Ahhh, at last: Summer. Beaches, sunglasses, flip flops, sunscreen, bathing suits, sprinklers, wading pools, shorts, T-shirts, summer camp. After the initial thrill of freedom from school-year routine comes the inevitable "There’s nothing to do." "It’s hot." "I’m bored."
Whenever I hear that dreaded b-word, I’m tempted to shriek, "What! You’ve got 10,000 books, a million toys and a billion computer games. How can you possibly be bored?"
Of course, it’s novelty kids want, along with parental attention, which is naturally in short supply the moment boredom sets in. So, to maintain peace and sanity, here are suggestions for good computer games to hide until restlessness sets in.
MORTON SUBOTNICK’S HEARING MUSIC, $29.99, (877) 848-6520, www.viva-media.com; ages 4 and up.
Hearing Music offers painless ear training so kids can identify different pitches, melodies and rhythms in preparation for learning classical music. There are three games: matching, reading and ordering. Each game has many levels, so the games get progressively more difficult as kids’ skills increase. In the reading game, kids who don’t yet read musical notation notice that the notes go up for higher pitches and down for lower ones. The notation gets complicated at the advanced level, which is for kids who know how to read music.
I’m still struggling with major and minor chords, but my kids’ tender ears got the differences easily in the matching section, where kids compare three musical phrases and must pick out two that are the same. The ordering game is the toughest. Kids hear a short piece of music then put the four phrases into the correct order. The sample can be replayed as many times as you need to figure out the correct order.
I think this software is great, with its lovely music, gentle tone and sweet, simple graphics. It’s perfect for the youngest kids who are just learning about music and computers.
MORTON SUBOTNICK’S MAKING MORE MUSIC, $29.99, (877) 848-6520, www.viva-media.
com; ages 4 and up.
This game makes music theory kid friendly. Making More Music (a sequel to the equally good Making Music) is aimed at children just starting to learn. By playing simple games, kids learn to identify rhythms and melodies and match similar musical forms. In the theme and variation section, kids start with a theme ("Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star") and build a musical composition by adding variations on that theme. The tricky part is learning all the composition tools. Once they’ve mastered these, kids can create their own compositions using simple musical notation. With practice kids can develop skills that allow them to create fairly advanced compositions.
Kids save their work in composition books that can be printed out. I like the fact that kids can write music, listen to it, erase it and try again. They can "play" their compositions on a variety of instruments as well. But I think children need to have had some music instruction and know how to read music to truly take advantage of this program.
LEARN TO PLAY CHESS WITH FRITZ & CHESSTER 2, $29.99, (877) 848-6520, www.viva-media.com; ages 8 and up.
If you have a child who already plays chess, introduce her to Fritz and Chesster. The first title in the series is for absolute beginners. Learn to Play Chess 2 is for kids who have already started to play. It makes a complicated game fun to learn by turning it into an adventure.
In this case, Chesster the Cheshire Rat, the greatest chess player in the land, has been kidnapped by the evil King Black. Prince Fritz and his cousin Bianca must rescue Chesster before it’s too late! They set off for King Black’s castle, but at every turn in the road they encounter a challenge that teaches them a new chess skill.
The games, all based on chess moves and strategies, are interesting and fun. To find the path through Soggy Sock Swamp, Fritz and Bianca must understand the letters and numbers that identify the squares on a chess board. The Slice the Cake game helps players learn to attack in two different directions, the way the bishop and queen chess pieces move.
Once players enter King Black’s castle, they find machines, such as the Check-O-Matic, where they can practice getting their king out of check. Chess is an important game for kids because it requires them to think in many directions at once, plan several moves ahead and adjust their behavior to achieve the outcome they want. The game offers many levels and much practice time, so even advanced players will find it challenging.
ZOO TYCOON 2, $39.99, (888) 218-5617, www.microsoft.
com; ages 6 and up.
In Zoo Tycoon 2, players must build attractive exhibits to lure visitors, who will pay money to see the beautiful, exotic animals in their faux habitats. But that’s only the beginning. Players must manage that money, fix broken cages and equipment, hire and pay employees, acquire animals, take care of sick animals, sell food and souvenirs and find a place to put all that poop. Don’t forget restrooms and benches and, most important, players must keep the animals happy so they start reproducing.
I’ve never played Zoo Tycoon before, so I can’t compare it to the earlier version. But this game is a lot of fun, as well as hard (virtual) work. My 8-year-old was interested in it, but the directions were too hard for him to follow without help. Older kids and adults will enjoy putting together their zoos and watching them succeed or fail depending upon chance and their managerial skills.
If you’re eager to get started, there’s a useful tutorial that walks you through the basics of zoo building. But the smart way to build a zoo is to stop and strategize. A lengthy booklet includes pointers for creating your zoo, so you don’t buy an animal you can’t afford to maintain or build a zoo that’s too small to be profitable. As you increase your skills, there are three modes of play in which you create bigger, more complex zoos. Once you’ve built a zoo, you can play in "guest mode," and walk through the zoo to see how it actually works, then make changes before the zoo opens.
I like the fact that this is a real-world game about a place kids can relate to. It helps kids understand how marketing is used to manipulate people into spending money. For example, zoo owners learn to place ATMs and gift shops in close proximity to encourage people to spend money (on stuff they don’t need). The best exhibits are placed at the far ends of the zoo so visitors must pass all those food stands and gift shops and spend more money along the way.
There’s also an educational component to the game. The success of the zoo depends partly upon creating educational exhibits, where guests can learn about the animals’ behavior and their natural habitats.
Great zoos attract guests who bring money and make donations. If you do it right, the animals will be healthy and happy and the zoo will become famous, win awards and keep growing. Bad management means sick animals and fewer guests, leading to bankruptcy. The best zoo tycoons will release their some of their animals back into the wild, where they ought to be in the first place.
Jane Huth lives in the north suburbs with her husband, a second-grader, a kindergartner and a baby.