I do my Christmas shopping all year, so my gift drawer is usually overflowing by December. But despite my best planning, I always need a last-minute gift. My kids never tire of playing with the computer, so I tuck a few CD-ROMs in the drawer, just in case. Sometimes I hold onto the programs until after Christmas, when my kids are tired of playing with their new toys and need some quiet time. Here are a few CD-ROMS that will engage your kids and make great holiday gifts.
TONKA TOWN, $19.99, www.atarikids.com; ages 3-6.
I’m sometimes skeptical about programs that are tie-ins to toys, but Tonka Town is a terrific program to get preschoolers started who are eager to play with computers (don’t even think of letting a 2-year-old play with a computer; they’ve got better things to do). Kids select a truck and then drive around Tonka Town helping friendly buildings with various tasks, such as collecting missing hamburgers for Fast Frank’s Drive-Thru or catching building materials that Chris Crane can’t hang onto because he’s got the hiccups.
It’s fun to drive through the deserted Tonka Town (where’s the traffic?) and collect things such as I-beams for the construction site or mops for the car wash. A big red arrow guides your way, but you had better be a good driver because the stop signs and buildings start squawking if you bump into them. The tasks are challenging for a 3-year-old, but still fun for a 6-year-old. Even my 8-year-old (formerly a big Tonka truck fan) enjoyed playing this game.
BARBIE AS THE PRINCESS AND THE PAUPER, $29.99, www.vugames.com, (800) 545-7677; ages 5 and up.
Little girls and princesses are a winning combination. Add in Barbie, lots of jewels, flowers and pretty pastel-colored dresses, and girls are hooked. My 5-year-old plays for hours with this CD-ROM, although she sometimes needs help from her older brother navigating through the kingdom. In this latest Barbie-as-somebody program, Barbie plays both Princess Anneliese and Erika. Erika must prove she’s worthy of being crowned queen. Anneliese helps Erika do worthy deeds such as retrieve a lost kitten, create a stained-glass window for the castle, plant flowers in the garden and bake a cake for the fruit seller. The game is sweet, moves slowly and offers plenty of help, but even so, my daughter became frustrated at times. A slightly older child may find the game easier. The game’s premise is not violent or sexist and doesn’t involve makeup or clothes. Besides, with Martha Stewart in jail, someone’s got to do the decorating.)
ENCARTA REFERENCE LIBRARY PREMIUM 2005, $74.95, www.microsoft.com, (800) 545-7677; ages 7 and up.
This latest incarnation of the Encarta Reference Library features a new encyclopedia-within-an-encyclopedia designed for kids as young as 7. With snazzy kid-oriented graphics, Encarta Kids features 10 subject areas, including games, where kids can play or do research or simply follow their curiosity. My 8-year-old went right to the games area, which he mostly enjoyed. All the games involve matching pictures to names, which is challenging at first, but after a while becomes repetitive. My son liked the scary and yucky photos, but I wasn’t sure he needed to see a photo of an open mouth with cavities in it or a tapeworm. He likes bugs, though, and there are plenty of photos of those. He also liked the brief videos about jugglers, a flying squirrel and a 100-year-old film of immigrants landing at Ellis Island.
The subject areas cover general topics, such as science, people, animals, history, arts and sports. The articles are brief, and in larger type than in the regular Encarta, but even so, my son had difficulty reading through the entries, even on subjects such as soccer, that interested him. Most first-graders will not get through the entries or games without help, but a strong reader may be able to manage.
If your computer didn’t come with Encarta, I definitely recommend getting this package, which includes a dictionary, online homework help, an atlas and Encarta Africana. Encarta Kids is a great addition to an already great program, but the $70 price is fairly high if all you want is the kids’ encyclopedia. Since many PCs come with basic Encarta (mine did), I wish Encarta Kids were available as a separate program.
JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, $19.99, www.viva-media.com, (212) 431-4420; ages 10 and up.
If your children have started down the slippery slope of video games, this one is different. First, it’s nonviolent and nonsexist (the hero is female). Second, it requires thinking and using knowledge to finish the game. Similar to earlier science-based science-fiction games in the series, “Physicus” and “Chemicus,” “Journey to the Center of the Earth” is a mystery adventure that requires a lot of brainpower and puzzle-solving to complete. Instead of playing as yourself, as in the earlier games, players guide Ariana, a freelance photographer, around a secret world she’s discovered deep in the Earth. Ariana’s helicopter is crushed by falling boulders when she lands in Iceland to take nature photos. Walking around the barren landscape, she suddenly falls through the Earth’s surface and wakes up on a beach with a strangely dressed man (he looks sort of like a pirate) looking down on her. As in the earlier games, Ariana gets help from the computer she rescues from the helicopter along with useful items, such as a helicopter blade, knife and first aid kit. She also picks up other objects along the way, such as a set of seals that are later used to open a door and a conch shell that she makes into a horn.
I found this game more fun, although no easier, than “Physicus” and “Chemicus,” which require specific knowledge of physics and chemistry. It can become tedious and frustrating (at least to me) if you miss a tiny detail or fail to pick up a clue. The graphics are wonderful, although walking through the fantastic landscapes (such as a forest made of giant mushrooms) can be rather slow going. The puzzles are very tough, although not impossible if you persevere, retrace your steps, keep looking around the eerily rusty landscapes, and try again and again. The earlier games were marketed for boys, but “Journey to the Center of the Earth” should please clever boys and girls who like science fiction and enjoy an adventure that requires using logic, knowledge and common sense to complete intricate puzzles and solve the mystery.
Jane Huth lives in the north suburbs with her husband, a second-grader, a kindergartner and a newborn.