CD-ROMs that are safe, not scary By Jane Huth

I ought to listen to my own advice and only let my kids play with computer games I’ve played myself, but I let my guard down recently and paid for it. Giving in to pleading, I let my 6-year-old check out the computer game, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, from the library, believing it benign.

I realized my mistake when he woke up screaming a few nights later. The first night I suspected indigestion, but the second night (when he was afraid to go back to sleep), he told me he was scared of the ghost who tries to kill Harry at the end of the game.

Oooops. I should have known better since I saw the movie and found it too violent for my children. I am trying to shield my children from scary things for as long as possible. Childhood is too brief and precious to squander.

To that end, here are a few newer programs that won’t keep children up at night. We’ll all sleep better for it.

FLASH ACTION SOFTWARE: COLORS, SHAPES & MORE, $14.99,, (800) 253-0564; ages 3-6.

If your 2-year-old is itching to play with the computer, this program will give her something to tussle with. It appears designed for parents eager to push their children into computer competence before they are out of diapers.

Precocious 2- to 4-year-olds will enjoy learning numbers, shapes and colors with this cheerful program that also features a play area where kids can create artwork and print it out. Kids who can manage a mouse can click on the big, bright buttons and follow directions by clicking on the right shape, color or number in response to a question asked by the program narrator. After each answer, a child’s voice offers encouragement, whether the answer is right or wrong. When kids answer a few questions correctly, they are rewarded with applause and an animated animal bouncing across the screen.

The graphics, as in all School Zone software, are excellent. I expect parents whose children haven’t used computers much will have the most success getting their kids interested in this program. It’s a fun way to practice preschool and early kindergarten skills. The program was too static for my 4-year-old (although she could benefit from the drill and practice) because she’s already used to stories and lots of action in her favorite software.

DRAGON TALES: DRAGON FROG JAMBOREE, $19.99, Windows,, (800) 755-3588; ages 3-6.

If your children are like mine, they are glued to the TV when “Dragon Tales” comes on. I love “Dragon Tales” because the show features children (and their young dragon friends) figuring out how to deal with real life situations about friendship, cooperation, sharing, telling the truth, being scared or soothing hurt feelings.

This CD-ROM features the TV show’s cast of colorful dragons: Cassie, Ord, Zack, Weezie and Ketzel, who team with the children Max and Emmy to find singing Dragon Frogs scattered throughout Dragon Land. It’s an entertaining program that will hold the interest of children as young as 3, but it is mostly a game of pure fantasy. The real-life situations are left for the TV show, which is too bad since that’s what makes the show compelling to kids.

Players search Dragon Land for lost Dragon Frogs who are supposed to put on a concert. Players find frogs and match sounds, colors or shapes. My 4-year-old, who was enchanted by this CD-ROM, had some trouble at first finding the frogs, then caught on quickly. But the program is so simple even at the “hard” level, I doubt most 6-year-olds (even devotees of the TV show) will play it more than a few times.

THE LITTLE RAVEN & FRIENDS: THE TRICYCLE STORY, $19.99,, (877) 848-6520; ages 3 and up.

If software could teach children to care, share and do things for other people, parents’ lives would be a lot easier. This is a great program, but your kids might fight over who gets to play with it (mine did). Little Raven, that imperfect bird, takes his friend Eddie Bear’s tricycle without asking and crashes it into a tree. When Little Raven tries to get away with it, he ends up in the Time Out Cave, which is boring, so he decides somewhat reluctantly, to put Eddie’s broken tricycle back together. To do that, Little Raven must wander around the forest collecting parts of the tricycle from his animal friends. But they don’t want to give up the trike parts just because Little Raven asks for them. So he must learn to be helpful, make trades and play games to win the parts.

I like the feature that requires players to decide whether to help Little Raven’s friends. It reinforces the idea that children can choose whether to helpóand drives home the point that refusing to help has consequences. In this case, refusing to help means no trike piece and the game will never end if players keep saying no. Each favor requires Little Raven to play a game or navigate a maze, all of which are offered at two levels. Most are easy, except for one that asks players to balance two objects such as a pail, purse, rubber duck and radio without knowing what each weighs.

Once the trike is put back together, Little Raven, in his irascible style, hops on it ahead of Eddie Bear, to run a tricycle race. Heís a great character because heís like most kids: impulsive and imperfect, but we love him anyway.

DISNEY LEARNING ADVENTURE: SEARCH FOR THE SECRET KEYS, $19.99,, (800) 228-0988; ages 5 and up.

The ghosts in this CD-ROM are definitely not scary, even when they try to be. Kids will feel comfortable and safe in this haunted house filled with secret passageways that lead to learning opportunities.

Cobwebs aside, itís bright, cheerful and only incidentally creaky. Shaky, Quaky and Clyde, the three ghosts who appear from time to time to tutor kids who are stuck on a problem, are quite friendly and helpful. Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Donald and Pluto wander through the rooms searching for hidden keys. Players find the keys by playing games such as organizing books in the library and fitting pipes into a pattern to fix the leaky plumbing in the basement.

I thought the math exercise requiring players to fit pieces of armor onto the right racks was the most demanding. Players must finish math problems written as groups of dots, colored lines or as numerals. My favorite part of this program is the musicóan appropriately jazzy 1920s tune. I liked all the activities, but wished there were more of them. My 6-year-old breezed through this CD-ROM in about a week.

LIBERTYíS KIDS, $24.99,, 800-KID-XPRT; ages 8-12.

Itís about a war, but ìLibertyís Kidsî (based on the public television show of the same name) is anything but violent. Set at the start of the American Revolution, players act as reporters for Benjamin Franklinís Philadelphia Gazette. They travel to Boston to find out what happened at the Boston Tea Party, to Lexington and Concord to report on skirmishes with the British and to other important Revolutionary War sites. Players quiz ordinary people they encounter on their journeys and key figures of the day, including Samuel Adams and Paul Revere. Once the reporting is finished, players return to the newspaper office to edit and publish their stories.

Like the television show, this CD-ROM focuses on history without mentioning the bloodier aspects of war. The program is a challenging and interesting way for kids to familiarize themselves with important places and people in the early history of our country. I like the way it offers different points of view (British and American) on every aspect of the revolution. Kids must use their judgment to decide which people they want to quote in their story, depending upon who they think is telling the truth. Although it mentions the issue of slavery only in passing, the program shows men and women of color in important positions, such as Ben Franklinís assistant, Moses, who runs his printing office in Franklinís absence, and the slave poet Phyllis Wheatley.




Jane Huth is a freelance writer living in the north suburbs with her husband, one preschooler and one kindergartner.



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