- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2009

In Didi & Ditto: Preschool Mother Nature’s Visit (for Windows and Mac from Kutoka Interactive, $19.99) the beavers are back to provide plenty of learning for kids ages 2 to 4, but more importantly, create an environment for parent and child to engage in a narrative that teaches lessons beyond early reading, writing or math.

This is a beautifully built animated game that features two slightly zany, eager-to-please creatures who are getting everything ready for a visit from a regal guest — Mother Nature — to Smart Valley.

Smart Valley, in and of itself, is a fun, colorful world with lush trees and green places, bright primary colors and soothing pastels, and lots and lots of places to explore. The action is fluid and easy to click and follow, with plenty of pauses in the dialogue to encourage parent-child conversations.

Children quickly make decisions as they first “vote” for who they would want for mayor, either Zolt, the wily wolf, or Hootdini, a wise young owl. Once the decision is made (Hootdini always wins), the child decides whether to play with the energetic red beaver, Didi, or hang out with her equally eager counterpart, the blue Ditto.

Children then decide which of eight environments they will visit: meadow, mountaintop, lagoon, forest, lake, blue-bear’s cave, swamp or farm. Each area features two core games where children must help one of Smart Valley’s many characters fix a musical instrument or play a skill game.

In fixing the instrument, the child must pick items to rebuild a broken flute, harp, drum or other instrument. The child gets both a visual clue — a picture of the instrument — and, if the item is not found on the first try, audible clues that describe color, pattern or size of the object. Once the instrument is rebuilt, Hootdini comes and whisks it away, to be used for Mother Nature’s welcome gala.

Children also can play games that result in a “food prize” to be used for the gala. My first stop was in the meadow where I had to catch and sort items dropped from the upper branches of a tree.

Games teach a variety of pre-K curriculum skills including letter recognition, numbers, early counting, shape identification, and art-music skills, such as colors, sounds and cheerful singalong songs. Other tasks teach early science lessons, including recognizing animals, environmental awareness and healthy food choices.

Each of the games offers three levels of playing difficulty. For example, when building an instrument on level one, the items fit onto a picture. On levels two and three, the child studies a picture for a moment before trying to pick out the items that would rebuild the instrument.

Players must collect a total of eight musical instruments and eight food items for the party to take place.

Each of the eight environments offers a series of similar activities, allowing repetition to strengthen skills; however there are many clickable places to keep them from being boring.

Some of the click-and-play activities have children making choices for the right object — for example the choice between a napkin and a sponge — to wipe up a juice spill. Adding value is the environmental message that a sponge is the better choice because it can be reused while a napkin would just be thrown away.

Other play spots have an energized fly zooming onto the screen to leave an alphabet letter made of smoke that the child can “trace with your finger before it disappears.”

There are many funny animations, including a chicken tossing a half-eaten ear of corn down only to get bonked on the head by a passing bee as a reminder to throw his garbage out into the right basket.

Once all the food and instrument prizes are collected, a cute animated movie shows how one of the characters tried to destroy the party only to learn a valuable lesson.

Joseph Szadkowski’s ROMper Room is a place for children and their parents to escape the world of ultraviolent video games and use that gaming system or computer to actually learn something while having fun. Send e-mail to [email protected]

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