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Fun may not be the first word that comes to mind when you mention algebra practice.
But education-software makers are working to change that, with games and activities that blend interactive entertainment with critical thinking and subject-based learning. Whether you're a teacher looking for a new way to bring history alive, or a parent who wants to give your child a leg up on reading and math, we've got what you need. We've gathered 17 programs, in the areas of general learning, math, science, history, and reading, that not only build essential skills but also make learning fun.
Stanley: Wild for Sharks
Disney Interactive, 800/228-0988, www.disneyinteractive.com; $20; Ages 3-6
Straight from the Disney Channel comes Stanley, a young boy with an abiding love of nature and a talking goldfish named Dennis. In Disney Interactive's Stanley: Wild for Sharks, our hero has teamed up with a classmate to do a project on sharks. Alas, though Stanley's school chum will arrive any moment, all the parts they need for their presentation are scattered. It's up to Stanley, Dennis, and you to find them in this underwater adventure.
Through a series of games, puzzles, and activities, Stanley encourages kids to learn about underwater life while reinforcing learning concepts such as critical thinking; memory skills; pattern, shape, and sound recognition; organization; and more. Although most of the activities are appropriate for preschoolers and kindergartners, some younger players and children with less computer experience may find the challenges daunting. For kids who want to learn more about sharks and other sea creatures, the Great Big Book of Everything -- a reference that Stanley and Dennis rely on -- is always nearby. -- Peter Cohen
JumpStart Advanced Kindergarten
Knowledge Adventure, 800/545-7677, www.knowledgeadventure.com; $30; Ages 4-6
Knowledge Adventure has attempted to cram an entire year's worth of kindergarten learning into its JumpStart Advanced Kindergarten software. (The program is part of a new line of JumpStart titles, which includes versions for first and second grade.)
Set against the backdrop of an auto-racing event, JumpStart Advanced Kindergarten teaches kids about science, nature, music, simple arithmetic, and phonics, while offering activities such as painting and drawing. Featuring a team of varied animal personalities called the All-Stars, the program uses the concept of multiple intelligences to help kids learn. Each of the All-Stars offers a different learning style -- there's a team leader, a reader, a musician, a math whiz, a scientist, an artist, and an athlete. While each character is featured in specific activities that lead up to the reward of racing, kids can also choose the character that suits them best to help them along the way.
While the game claims to build more than 50 skills, you won't find that many activities. That's because each challenge reinforces multiple skills. A math exercise, for example, also helps kids with color matching. Integrated assessment tests check players' abilities. Parents will appreciate the game's progress reports (to keep track of how well their kids are doing), its leveling features (to keep the game challenging), and its built-in manual (to keep everyone on track). The JumpStart Advanced titles run about $10 more than most other educational software; however, Knowledge Adventure offers a $10 discount when you trade in older JumpStart titles. -- PC
Disney Learning Adventure: Search for the Secret Keys
Disney Interactive, 800/228-0988, www.disneyinteractive.com; $20; Ages 5 and Up
Disney's Mickey Mouse and his friends have gotten themselves locked inside a haunted house, and a trio of trickster spooks won't let the gang out until they solve a variety of puzzles. This is the setting of Search for the Secret Keys, a Disney Interactive title aimed at school-age kids.While many Disney titles emphasize specific skills such as math or reading, Search for the Secret Keys takes a more holistic approach, focusing instead on critical thinking and problem solving. Tasks vary from game to game. Some challenges -- for example, the Armor Disaster game -- require math and counting skills. Others are more logic-oriented -- players must repair an old grandfather clock by getting the gears to work together, or fix some leaky pipes by putting the joints and pieces in the correct order.
