- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 8, 2000

In a world of ultraviolent video games, where dexterity of the thumb and index finger is infinitely more important than the flexing of the cerebrum, there must be a place for children and their parents to interact and actually learn something from that overpriced multimedia computer/ gaming system. Take a deep breath and enter the ROMper Room, where learning is a four-letter word cool.

The boy who befriended an alien, Max Blaster, returns to transform the rigors of numerical problems into fun through the latest Math Blaster (Knowledge Adventure, $29.99) software package.

Designed to help 8- to 9-year-olds learn basic math skills, the course work includes addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, as well as more complex areas including fractions, decimals, estimation and geometric figures.

The program uses colorful images, hummable songs and cartoon characters to teach more than 50 skills within an engaging storyline. Children can complete more than 2,000 problems and puzzles spread over 300 lessons.

The player must fight bugs that the evil Dr. Zero has let loose on the Omega Super Computer. He joins Max; G.C., his female alien buddy; and Mel, the robot dog, in using problem-solving techniques to battle the bugs, capture Dr. Zero, restore the computer and ultimately save the universe.

Players begin by choosing from four areas of the computer to start bug hunting. As children play, they earn "Smartpoints" from a rewards program that motivates them to keep working. They can win on-line prizes such as printable masks, bookmarks, coloring pages or card templates.

As children complete skill levels, they also earn enough points to download on-line games that take Math Blaster to a new level, that of exploring cyberspace.

The available on-line areas work seamlessly with the Math Blaster program and include a free four-month subscription to the Virtual Classroom, a learning community for 4- to 9-year-olds created by the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Children sign in, create an avatar (or virtual icon) for themselves and indicate their birthdate, favorite color, sports, foods and animals. The opening page provides tools such as a notebook for keeping track of thoughts and ideas, a log of cyber points earned and a link to the on-line learning environment where classes can be taken.

Users should be aware that to sign in and take advantage of the trial subscription, a credit card number is required.

The cost for additional classes following the four-month trial is $9.95 for two months of unlimited access, four months for $14.95 and six months for $19.95.

Math Blaster (Knowledge Adventure, $29.99). Hybrid for Macintosh and Windows 95/98 systems.

LittleLinguist (Neurosmith, $69) introduces infants to words associated with everyday items and animals, while exploring languages around the world.

The stand-alone product uses 15 child-size, colorful figures car, plane, boat, train, tree, house, pig, elephant, lion, dog, cat, bird, horse, cow and monkey which fit into the top of the unit and allow little ones to hone coordination, comprehension and listening skills.

For a parent tired of the electronic, scratchy and thin sounds that come from many electronic toys, LittleLinguist offers a superior, digital sound system that provides almost recording-quality audio.

As children learn to put the figures into the base, the LittleLinguist evolves and establishes new play patterns. Its response goes from simple object identification to presenting simple questions such as requesting the yellow lion or the blue boat.

Additionally, the product's reply to correct actions grows. LittleLinguist may start with a simple "thank you" when the child uses the correct figure. Then it will eventually answer in full sentences, telling the child, "Yes, that is the cat." LittleLinguist will also provide positive reinforcement with a brief light and music display.

Based on the belief that infants are "born ready and eager to learn new languages," LittleLinguist induces children to learn another dialect through its individual cartridges which range from English to Spanish, French, Japanese, German or Hebrew. Each offers the same patterned play modules.

As an added bonus, the characters can be used for a variety of imaginative play scenarios (like a visit to the popular Little People world) or as props when telling a story or reading a book.

My only complaint comes with a cheap mesh bag used to store and carry the figures. Considering the price, I would have expected a more advanced carrying case that would incorporate the language cartridges and the base as well.

LittleLinguist (Neurosmith, $69) includes one cartridge, a Parent Guide and 15 figures with mesh bag. Additional cartridges are available for $19.99 each. Requires four "C" size batteries.

ROMper Room is a column devoted to finding the best of multimedia "edutainment." Calls, letters or faxes about a particular column or suggestions for future columns are always welcome. Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send e-mail (joseph@twtmail.com).

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