This is how I’ve done the tablets for my kids; there’s no reason at all that a kids toy should be able to spy on your child, and as a tech guy and skeptic, this is how I do it.
Go Android, go cheap.
Sorry Apple users, but it’s impossible to use ever use their devices without giving up LOTS of personal info. I will admit, this makes them slightly better stewards than the Android world in terms of keeping it safe (for now) — but for this with Android we have the ability to essentially never give them anything; they can’t mishandle what they never had in the first place.
So it’s fine, even better, to go cheap! Even if we mess around and get malware or whatever, it’s not going to majorly affect us -worse comes to worse, do a hard reset or just return it. (Make sure you don’t mess up and get a cheap Windows tablet, this will become crushingly slow upon doing nearly anything)
Fake email? Pssssh. NO EMAIL.
You turn it on and it will beg you to enter your Google/Gmail information. RESIST. Eventually you should hit a home screen, despite the desparate begging and pleading. A less great alternative is to do a fake one, but it doesn’t need to be done.
How to get apps without Google?
We’re going to get old school and do the thing that your IT mama always warned you about — we’re going to download things from the internet and just put them on there. Again, since you’re not putting personal info on it, the worst danger from malware et al is you possibly having to do a hard reset if things mess up.
A bit on this; app stores like Google Play can be bypassed by directly downloading files, (known as apks). Google doesn’t like you doing this, partly for safety from malware etc. (admittedly true) but also for being able to lockdown the app market and extract rents from app creators.
You’ll have to “Enable Unknown Sources” and Google is going to try to scare you out of doing this. It’s basically a setting (that gets moved around a bunch in Android), here’s a guide.
Our first stop should be the same first stop as it should have been on your Android phone – the alternative app “store” (they’re all free) F-droid, at http://fdroid.org/ It’s (IMHO) SAFER than Google Play.
This is a repository for free and open source Android apps, and you should always check here first. It’s admittedly pretty limited (especially if you’re used to Facebook, etc. apps, but there are a ton of great utilities here.) It has it’s own installer app that you can use.
BONUS and honestly this may be all you need: PBS KIDS. Watch for “Wrong links” — the tiny “if the download doesn’t start click here” link should be do it. You may need adblockers and such.
Movies and videos and music?
First, definitely get VLC, available on all of the above or directly here: https://get.videolan.org/vlc-android/3.2.9/ (this is their official site) for playback.
You’ll have to get them on your device, get familiar with how your particular tablet works here — some can be mounted as if they were flash drives, some can actually mount flash or Micro SD drives, some can do both. As for the copying, I will leave it up to you whether or not you choose to do it; the legality is unclear but “enforcement” of this is rare. Here are the options:
I like Handbrake a lot for physical media. https://handbrake.fr/
Also, there is the possibility of grabbing media from Youtube with https://ytdl-org.github.io/youtube-dl/index.html
Okay, but they can’t live without Netflix / Hulu / etc.
A little dicier, but I’ve done it succesfully every time – basically, you’ll have to find “non-official” apks from non-official sources. Right now, I generally trust http://apkmirror.com for these, but as you google (or better yet, duckduckgo) definitely use your adblockers and such (next, I’ll write up a thing on browsers).