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Fun & learning

Looking for more than just a game for a holiday gift? Here's a look at "edutainment'' software that teaches while entertaining.


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 11, 2000

[Times art]
Parents want their kids to do a lot.

Eat right ("Aw, Mom, not spinach!"). Clean up ("But, Dad, I took a bath yesterday!"). And get ahead in school ("I'll do my homework after I watch TV.").

So telling kids that software is "educational and good for you" won't always work, especially with all the other high-tech offerings beckoning to kids. The solution: Combine educational programs with entertainment and call it "edutainment."

While experts may disagree on the value of computers for learning, parents apparently don't. According to surveys, parents see the computer as a way for their children to get ahead and learn skills.

So educational software has been a staple from the early days of the home computer movement. Today's edutainment offerings use the latest cartoon characters and newest technology to grab kids' attention, teach the three Rs and other skills.

Some of the "classic" programs released over the past 10 years, such as Oregon Trail, are still around. Oregon Trail challenges its young users to lead a 19th century wagon train across the country. Along the way it teaches them a bit of geography (learning the routes settlers took) and a lot of critical thinking (how much to spend on supplies and choosing routes).

There's the Sim series of programs, where kids (and many adults) learn what goes into running a simulated city . . . or an ant colony, theme park or even an ecosystem.

And there are programs whose games stick closer to basic skills, such as the "Jump Start" series with versions keyed to the typical curriculum for each year in primary school.

Here's a sampling of new edutainment titles tested by the best guinea pigs we know: parents.

Clifford The Big Red Dog Reading

  • Platform: Windows, Macintosh
  • Maker: Scholastic
  • Price: $19.99

Kids can win a prize if they help Clifford and his friend, Emily Elizabeth, complete tasks around town. From the start, this CD-ROM shows it's geared toward learning when Emily Elizabeth launches into a lesson on each letter of the alphabet (pronunciation, appearance, etc.) as she explains the task at hand. There are three levels so kids in the recommended age range of 4 to 6 at any stage of reading development should be able to participate. Perhaps the best feature is a report parents can view that displays the child's progress on the CD-ROM's exercises. And Clifford and Emily Elizabeth look identical to their pictures from the popular book series and PBS television show.

-- CHUCK MURPHY, Times staff writer

Clifford The Big Red Dog Thinking Adventures

  • Platform: Windows, Macintosh
  • Maker: Scholastic
  • Price: $19.99

It's Clifford's birthday, but before the party can begin you have to help Emily Elizabeth get the big dog to the groomer, bake a cake, clean up and pick up his present from Grandma at the Post Office. It has loads of games to sharpen memory, motor skills, matching and sorting and listening. Even a 3-year-old can find lots to do on this CD-ROM, including a game where the gophers hide Clifford's bone and you have to remember where they put it (a little like a New York City shell game, without losing money). Some of the instructions seem incomplete, but the kids were able to plow forward anyway.

-- CHUCK MURPHY, Times staff writer

Backyard Baseball 2001

  • Platform: Windows, Macintosh
  • Maker: Humongous Sports
  • Price: $19.99

Backyard Baseball 2001 is a nice game for kids. Humongous doesn't call it edutainment, nor do I, though it does show up in the Home Education category from market research company PC Data. The game is easy to pick up, includes current Major League Baseball stars as children (no, I won't take that shot) and has some fun Bad News Bear-type sequences. Kids can choose players, come up with a team name and colors and compete online. Keeping track of statistics for a game or season and keeping track of pitches may count as education, but I think that's a stretch. Humongous recommends the game for kids 5-12, but I suspect younger kids will enjoy it more than those on the upper range.

