- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 26, 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.

Smart Kids: Touring the Planets (Montparnasse Multimedia, $29.95) challenges children, 8 years and older, to search the stars for answers about space, celestial bodies and their home planet.

The "Smart Kids" title is the latest release by the superb Parisian team of designers at Montparnasse Multimedia. Developed with the participation of the French Department of Education, Research and Technology and the French National Center for Cinematography, it encourages exploration, discovery and thinking in a nonlinear way.

Working through "Touring the Planets," students are introduced to 30 scientific disciplines through 100 interactive experiments, some of which are conducted off-screen and require the use of real objects, such as string, balls and a light source.

Navigation begins with the summary page, where students enlist the help of six "smart kids" to discover the what, when, why, who and where of the universe.

Each of these colorful characters has its own path of learning to help guide children. For example, the little boy Sylvester the guide for "Mechanics" looks at subjects such as rocket engines and electric motors and answers questions such as, "Does the sun have a motor?"

Each experiment takes place in three steps. A question is asked, then the experiment is explained and tackled, and finally, the student learns how the experiment applies to everyday life. Junior scientists move through the stages of experiments by passing through "holes" on every screen. Behind each hole is an underlying color or object that is clicked on to reveal new activities. This unusual navigation system keeps the child wondering what might be found next.

I really enjoyed "Finding Your Way Around the Heavens," part of Maria's exploration learning path. This module helps answer the question, "How can you locate a specific star in the night sky?" The on-screen test highlights a body of stars in motion, demonstrating how the Earth moves beneath the celestial vault as the planet rotates around the sun.

Students are asked to click on one star and then attempt to find it again after the body of stars rotates. The experiment then has the user connect stars, like a heavenly dot-to-dot, to create a constellation. Now when the stars change place, demonstrating the Earth's rotation, one star among many can be found and tracked easily.

This experiment also demonstrates how early navigators used constellations to identify stars.

Other program features include a "clipboard" for note-taking, an on-screen paint-and-draw program and fact sheets on each concept for further investigation.

Once they are familiar with the program, students can go back through their list of favorites or use a keyword search to revisit specific information. Adaptability also plays a key role in this fantastic program. Students and teachers can program a learning path that will mimic schoolroom studies or specific interests.

Smart Kids: Touring the Planets (Montparnasse Multimedia, $29.95). Hybrid for Macintosh and Windows systems.

More cute puppies than Cruella DeVil can throw a stick at greet 4- to 8-year-olds in 102 Dalmatians: Activity Center (Disney Interactive, $29.98).

Based on the live-action film, this cartoon romp around the world combines numerous activities with the task of uncovering the top dog and locating missing puppies.

The adventure starts in London, where a tour guide explains how to explore the city to find activities such as feeding puppies in Cruella's London mansion or creating art masterpieces in the museum.

Navigation begins with a city map on which recognizable landmarks pop up in three-dimensional images when the mouse passes over them. When some landmarks are clicked, things to do are revealed. Others provide a snippet of information about places such as Big Ben or Buckingham Palace. When clicking on the pound, children can "Adopt a Puppy." This furry friend becomes a virtual companion during travels and will lead the visitor on walks through six international parks downloaded from the related Web site.

After exploring London, children take a virtual trip by train to Paris, where they can use intuition to identify the "top dog" within "Operation: Dalmatian" a Clue-like logic game. Clues are combined with breed facts to help identify which pooch is the top dog that will help lead players to the abducted puppies.

A final challenge on the title, "Verdogo" offers a difficult arcade-style game in which players guide the puppy Oddball through a floating maze to help rescue his friends.

102 Dalmatians: Activity Center (Disney Interactive, $29.98). Hybrid for Macintosh and Windows systems.

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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