By Jane HuthMuch as I try to plan ahead, I'm always caught scampering through department stores just before Christmas, searching for the right stocking stuffers for my kids. Unfortunately for me, my children have played these four new programs, all of which would make outstanding gifts. The programs are sweet and safe, with no violence and no heart-pounding action. (OK, there's a smidgen of education tucked in here and there to make holidays happy for both parents and kids.)
DORA THE EXPLORER: ANIMAL ADVENTURES, $19.95, www.atarikids.com; ages 3 and up.
Dora is helping her cousin Diego round up all the animals that have escaped from the animal rescue center during a big storm. She explores six different rain forest habitats to rescue and photograph the animals. In each habitat, her task is different. In some, she simply clicks on the animals and takes their photograph so Diego knows the animal is safe. In others, she climbs through the trees or is pulled down the river by a dolphin to save a baby jaguar.
I like Dora because she's intrepid and caring, using her brains and skills to do what is right. She's a nice role model for girls and boys. My 4-year-old loves this program, which introduced her to all kinds of unusual animals such as the two-toed sloth, howler monkey, prehensile-tailed porcupine and plate-billed mountain toucan, among others. There are three levels, but the harder ones are just slightly longer or offer more information about the animals than the easiest one. Kids who know Dora from the TV show will enjoy playing with this program, and kids new to Dora and her pals will simply have fun playing and learning.
LITTLE BILL THINKS BIG, $19.95, www.scholasticstore.com, (800) 724-4718; ages 4-6.
Little Bill is busy creating surprises for his family for each season in this gentle CD-ROM that's just right for preschoolers. Players help Little Bill play games in the rooms of his house to win objects to use in the four seasonal surprises. Featuring the characters from Bill Cosby's television show for children, the CD-ROM is charming and paced slow enough for a precocious 3-year-old. Even my 7-year-old liked the game, although the simple matching, counting and sequencing games were too easy for him. After collecting five objects, such as a pair of mittens and a corn cob, kids go outside Little Bill's house to create a surprise, such as a lemonade stand in the summer or a scarecrow in the fall. Both boys and girls will enjoy playing with Little Bill. "I really like this game," said my 4-year-old daughter. "It's fun."
PAJAMA SAM: LIFE IS ROUGH WHEN YOU LOSE YOUR STUFF, $19.95, www.atarikids.com; ages 5-8.
Now that Pajama Sam is owned by Atari, the cute little pajama'd mini-hero has a different voice and slightly different mode of operating, but he's essentially the same thoroughly entertaining critter. In this adventure, our tiny explorer is crawling through his unkempt bedroom looking for his first edition Pajama Man comic book. It seems that some evildoer burrowed in his bedroom (could it have been Cardboard Woman? The Evil Underwear? Dust Devil?) to steal the comic book and take it to Grimy Corners shopping mall for Pajama Man's archenemy, Dr. Grime, to autograph. Pajama Sam dives into the piles of dirty clothes, cast-off food containers and slithering creatures that have taken root in his bedroom in the search for his comic book. He wants to take it to the clean mall for his hero, Pajama Man, to autograph.
Players pick up various objects, such as a peanut, a length of yo-yo cord or a dirty, unmatched sock, to use later in the game. My 7-year-old loves this game so much he played it until he figured out all the clues and learned the lines and songs by heart. I found it slower and more difficult than previous Pajama Sam CD-ROMs, but it is still creative, fun and entertaining. (I couldn't stand the loud, adventure-movie background music, which didn't bother my son at all.) The game was too difficult for my 4-year-old, who loves Pajama Sam and wanted to play, but kept having to ask her obliging older brother for help. The program is more fun than educational, but it gets extra points for sending kids the message that cleaning up their room is a good idea.
I SPY FANTASY, $19.95, www.scholasticstore.com, (800) 724-4718; ages 6-10.
The I Spy books have never excited my children, nor has much of the I Spy software-until this one arrived. The game opens in a typical child's room with an aquarium on one side, a king's castle toy set up on the floor and a space mobile hanging from the ceiling. Players click on one of the three areas to play a game. In each game, they must solve six I Spy puzzles by finding objects hidden in clever collages. After solving a puzzle, players are rewarded with objects used to finish the game. In the castle game, kids collect keys to open the dungeon and set the princess free; in the space game, kids collect fuel crystals to blast off the rocket ship; and in the under-the-sea game, players collect pages from the mermaid's lost book. Both my kids loved this game. We all played it together and had fun finding the cleverly hidden objects. The rhyming clues are read out loud, as well as written on screen, so even my non-reading 4-year- old could participate easily. After solving all the puzzles and finishing a game, kids can replay the game-but each time it's more difficult. This would be a great game to fill that Christmas morning void after all the presents have been opened and everyone's wondering what to do next. The whole family will have fun solving the puzzles.Jane Huth lives in the north suburbs with her husband, a first-grader and a preschooler.