-- DAVE GUSSOW, Times personal technology editor

Buzz Lightyear 1st Grade Learning

  • Platform: Windows, Macintosh
  • Maker: Disney Interactive
  • Price: $19.99

The characters from Toy Story 2 come to life in Andy's room after the little boy and Woody leave for cowboy camp. Buzz guides the player to several activities that challenge reading comprehension, addition and subtraction, telling time, counting money and geography. At times, Buzz's mouth is out of synch with the audio, creating the feel of a foreign film, and the response was a little balky while driving R.C. the car, even on a 200MHz machine with a 56X CD-ROM player. But the activities are quite challenging, and a first-grader could spend hours exploring the different parts.

-- CHUCK MURPHY, Times staff writer

Buzz Lightyear 2nd Grade Learning

  • Platform: Windows, Macintosh
  • Maker: Disney Interactive
  • Price: $19.99

This has the same premise as the software for first-graders, only it's a little more challenging. The math problems are tougher and the geography facts a little more obscure. Both also have a musical keyboard kids can click and play when they tire of math and word games. But it moves a little slowly and is awkward to attempt. A Toy Story storybook CD-ROM also is included with either of the Disney packages.

-- CHUCK MURPHY, Times staff writer

I Spy School Days

  • Platform: Windows, Macintosh
  • Maker: Scholastic
  • Price: $29.95
  • There aren't many pieces of children's software on the market as fun or educational as the I Spy series. The popular books come to life in a seemingly endless array of rhyming puzzles:

"I spy a frog, a starfish, a star;
An orange butterfly, a dragonfly jar;
Pipe cleaner wings, a grass-hopping bug;
A white egg in a nest and earth that's been dug."

And each of those items is hidden somewhere on the page. Each game has a rhyme that mentions several items. Those items are tucked inside a scene from a classroom, or outside, or a desk. Kids must find the items mentioned in the rhymes, then click on them. School Days also lets kids make up games, earning treasures along the way. Though it's recommended for kids 5 and older, younger siblings will easily understand the explicit instructions and can play along.

-- CHUCK MURPHY, Times staff writer

In I Spy Junior, the clues to what is hidden in the accompanying picture are described in rhyme and with pictures to make it easier for younger children to solve the puzzle.

I Spy Junior

  • Platform: Windows, Macintosh
  • Maker: Scholastic
  • Price: $19.95

While lots of little brothers and sisters can probably play along with the big kids I Spy series, it's nice that they have one of their own. The puzzles are easier, the explanations more detailed. The pieces the little ones need to find in each puzzle are bigger and not hidden quite so well to make it easier. The rhyming puzzles contain words and pictures that are likely to help with word recognition skills, too. And, like the older model, kids can build their own puzzle.

-- CHUCK MURPHY, Times staff writer

Disney's Magic Artist 3-D

  • Platform: Windows, Macintosh
  • Maker: Disney
  • Price: $29.99

Disney Interactive]
Combine shapes to create pictures in Disney’s Magic Artist 3-D.
Disney takes children's illustration programs to the next dimension of fun with Magic Artist 3-D.

Although the sample illustration on the back of the CD-ROM packaging shows a 3-D rendering of what could be a Disney character's dining room table, the artworks created by my 4- and 8-year-old daughters haven't reached much further than spheres, interweaving tubes and the occasional humanoid blob with a Mickey Mouse head. Nonetheless, drawing 3-D objects, adding textured surfaces and movement, then rotating the drawing to view it from different directions was great fun for them.

The controls are easy to figure out. Tools are along the left, right and bottom of the screen and use icons, rather than text, which helps my preschooler find her way around. Clicking a tool on the left side of the screen changes the options on the right side. For instance, selecting the Object tool gives a young artist a choice of shapes -- spheres, donuts, cones, etc. -- or a choice of props -- the chairs and table from the sample illustration, and other objects. Once a shape or prop is selected, dragging in the drawing area creates the object. Young artists can select and change textures, colors, lighting and movement.

A Mickey Maker tool lets a young artist quickly create a cartoon character, which then can be animated.

Forget about simply printing out the masterpiece: The 3-D renderings can be exported as QuickTime, AVI or jpeg files for e-mailing or posting on the Web.

-- WILLIAM LAMPKIN, Times staff writer

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