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2 Picks to Nurture Kids' Natural Curiosity

February 08, 2001|JINNY GUDMUNDSEN |

Most children love nature. Kids can learn about animals and insects with two software titles that feature characters from popular PBS television shows.

Zoboomafoo, the animated star of the television show bearing his name, along with the highly energetic naturalist brothers Chris and Martin Kratt, teaches children about baby animals in "Zoboomafoo: Animal Kids."

Ms. Frizzle and her students, from the popular "The Magic School Bus" television and book series, explore the world of insects in "The Magic School Bus Explores Bugs."

Here's a closer look at what each software title has to offer.

'Zoboomafoo: Animal Kids'

This CD-ROM has the look and feel of the "Zoboomafoo" television show. Children join Zoboo, as the talking lemur is known, and humans Chris and Martin Kratt on an adventure in animal baby-sitting. Chris, Martin and Zoboo return from an outing to discover a baby ring-tailed lemur wandering in their outpost building. As they start to care for the baby lemur, more and more baby animals arrive. Players help Chris, Martin and Zoboo care for the animals and, in the process, explore 11 different activities.

Four of the activities are arcade-style games that are fun but not very educational. The remaining seven activities cover a variety of skills, including following directions, memory challenges and creativity.

The video footage used in this CD-ROM is spectacular. Children get to be up close to baby lynxes, wolves, bears, bobcats and other wild animals. Chris and Martin have such a love of nature that their enthusiasm seems to jump out of the computer and encompass young players.

By playing with and listening to Chris, Martin and Zoboo, children can learn a lot about nature and wild animals.

"Zoboomafoo: Animal Kids" is not without some significant flaws. Top-notch software puts the children in control of their exploration. "Zoboomafoo" fails to allow children any control because it presents a story in a linear fashion that breaks at predetermined times to incorporate the 11 activities.

Also, though most of the activities have three levels of difficulty, children can't control which level they play. They start the story on one level and must go through the story again to try the activities on another level.

This static story line also affects a child's desire to play this title repeatedly. But when a child does play this software, it is a delightful experience and clearly fosters a love of, and interest in, nature.

'The Magic School Bus Explores Bugs'

In Ms. Frizzle's classroom, students discover that four insects have escaped from the classroom terrariums. Ms. Frizzle's solution: "To the bus--it's field trip time!"

In typical "Magic School Bus" style, the students and the player climb on the bus as it changes into a bug. Players decide which of four habitats to visit in search of the missing insects--the jungle, a freshwater pond, a forest or a meadow.

At each habitat, players exit the bus to explore the lushly painted environment and learn about the bugs that live there. There are 85 bugs in all, each habitat housing 20 to 25 different insects. Each habitat also showcases games and activities and presents two multimedia reports. Additional games and activities are available at the back of the bus.

The main activity in the software is searching for the missing bugs. Ms. Frizzle provides clues on her clipboard. Players listen to the clues and then click on the bugs in each habitat to obtain information.

When the players have obtained enough information to deduce which insect is the missing bug, they activate the insect net tool and capture it. Kid testers greatly enjoyed going on these hunts. Unfortunately, only eight of the 85 bugs get lost, so by the time kids have played the game twice, the missing bugs repeat.

There are many other games to play within this software. Some explore facts about bugs; others investigate the insect food chain.

"The Magic School Bus Explores Bugs" is packed with information, and the games are hands-on, so children are in control of their learning. Our kid testers were engaged throughout their time using the software and were captivated by close-up photography.

The one weakness of this title is the limited number of bugs that go missing. Kids loved searching for these lost bugs. Since the only way to locate a missing bug was to learn more about it, it's a shame that the programmers allowed children to hunt for only eight of them. If allowed, children would have gone buggy with this activity and could have learned so much more.


Jinny Gudmundsen is editor of Choosing Children's Software magazine.


The Skinny

"Zoboomafoo: Animal Kids"

Price: $30

Ages: 3 to 8

Platform: PC/Mac

System requirements: On the PC, a Pentium 166 MHz with 16 MB of RAM and 5 MB of available hard disk space. On the Mac, a Power Macintosh running System 7.1 or higher with 16 MB of RAM and 5 MB of free hard disk space.

Publisher: Brighter Child

The good: Stunning video footage of baby animals

The bad: A rigid interface that fails to give children control of their learning

Bottom line: A visually appealing title that teaches children respect for nature


"The Magic School Bus Explores Bugs"

Price: $20

Ages: 6 to 10

Platform: PC/Mac

System requirements: On the PC, a Pentium 133 MHz with 16 MB of RAM and 15 MB of available hard disk space. On the Mac, a Power PC 233 MHz or better running System 8.1 or higher with 32 MB of RAM and 15 MB of available hard disk space.

Publisher: Microsoft/Scholastic

The good: Loads of engaging games about insects

The bad: Limited replay of the favorite bug-search activity

Bottom line: Jam-packed with fun insect-related games and information

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