Summer is time for fun and learning By Jane Huth

My family used to spend the last weeks of August in a rustic cabin on an island in the Atlantic Ocean, sans telephone, television or even that essential kitchen accessory, a dishwasher. With escape in mind, it wouldn't have occurred to us to lug along a computer.

Now we vacation on the shores of Lake Michigan, still sans television, telephone or dishwasher, but we always bring our trusty laptop computer, which has turned into a necessity. And as summer wanes, I even let down my guard, allowing an occasional action game to creep into my kids' usual menu of educational software. Hey, we're on vacation.

Here are three educational games your kids can play without noticing they are learning and an action game that's a pure lazy day time waster but, of course, lots of fun.


This charming CD-ROM will engage preschoolers with its cute story line, pleasing graphics and easygoing pace. As the story opens, a storm has swept over the Island of Sodor, leaving damaged trains, lost cargo and other calamities in its wake. Enter Thomas, at the bidding of Sir Topham Hat, chugging all over the island, lending a hand to his friends in need.

Players collect objects, such as a piece of rope or a hook and chain, to help repair the damage. The music and scenes of trains choo-chooing between places with picturesque names such as Tidmouth or Knapford Station are delightful. The game is challenging enough that I even found myself stumped from time to time as Thomas runs back and forth between locales searching for missing ingredients for Mr. Jolly's chocolate factory or a shovel to help clear debris.

There are a few hidden games requiring skills such as color matching to build a chain for Harvey to pull the derailed Edward back on the tracks. Preschoolers who like Thomas will love this game, as will kids new to the cheerful tank engine and his equally agreeable friends.


My children love Putt-Putt, a clever, little, purple car that's always ready to lend a hand to just about anyone who crosses his path. In this CD-ROM, Putt-Putt decides to plan a surprise birthday party for his pet puppy, Pep, who's never had a party. Traveling through Car Town, Putt-Putt finds Pep some new puppy food (spicy taco flavor) and meets up with colorful residents, including Mr. Kibble, the truck that owns the feed store; Ms. Widget, the bumper car party planner; and Mildred, the mail truck. He collects objects along the way, including rubber bands (a car after my own heart), and performs good deeds, such as helping Mrs. Duck gather her wayward ducklings and retrieving Ms. Widget's stolen key.

I find the pace a bit slow at times, but my kids are entranced. It moves at just the right speed for them, allowing time to enjoy all the quirky characters, such as Hank the security guard, keeper of the world's largest ball of string. (“Don't touch,” admonishes Hank.) My 7-year-old plays this over and over, even though he's mastered the game.

Putt-Putt requires thinking, remembering, persevering and teaches the value of friendship and helping others as a reward in itself. I can't think of anything not to like about this enchanting program.

DIDI & DITTO KINDERGARTEN, $19.95,; ages 4-6.

Didi and Ditto (rhymes with neat-o) are brother and sister beavers who frolic in the forest with nary a care until they meet up with a hungry wolf who captures one of them. To free the sibling (who's being held captive in a hollow log by the vegetarian wolf), the other beaver must roam the countryside gathering fruits and vegetables to feed the wolf.

Kids (who can play as either the female Didi or male Ditto) face challenges such as ordering letters in the blue bear's cave, counting correctly to fill egg orders at the farm or collecting rhyming words for the frogs in the swamp. At the easiest of three levels, my 5-year-old had to stretch to play the games, but she hasn't started kindergarten yet. It should be just right for most kindergartners, who will be able to play it over and over.

I like this entertaining game, but I had a twinge of disappointment. It's from the creators of the endlessly inventive Mia series, which my children and I love. By comparison, Didi & Ditto Kindergarten is fun and full of educational concepts, but it's too much like so many other educational CD-ROMs for children.

DR. SEUSS' THE CAT IN THE HAT, $19.99,; ages 7 and up.

The movie starring Mike Myers as the hatted Cat was panned (I can't opine, as I didn't see it), but this CD-ROM spun off the movie is a pleasant, silly roller coaster ride. If you can get past the Canadian-born Myer's atrocious Noo Yawk accent, it's a lot of fun to bounce as the Cat through 20 levels of running, chasing, capturing nasty critters, shooting goo balls, sailing up and down fanciful (if not quite Seussical) landscapes using his red-and-white-striped umbrella, and generally outwitting the evildoers.

The object of the game is to collect the magic scattered throughout the children's house by their grouchy next-door neighbor, Mr. Quinn. The game is the chase, which-like all action games-I find rather pointless, but I'm not a 7-year-old. I have not banned this game because it's not violent or scary, and it's a bit slower and not so adrenaline-producing as most run, jump and blast games. But there's no educational component anywhere (unless you count keyboard skills, which I don't), so I limit the time my 7-year-old can play to 30 minutes a day. (He'd play from sunrise to sundown if I let him.)

OK, sometimes I let him play a little longer, but hey, we're on vacation.

Jane Huth is a writer who lives in the north suburbs with her husband and three children.



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