- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 3, 2009

Extend a child’s Earth Day activities with Habitat Heroes (www.habitat heroes.com, free with registration), a global social-networking Web site designed for ecowarriors of all ages, but geared for the younger set.

Sharon Lowe, an Australian mother of three, worked with environmental experts to develop an online destination that would teach children about the Earth, conservation and preservation. The result is a top-notch playroom that serves as an effective information and teaching tool. It will work for toddlers to tweens, keeping them engaged and learning.

Looking like a Disney Playhouse wonderland, Habitat Heroes is a great starting place for fun mixed with meaningful discussions on a variety of environmental and eco subjects. As children grow with the game, they will walk away with environmental messages through the series of challenges.

After registering with the site, the player doesn’t choose just any avatar to play a series of ecology-based games and quizzes — he gets a creature on the endangered species list. For example, there are only 3,600 black rhinoceroses alive today, so only 3,600 black rhino avatars are available on Habitat Heroes. Once an animal is chosen, a fact box pops up, including animal habitat location, activities, food, weight, facts and extinction factors.

Children enter Habitat Heroes at the Waterhole where they then embark on a worldwide journey as they visit Africa, the Middle East, America, the Arctic, Australia, China and India. Each environment has two games, two quizzes, and fun facts and a quizmaster character to find. Answer the quizmaster’s question correctly and win a new inventory item — from a habitat enhancement to food.

Games require that players perform an action using the mouse or keypad. Game play may be too challenging for younger players, however having challenges at different skill levels allows the game to be intriguing to a larger audience, and to grow with young users.

Africa’s challenges include Rhino Rescue, in which players use the mouse to aim and shoot nets to capture poachers, or the timed Play Pumps Water Wheel challenge that requires players connect water pipe sections to bring water to a village.

Quizzes offer five multiple-choice questions that cover a wide variety of subjects, but match the environment the player is in. For example, when visiting the Play Pumps area, questions are about water, its importance and how there is really not enough of it in the world. Some disturbing facts are offered, such as the number of children who die due to lack of clean water, so parents may want to be ready to balance those answers with some positives.

At the end of any challenge, game or quiz, the player collects Creature Cash and some new eco facts. Creature Cash can be used to purchase clothes, food, new habitats and amenities to trick out a cool polar bear den.

Habitat Heroes also includes a chat area that parents must give permission for children to enter. The chat area is only open when site overseers are monitoring the environment, offering an extra bit of security.

There is a ton to learn on many different levels while playing Habitat Heroes. I learned one environmental challenge in Africa is caused when weathering and erosion cause rocks to disintegrate and decay, leaching harmful concentrations of minerals into the surrounding soil.

Areas I particularly liked included visiting India and seeing the different saris at the Sari Shanty and the Taj Mahal where I learned that India banned tiger hunting in 1970, launching Project Tiger in 1972 to protect its native Bengal tiger.

While traveling this virtual world, stop by Australia and visit the Underwater Camera Quest, created with the Australian Conservation Foundation. Here visitors choose one of the habitats found around Australia, from snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef to scuba diving under the sea.

Players study the guidebook to learn about animals in that habitat and then start swimming to find animals and take pictures, being careful not to run out of air.

Some of the games, such as Connectcatastrophe and the Sushi Adventures in China are hard. However there are plenty of games for the younger player, too, making Habitat Heroes a place for the young and young at heart to enjoy.

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