- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 30, 2009

The online world of Wonder Rotunda (Wonder Rotunda Productions LLC, for Mac or PC, $45 for one year of unlimited use) invites children into a virtual theme park where the rides are lessons in fun and learning.

The Web site (www.wonderrotunda.com) features 15 cartoony adventures that take children 7 to 12 years old from the depths of the Great Barrier Reef to the moon on the Apollo 11 space mission.

Set on an Island in New York’s southern harbor, the park is enclosed like a giant, arid snow globe. Guided by the site’s mascot, Mr. Wonder, children can opt to explore one of four pavilions set around the “Make A Difference” area in the park’s center.

Each pavilion features different adventures, including visiting the polar ice cap, the Great Barrier Reef, tropical rain forests, Kangaroo Island in Australia and the Serengeti migration. Each adventure offers information about protecting the diverse environments and the animals that inhabit them.

For example, journeying beneath the oceans for the Great Barrier Reef, players, represented by customizable avatars, jump on a seaplane with Mr. Wonder to fly down under. During the journey, a guide provides information on reefs, where they are located and what they are made of.

In preparation for the dive, Mr. Wonder goes through a series of do’s and don’ts, including explaining that coral, a living animal habitat, is fragile and should not be touched or stood on. The message is the same for all adventures: Look and take pictures but do not touch or interfere with the animals or the environment.

Once underwater, an adventure journal pops up to show a list of more than a dozen animals, coral growths and phenomena that might be seen. As journal items appear, the page opens to a brief text description and some interesting facts on the experience.

Some adventures have a social studies theme, including the American government adventure, which takes youngsters on a trip through the District, where they meet a variety of political leaders and learn about their roles in government. For healthy lifestyle and diet choices, a stop by the Healthy Eating Super-Coaster focuses on nutrients and food groups, while the digestive system adventure teaches about what happens to the foods we eat. For an educational journey in economics, visit “You’re in Business,” an adventure in running a smoothie stand.

The Apollo mission is extremely interesting. It takes virtual astronauts through liftoff, orbiting Earth, rocket separation, trajectory, landing on the moon and the return journey. During the journey, children collect journal information on the solar system and individual planets, black holes and meteor fields.

At the center of the park is the “Make A Difference” roller coaster, which takes children on a virtual Space Mountain-like ride where the messages from the 15 adventures are repeated along with a list of ways a child can help, such as turning off water and lights when they’re not in use.

Each adventure module has been designed to encourage a child’s interest. While a player may just enjoy that adventure’s 15- to 20-minute experience, for the child who wants to learn more about space or the human body or exploration, the site offers a robust list of resources to help them find more information and continue the learning process.

Adding a game-play element to the Wonder Rotunda, players must be sure to monitor their avatar’s statistics, especially the health monitor. As players complete adventures they earn Wonder Dollars, which are used to purchase foods. As in a real park, there are healthy and not-so-healthy choices.

In addition to food, those Wonder Dollars can be used to purchase a blimp that will display a message that can be chosen from a message board or created by the player. While other players will be able to see your blimp, Wonder Rotunda is not a social environment and there are no chat rooms or ways to interact with others in the park.

One unique aspect of the Wonder Rotunda is that when choosing an avatar you can also choose a pal to take on your trips. This makes the site a great piece of lapware as little Suzy can create her avatar and then create one for Mom or Dad as well.

At a subscription price of $45 for one year, I would hope to see the environment grow in both the number of adventures and the depth of material.

I found it frustrating that you could not stop an adventure and later return to that spot to pick up the adventure. Additionally, you need to go through the entire introduction, including the avatar steps, on each visit.

In each user’s menu area they can see their energy meter, access a terms glossary and see how many Wonder Dollars they have earned. However, the inability to access journals from completed adventures on the menu is a missed opportunity. A copy of your child’s adventure journal, which displays a checklist of items they were exposed to on the journey, can be found in the Tree Pods, but that journal cannot be opened to review information from that journey.

As a home-schooling parent, I found this disappointing as I could not sit down with my fourth-grader and discuss what he learned and guide his further learning. I would need to sit and experience the adventure with him, taking notes.

The child should be able to not only access the guidebooks for refresher learning, but also be able to add notes, links and information they have learned outside of Wonder Rotunda. By offering this interactive learning element, the Wonder Rotunda would more fully meet its goal of sparking a child’s imagination and desire to learn.

As it is now, learning is passive and, while the adventures are fun, they do not offer a lot of reasons to return to do them over.

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