Forget TV, turn on the computer fun By Jane Huth

My children are not happy these days, but they'll get over it. I took away their beloved television time, except for a few brief windows on the weekends, and they are very grumpy. After all, Americans are so in love with their TVs that they build entire rooms for them. The majority of American kids spend hours every day passively staring at those ever-expanding TV screens.

Not in my house. It's not my job to give my kids what they want. I give them what they need: books, toys, time (with just a little TV). And I let them play educational computer games with no time limit. Unlike TV, the games don't do anything unless the kids make things happen. Here are a couple of games I think are fabulous.

MAKING MUSIC, $40,, (877) 848-6520; ages 5-10.

This is a great program for learning how to create music, but there is a learning curve. Kids used to programs that allow them to jump right in and play will have to slog through a lengthy explanation of the program's many features. If your child is already interested in music or just starting to play an instrument, this program may be just the thing. Given the hefty price, I wouldn't use it as an introduction to music because your child may get frustrated and toss it aside before it becomes fun. I had to show my son how to use the program before he started experimenting with creating music himself.

Kids used to art programs will recognize some similar features in Making Music. Kids use a “paintbrush” to write notes on the composition space (which is just a big blank rectangle). Notes placed higher in the space sound higher, and those placed lower sound lower. Longer notes sound longer, and those placed closer together are played more quickly. Press the go arrow, and the program plays the child's “composition.” There's also an artist's palette to make the composition sound as if it's played on any of 16 instruments including piano, flute, banjo, human voice or even a tweeting bird.

That part is easy for almost any child, but when you add melody and rhythm, it gets more complex. (My son just wanted to scribble notes and listen to how they sound.) Kids can create a melody by moving birds sitting on telephone wires and create rhythm by lining up eggs in repetitive patterns. A button that looks like stairsteps lets a child choose one of five scales-major, minor, pentatonic, whole tone or chromatic-for the composition. Put it all together, and you have a composition that's entirely your child's own.

Another feature allows kids to mix melodies from one piece of music with the rhythms of another. Finally, there are listening games that are fun but difficult. My 7-year-old liked playing these but, because he's used to fast action games and animated characters, he tired of them quickly. If you think you have a budding musical genius-or a child who simply loves music-Making Music is a fun, creative program that can give her a boost in the right direction.


If you think the Nancy Drew mystery series is just for girls, this software should change your mind. My son loves this program, even though he can't read well enough to follow all the clues. He sat glued to my elbow the entire time I played, helping me solve puzzles, guessing at clues and deciding where Nancy should go next in her quest to solve this latest mystery.

Our 18-year-old heroine is going whale watching in the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington state. As usual, Nancy walks into a mystery. Her hostess, Katie Firestone, has been stirring up controversy over an orphaned orca whale and her whale-watching boat is vandalized. No whale-watching for Nancy. Now she has to solve puzzles, pick up clues, interview suspects (very ornery ones, too) and avoid getting injured or killed while she figures out who trashed Katie's boat, and why.

Danger on Deception Island, the ninth Nancy Drew software line, lives up to the high standards of the series. The software claims a player can solve the mystery in 20 hours, but for most kids (and their parents) it will take much longer. I played at the junior detective level, which was very challenging. (Senior detectives don't get nearly as much help.)

Nancy searches for clues by riding her bike (don't forget her helmet) between the Lighthouse, Katie's boat, the Hot Kettle Café and the Whale Watch station, then she searches the islands in a kayak.

Nancy must fix Katie's sink, organize her books so they fit perfectly in a drawer, examine slides under a microscope, solve a nautical quiz and catch a male Dungeness crab. And that's just the beginning. She's got to figure out how to use a global positioning system so she doesn't get lost in the islands. And she must watch the weather so she doesn't get trapped in a sea cave.

At the junior detective level, Nancy gets to search a laptop for answers to the nautical quiz or call her friends George and Bess on her cell phone when she needs help.

Nothing is obvious or easy in this program. At many points I found myself completely stumped.

The graphics and atmospheric music are great, the story line excellent and the mystery only slightly scary, despite some sinister suspects. (Nancy gets brained by falling rocks at the lighthouse after being warned away by the mysterious Holt Scotto, a fisherman who's also running for harbor master-did he try to kill her?)

I made the mistake of not putting on Nancy's helmet before riding into town, so Nancy fell off her bike and got killed. Not to worry-there's a handy second-chance feature that lets players pick up where they left off after a catastrophe. While solving the mystery, kids pick up a lot of information about nautical subjects such as sea cave formation, Morse Code, how to tell the difference between a male and female crab and the different types of sailors' knots.

I loved the Nancy Drew books when I was a child, and I'm happy my children can enjoy solving Nancy Drew mysteries with this great detective program.


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


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