A better way to “watch” television By Jane Huth

I have a love-hate relationship with television, although it's mostly hate. My children have no such ambivalence. They love practically anything they see on a TV screen. I think some TV shows for kids are great-entertaining, fun and informative. But I loathe manipulative TV ads directed at children and the often too-violent kids' cartoon shows.

I often don't allow my children to watch commercial TV and when they do, I limit their TV time. But I don't limit computer time, although they play only with educational software. Still, much of their favorite software is based on TV shows.

Here are a few good CD-ROMs spun off from TV shows. But these programs don't involve staring glazed-eyed at fast action on a screen. When kids play with software, they must move a mouse or press a key before anything happens on the screen. Passivity gets kids nowhere-in software or in life.

DRAGON TALES: FLY WITH DRAGONS, $19.99,, (800) 246-2986; ages 4-6. I'm sorry my kids will soon outgrow Dragon Tales because the television show teaches kids so many good lessons about friendship, sharing and respect for people and animals. This CD-ROM, to be released on June 15, is based on the theme of helping others.

Cassie (the pink dragon) is teaching her three younger siblings to fly. To earn a badge to go to flight school, the three little dragons must help other dragons complete tasks. Each activity involves a skill such as counting, matching shapes, colors or patterns, listening or remembering.

The activities are fun but very easy. My 7-year-old whipped through this entire game in 30 minutes, but my 5-year-old needed more time. I think a precocious 3-year-old could handle most of the activities with a little adult guidance. Once the dragons have completed their tasks, Ketzl gives them a dragon badge, and Ord (the blue dragon) completes their flight training. This is a charming program young children will enjoy, whether or not they are fans of the TV show.

SCOOBY-DOO! CASE FILE NO. 2: THE SCARY STONE DRAGON, $24.99,, (800) 223-6925; ages 5-10. I've always thought this TV show was dopey, but my children can't get enough of Scooby-Doo. In this adventure, the groovy gang travels to China where, naturally, there is a mystery to solve. The plot is basically the same in every program, but my kids don't mind since the mysteries are so much fun to decipher.

I like the tidbits of historical information sprinkled throughout the mysteries, such as the fact that sculptures of animals appeared in China more than 3,000 years ago. In Case File No. 2, the Stone Dragon outside an ancient temple comes to life and is scaring everyone in town. The gang talks to suspects, solves puzzles and collects clues.

The first order of business is always to collect Scooby Snacks (the doggie morsels that give the fraidy-cat Scooby courage) by playing a matching game. In a deserted market, they put colored lanterns into the right order and answer a quiz about the game and, incidentally, about Chinese culture.

Every activity has a learning element, and the mystery draws you in and holds your interest. My 7-year-old mastered the Scooby-Doo formula, so he finished the program quickly, but it was a challenge to my 5-year-old, who often needed her brother's help to unmask the villain. Kids can play again and again because the culprit changes with each game.

CYBERCHASE: CASTLEBLANCA QUEST, $19.99,, (800) 806-1115; ages 8-11. It's tough to make mathematics fun and exciting, but the Cyberchase TV show does just that. The new Cyberchase CD-ROMs are fun, too, asking the kids, rather than characters, to solve mathematics problems. In Castleblanca Quest, the TV characters Jackie, Matt and Inez, along with their cranky pet bird, Digit, try to outwit the evil Hacker, who has stolen the chip that changes the weather on the island of Castleblanca, making it sunny all the time. All that sunshine is drying out the island, so the kids have to visit different areas on Castleblanca to find parts to build a solar protection device that will free the weather chip from Hacker's clutches.

The nice thing about this CD-ROM is that it makes mathematics cool by mixing humans, monsters and the digital world of computer technology into fun puzzles that disguise the basic mathematics kids use to solve problems. One puzzle asks kids to use fractions, decimals and percentages to zap a block of goop so it's the correct size to fit into a box. Another asks players to drop various- sized monsters into a pool to raise the water depth to the correct size so another monster can dive into the pool.

I was defeated by the disco challenge, requiring knowledge of geometry to bounce a beam of light off mirrors at various angles to get a disco ball running. Other problems require estimating, balancing, measuring and rounding numbers. CYBERCHASE: CARNIVAL CHAOS, $19.99,, (800) 806-1115; ages 8-11. Kids who like playing Castleblanca Quest will find the same cast of characters and more fun math problems to solve in Carnival Chaos. This time, the evil Hacker has stolen the Megabolt that connects all cyber sites in the cyberworld. Unfortunately, he's too incompetent to hang onto the Megabolt, which falls from Hacker's spaceship through a tent at the R-Fair-City carnival. The owner of the carnival locks it up, and won't give Jackie, Matt and Inez the combination to the safe until they solve problems to win toys to give to the local residents. I found the problems just as clever but a little more difficult than in Carnival Chaos, but that's probably just personal preference. The games require more logic and spatial reasoning and less straight mathematics. Most kids with moderate math skills will be challenged by the eight activities in this CD-ROM, which, like Castleblanca Quest, includes a practice area where kids can figure out how to play the fairly complicated games. I liked Shell and Tell, where players must arrange shells into a pattern using the fewest moves possible and Toasted Coaster, a puzzle that requires players to flip, turn and resize puzzle pieces. Each time players win a game, they earn a prize that brings them closer to unlocking the Megabolt. But the pressure is on because Hacker is also looking for the Megabolt, so there is a time limit.

Jane Huth is a writer who lives in the north suburbs with her husband and two children, a first-grader and a preschooler.



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