COMPUTING: Girl-friendly software both pretty and purposeful

By Jane Huth

My first try at gender-neutral parenting a few years ago was giving a doll to my then 1-year-old son. He tossed the doll on the floor and never looked at it again. That same doll now is lovingly wrapped in blankets, burped, cuddled and put to bed by my 4-year-old daughter, the same daughter who demanded a pretty princess party for her birthday.

While I’m still trying to sort out what is innate and what is learned in girls and boys, I’ve learned to let go of my notions that girls and boys would be the same if only we raised them equally. Reluctantly, I’ve allowed my son to play with warring Bionicles and my daughter with princess Barbies.

That said, I have mixed feelings about software designed for girls because so much of it is about hair, makeup and clothing, encouraging girls to value themselves based on how they look. (My 4-year-old already asks me if she looks pretty. I hate that.) Here are a few nice programs for girls that are simply fun and entertaining.

KELLY CLUB PET PARADE, $29.99,, (800) 545-7677; ages 3-5. My 4-year-old loves this CD-ROM, which makes sense since it’s aimed squarely at girls her age who love dolls, animals, flowers, jewels and anything that’s pretty and pink. It’s basically a digital way to play with dolls and stuffed animals, but it’s cute. Players help Kelly and her friends prepare their animals for a pet parade by decorating floats, teaching the animals tricks, grooming them and selecting outfits for the girls and one boy. Teaching the animals tricks involves playing simple games like kicking a beach ball or catching sticks. Players decorate the floats with hearts, flowers, stars and other glittery, girly things. I wasn’t crazy about the toenail painting activity (why encourage makeup?) on Emi the elephant, but it’s a small complaint about a game that’s just right for little girls.

POWERPUFF GIRLS: MOJO’S CLONE ZONE, $19.95,, (510) 972-2101; ages 6-10. If your child can’t get enough of the Powerpuff Girls, hand her this CD-ROM, but don’t mention that she’ll learn spelling, math and other skills while playing. Bubbles, Blossom and Buttercup must save Townsville from the diabolical Mojo Jojo, who’s created evil robot clones to throw trash, disconnect cell phone towers and destroy the sewers. Players spell words, solve simple equations, figure out directions and match shapes in five games that adjust to the child’s skill level. (Boys will enjoy this game too.) The games are fun and become quite difficult at the hardest level. As they play, players also earn printable pages, such as dot-to-dot puzzles, word games and other activities and are enjoyable and educational. (But don’t tell her it’s good for her!)

BARBIE EXPLORER, Windows only, $20,, (800) 545-7677, ages 6-up. I’m no great fan of action games, but I like this one if only because the heroine is, just that, a heroine. Normally decked out in frou-frou outfits, tiaras and outrageous hair, Barbie in this game wears shorts and sensible shoes with her hair pulled back in a tidy ponytail. And she’s an explorer, searching exotic locales like the African rain forest, Egypt and Tibet, for the missing pieces of a mystic mirror. This is a typical action game (my son is crazy about them, but they all seem the same to me), where Barbie chases down seemingly endless paths, jumping, climbing or rolling under obstacles, avoiding bad guys and collecting jewels, hearts or other items she’ll need later in the game. It’s an Indiana-Jones-type treasure hunt, which should please both boys and girls. I found Barbie’s long-legged jog a bit, well, girly, but the game is a pleasant way to while away the time. And if it sends girls the message that there’s more to life–and Barbie–than clothes, hair and makeup, that’s great.

IT’S MY DIARY, $29.95,, (443) 838-1826; ages 8-16. My brother used a hairpin to open the rickety lock on my green leatherette diary, but brothers will have a tougher time breaking into It’s My Diary, which uses an encoded password. Girls can attach secret e-mail messages, exciting video of homecoming or their science experiment, MP3 files, photos of their heartthrob, Web pages and any other electronic files to their private entries in It’s My Diary. The simple-to-use diary and scrapbook program is equipped with pleasant graphics and a basic word processor. Girls type in the date and click on a file heading (relationships, school, sports) then write their innermost secrets. More than one diarist can use the program, and her thoughts are secure from other users. My concern about this and all diary programs is that diaries are private, but computers should be out in the open (not in kids’ bedrooms) where parents can keep an eye on what their kids are doing on the computer.

Jane Huth is a freelance writer living in the north suburbs with her husband, one preschooler and one kindergartner.

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