By Jane Huth
My 4-year-old is starting to play on the computer every day, just like her 6-year-old brother. I have mixed feelings about this. Yes, kids’ programs are fun, and they sure beat flash cards for learning vocabulary or multiplication. But I believe my kids will read and play more if they spend less time at the computer. My solution is to be a strict (my kids might say evil) mother: One hour a day at most at the computer, no TV or videos during the week (no commercial TV ever), and they must run around outside (or inside if it’s freezing) and read books every single day. Eventually, I could see banning the television completely, but I’d never ban the computer. My children have gained so much knowledge from playing interactively with educational computer software that I wouldn’t dream of taking that away from them. Here are some programs of which I approve. Great software, like chocolate, is wonderful, but don’t let your kids gorge on it. CAILLOU: FOUR SEASONS OF FUN, $19.99, www.learningcompany.com, (800) 395-0277; ages 2-6. Making snowmen in the winter, raking leaves in the fall, building sand castles in the summer and splashing in puddles in the spring are a few of the treasured moments of childhood captured in Caillou: Four Seasons of Fun. Players dress 4-year-old Caillou in clothing appropriate for each season, then go outside to play. There they search for treasures, watch brief movies from the Caillou television program, race on roller skates and play other games. The third in the series of Caillou programs, this CD-ROM is a variation of the basic structure of the first two programs. If you have a young Caillou fan in the family, this is a charming program he or she will enjoy. But if you already own other Caillou CD-ROMs, your child may lose interest (as mine did) after playing for a relatively short time. JUMPSTART EXPLORERS, $19.99, www.jumpstart.com, (800) 545-7677; ages 5-8. I have yet to find a JumpStart program my kids don’t like, and JumpStart Explorers is no exception. It’s written at just the right level for young children, feeding them tidbits of history in the midst of a clever adventure. My 4-year-old loves the bouncy characters, C.J. Frog and his sidekick Edison Firefly, who travel through time in a game of hide-and-seek with C.J.’s nieces and nephews. Players visit five places in history: the South Pole with explorer Roald Amundsen, Asia with Marco Polo, Plymouth colony with the Pilgrims, the Incas in South America and the pyramids and King Tut in Egypt. While this is educational software, it’s light on education and heavier on entertainment. Kids find their way through mazes, decorate a Sphinx, feed a llama or make Chinese lanterns to win stickers they can place on a big map of the world. Kids learn facts (polar bears live at the North Pole, not Antarctica) they may store away for later use, but mostly they have fun on an adventure. The program is just right for a 5-year-old, but I doubt children as old as 8 would find it interesting for long. MIA: CLICK AND CREATE, $24.95, www.kutoka.com, (877) 8KUTOKA; ages 5 and up. Mia the mouse is a favorite in our house because she’s smart, funny and fun. Kids enamored of this clever mouse and her quirky friends, including Scary Spider and Freddy Frog, will enjoy playing with this art program. It’s a basic draw-and-paint program that includes computerized animations featuring Mia and her friends. Kids will recognize the graphics from other Mia programs. Kids can make paper airplanes, a model of Mia’s house or create greeting cards and stationery using the excellent graphics from the Mia programs. It also has a nice feature that gives kids step-by-step instructions on drawing simple pictures, such as robots, animals, buildings and cars. If you don’t have a draw-and-paint program, this is a fine one to own. And if your child would like Mia on her stationery, the graphics are sophisticated and fun. But if you already own a paint-and-draw program, don’t bother buying another. If your children are like mine, they are unlikely to spend much time playing with yet another draw-and-paint program because there’s no story or game to hold their interest. CHEMICUS, $19.99, www.tivola.com, (877) 848-6520; ages 12 and up. If I’d paid more attention in high school chemistry I might have been able to make my way through a few more of the rusty doors and dusty laboratories in Chemicus. This mystery adventure appears to require a doctorate in chemistry, but I’m not entirely sure because I slept through most of my chemistry classes. If your child enjoys Tivola’s Physicus or Bioscopia CD-ROMs, then hand her this program. If she’s a science geek, she may disappear for weeks as she winds her way through the rusty, dusty, sometimes creepy world of Chemicus. The premise is this: Richard, a scientist, has found an amulet, the key to a secret world. But Richard is kidnapped by mysterious evildoers from the hidden world, and so the player must rescue him before it’s too late. The shadowy evil ones periodically appear onscreen in the distance, dressed in long robes, and Richard surfaces from time to time to offer clues or plead for help, but most of the time players move from one deserted, dank, dripping lab to another. Kids (and adults) who wrestled with the equally complex CD-ROMs Physicus or Bioscopia will be familiar with the drill: Click around the screen until you find a drawer or door to open or an object to pick up. The hard part is figuring out what to do with things such as quicklime (put it in the porcelain skillet) or a red cabbage leaf (boil it in the pan of water on the stove). If you have a budding chemist in the family, this program is certain to entertain. I loved the great graphics, decaying, high-tech atmosphere and overall cleverness of this challenging CD-ROM, but I found it relentlessly difficult. (Hey, I snored through chemistry, so what do I expect?)Jane Huth is a freelance writer living in the north suburbs with her husband, one preschooler and one kindergartner.