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PRIVATE LIVES : FAMILY : Navigating the Kids' Lane on the Infobahn : Take heart, parents. With a little thought, preparation and guidance, your children can find all kinds of fun beyond the Internet's seemingly dour, imposing facade.

October 16, 1994|Anne Gregor | Anne Gregor, a free-lance writer, can be reached via e-mail at annegreg@netcom.com

Despite oodles of techno-hype about the Internet, the vaunted, globe-circling network of thousands of thinking machines looms with all the kid-friendly appeal of, say, the British Museum or the dowdy entrance of the old Smithsonian Industrial Hall.

Take heart. Beyond its dour facade, the Internet is a great place for kids to play. Like any museum or cultural program, it demands parental thought, preparation and guidance. For the effort, the Internet offers an unusual return: It is a growing, changing place where kids can explore the world from the safety of their seats.

Furthermore, new technology is rapidly spiffying up the Internet with pictures, video and animation, a step that will make it appealing to younger and younger children.

As a play space, "the Internet is unique," says Kathy Rutkowski, editor and publisher of the Virginia-based NetTeach News. It is blind to age, background, physical characteristics and geography.

Rutkowski tells of an American teen who posed questions through the Internet to a scientist who turned out to be a Nobel laureate. With the scientist's help, the student built a project that won first prize at his science fair. The scientist later said he had presumed that the teen-ager was a college student and corresponded with him accordingly. Oh, yes, the student was American. The scientist was in Europe. Such is the stretch of the Internet, which at its best can magically vaporize time and distance.

Southern California teen Isaac Dziga compares the Internet to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of human relationships.

"People judge you on your character and what you write, rather than what you look like," says the self-assured 13-year-old and self-professed computer nerd. An Internet surfer for two years, Dziga hosts a kids conference at an Internet site. He plays games, conducts research for academics and simply chats.

What's open for the Isaac Dzigas of this world are videos, sounds, images, art, communities of interest in reading, views of rain forests and even programs in virtual reality. Travelers on the 'net can download an hour-old research report from Antarctica, study photographs of the Shoemaker-Levy comet crashing into Jupiter or trace the movement of a hurricane across the Caribbean Sea.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory are great sources. Log on to one of their sites and become the owner of a digitized album of space photographs of the sun, planets, Earth and outer space as snapped by the Mariner and Viking spacecraft and the repaired Hubble Space Telescope. Take an on-line tour of basic space facts and read about the latest "hot topics," biographies of the crew of the Discoverer or, for a little humor, an analysis of the scientific possibilities of all those weird "Star Trek" imaginings. Combine the "Star Trek" speculation with a few pictures of the Enterprise and crew, and you have a fun school report.

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No subject is untouched on the Internet. A statewide exhibit of Ansel Adams' work coordinated by UC Irvine at the University of California campuses is available on-line, with elegant digitized black-and-white photographs that can spruce up letters to friends. The dozens of photographs are accompanied by an essay about Adams, a biography and a bibliography.

Want pictures of airplanes, steam engines, famous moments in history and nature photographs? Head to the Smithsonian, where you can also read about its natural history expeditions.

Or, touring at random, a network-wide search for material about the environment will light on thousands of information sources, including Environmental Protection Agency reports and countless university studies about ecology.

Many sites are devoted to children, such as KIDLINK, based at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Children ages 10-15 send each other e-mail, work on joint projects, hold on-line conferences, compile newspapers and exchange artworks. A question to askERIC, a network staffed by volunteers who offer expert help in almost any subject, can elicit a 10-page response with lists of Internet and library resources.

The Internet is more than a one-way street. This is an encyclopedia you can talk back to, a museum in which you can place your own exhibits, a gallery wall you can paint on.

Kids can contribute to discussion groups, compare information with contemporaries through a score of educational networks and, with the right technical equipment, send their art and photographs to be shared by others. Children in Sydney, Australia, kept their American friends informed daily of the fire maelstrom in that city's suburbs. An American child used the information from her Australian friends to write a prizewinning essay.

That's what's there. Then there's the cumbersome reality of travel. This is, after all, the Steam Age on the Internet, where, at first glance, commands appear daunting--rows of indecipherable symbols barely related to English. But if it seems like code, it is conquerable code. Think of it as a puzzle--kids love this--and attack it with time and patience.

In the meantime, the contents are rewarding. Colleges and computer consultants are starting to offer introductory tutorials for a small fee. San Francisco-based publisher Sybex will release a children's guide to the Internet in the new year.

Soon enough you and your children will motor around the glories of Archie, Veronica and Jughead (those are Internet search commands) with the same pleasure with which we once read the comic strip, while your pizza--ordered someday through the Internet--is driven across town at a snail's pace.

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