- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 12, 2003

The Smithsonian Institution has been a repository of the world's science and history for more than 150 years, thanks to British scientist James Smithson, who willed his estate to America's capital and decreed that it be set up as "an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men."

With 16 museums' worth of learning, the Smithsonian offers a wide range of educational opportunities to its visitors. It has a robust presence on the Web, and just one of its ancillary cyber-offerings has been sparking children's imaginations for the past eight years, using resources culled from the institution's many specimens and publications.

Kids' Castle

Site address: www.kidscastle.org


Kids' Castle is maintained by the 31-year-old Smithsonian magazine, based in the District.

Creator quotable:

"Our goal was to create a safe, educational, free and fun place for kids on the World Wide Web. Our mission is to extend the Smithsonian's educational outreach to children, encouraging them to think creatively about a wide range of topics from nature, science and travel to history, sports and the arts," says Michelle McMahon, Web director.

Word from the Webwise:

Geared toward 8- to 14-year-olds, the site shines as a spot where they can learn a little bit about almost anything. After a quick look at the very yellow front page, visitors will find eight children, named after famous people, who will introduce them to the site's main sections.

Eddie, as in Thomas Edison, covers Science; Jane, the Jane Goodall admirer, looks at Animals; Aron, as in Elvis Aron Presley, hosts Personalities; Robinson, named for Jackie Robinson, talks Sports; Georgia, for Georgia O'Keeffe, handles Arts; Jacques, for Jacques Cousteau, goes Worldwide; little Amelia, as in Amelia Earhart, discusses Air and Space; and Leon, short for Napoleon, covers History.

Each section displays the new material that has been added and uses scrolling link lists to display features, facts and photos. Message boards are filled with relevant topics for children to vent a bit.

For example, a click to Aron's area reveals 14 articles, including a look at writers J.R.R. Tolkien and H.G. Wells, eight photos with facts about Sir Paul McCartney and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, and some opinions on the latest "Lord of the Rings" movie and favorite comics.

Leon, the junior historian, offers children a great article on the dangerous and deadly attempts to stop Germany from building an atomic bomb during World War II. Lots of detail on the countries and men involved as well as the intricate plans that worked and failed shed a bright light on this scary part of history.

Overall, I enjoyed the diversity available at Kids' Castle, which complements the easy-to-comprehend text with colorful art elements and houses information on everything from chicken leather (skins of chickens tanned to look like leather) to how ping-pong led to a diplomatic breakthrough between China and the United States to the problems with space trash.

Ease of use:

Almost any speed Internet connection and computer with browser will allow visitors to peruse the simply designed site. The search engine and the drop-down list of sections, found at the bottom of every page, make navigating Kids' Castle a breeze.

Don't miss:

Usually, I would jump to the Games area, but the paltry selection a single challenge of concentration did not inspire. The Castle Club, however, housed a bit more fun with a nice selection of James Reynolds' Matt and Maynerd comic strips about two adventuresome boys, and two calendars featuring crazy holidays and days dedicated to food who knew Jan. 12 is national marzipan day?

Family activity:

Sitting on the opening page during my review of the site was a link to instructions on building a "Thrilling Thermometer." After reading an introduction to the device and the simple directions, the whole clan can help gather a clear plastic bottle, some water, food coloring and a clear straw to assemble the magical temperature gauge.

Cyber-sitter synopsis:

The site loves to entertain with knowledge, but each page also contains outside links with no warning to parents or visitors that they are leaving the Kids' Castle. So, despite the many hours of self-directed learning presented, parents should keep an eye on junior as his peepers and mouse scour the many features.

Overall grade: B+

Remember: The information on the Internet is changing constantly. Please verify the advice on the sites before you act to be sure it's accurate and updated. Health sites, for example, should be discussed with your own physician.

Have a cool site for the family? Write to Joseph Szadkowski at Webwise, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send an e-mail message ([email protected]).

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