurs) they’re really into. Clicking on a specific character icon will show all the available media related to that character:
The entire user experience is completely silo’ed and at no point can the child get out of the FreeTime garden and into the rest of the Kindle. Pressing the home button always takes them back to the original kid-friendly media carousel. Searching using the quick-find feature only searches the available kid-friendly content. If they swipe down the top-screen navigation bar like so:
The only setting they can adjust is the screen brightness. Everything else: Parent Settings, Settings, and exiting FreeTime, requires a parental password.
As of right now, and for the foreseeable future, FreeTime is the most comprehensive parental-controls option available in the tablet market. It locks the tablet down tight, it customizes the interface, and with the addition of FreeTime Unlimited, it delivers thousands upon thousands of kid-friendly books, movies, television shows, and apps, all organized in an easy to search and navigate system.