As players get better at solving problems, the challenges get tougher. All the while, kids must work toward the goal of collecting the keys that Mickey's friends need to escape from the house. Parents can print out progress charts and information about each game, including data on what educational skills are being reinforced in each activity. As an added bonus, the package includes Disney's free, Mac-compatible Monsters, Inc. Pinball Panic game. -- PC
The Powerpuff Girls: Mojo Jojo's Clone Zone
The Learning Company, 800/395-0277, www.learningcompany.com; $20; Ages 6-10
The Cartoon Network's runaway hit The Powerpuff Girls has generated a merchandising bonanza including everything from snow boots to video games. Now The Learning Company is cashing in on the craze, with an educational title called Mojo Jojo's Clone Zone. In this game, Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup (a trio of superpowerful kids created by Professor Utonium) must save Townsville from their archenemy, Mojo Jojo -- a mischievous monkey empowered by the same chemical that gave the Powerpuff Girls their abilities.As players complete a series of mini-games that test their spelling and math abilities, logic, reading comprehension, and other learning skills, they aid the Powerpuff Girls in smashing Mojo Jojo's army of clones and then taking on the mastermind himself. With five levels of difficulty and an automatic leveling feature, Mojo Jojo's Clone Zone will challenge kids for a good long time.Parents will value the progress-tracking feature that shows how well their kids are doing. Unfortunately, the game doesn't make users sign in, so it's hard to track how multiple players fare. We also ran into a couple of audio glitches -- sound dropped out during a few activities, necessitating a quick restart of the game. -- PC
Disney Pixar Learning: 2nd & 3rd Grade
Disney Interactive, 800/228-0988, www.disneyinteractive.com; $20; Ages 7-9
Pixar creation Buzz Lightyear is already the star of two Toy Story movies and his own animated TV show. Now the Space Ranger has also found his way onto the computer, in an educational game called Disney Pixar Learning: 2nd & 3rd Grade.The premise is simple enough. While patrolling the universe, Buzz Lightyear and his partner, Mira Nova, are nearby when Zurg and his minions attack some innocent aliens. Players must help Buzz and Mira stop the villains, by playing a series of games that test reflexes and skills such as grammar, vocabulary, basic math, and logic.
The games -- for example, Zurg Attack, Star Miner, Canyon Chaos, and Ranger Racers -- are Buzz Lightyear-style updates to classics such as Galaxian, Asteroids, Lunar Lander, and Grand Prix. To maintain the fuel supplies they'll need for blasters, thrusters, shields, and the like, players must solve math, word, spelling, and logic puzzles. Working hard enough unlocks bonuses and secret game features. A progress feature keeps parents up-to-date on how their young Space Rangers are doing.
The software offers a clever blend of arcade gaming and learning, but the controls for some of the learning challenges felt awkward: moving characters around the grid shouldn't have been as difficult as it was. Also, the game's promise of a "2 Deluxe CD-ROM Set" is a bit of a ruse: one disc is to install, the other contains the game -- big deal. The package includes Disney's free, Mac-compatible Monsters, Inc. Pinball Panic game. -- PC
Science and Math
Mia's Science Adventure: Romaine's New Hat
Kutoka Interactive, 877/858-8652, www.kutoka.com; $20; Ages 6-10
Mia, an inquisitive young mouse, has lost her mother's hat and must now set off on a quest to earn enough local currency -- gemstones called Sparklies -- to buy a new one. Thus begins Mia's Science Adventure: Romaine's New Hat, one of three engaging learning games by Kutoka Interactive. (Other titles focus on developing reading and math skills.)
Mia's Science Adventure offers the balance of learning and fun that many programs promise but often fail to deliver. As players aid Mia in her journey (illustrated with impressive 3-D graphics) and learn new concepts, they must put their scientific knowledge to the test by identifying clouds, matching animals to their habitats and diets, classifying animals and reptiles, and completing other tasks.
Mia's Science Adventure offers four levels of game play, from beginner to expert, so players will remain challenged as they learn. Games are lengthy -- lasting for more than half an hour -- but they can be saved and returned to later. If you prefer, you can also skip the game element completely and instead jump right to the individual learning activities. The intensely interactive environment may take new players off guard at first -- Mia talks directly to the player, offers suggestions, and occasionally takes initiative to get things done. Younger players in particular may need some guidance as they get started. However, the included informational booklet offers clues for each game, and Mia herself provides assistance if you click on her head. -- Adrienne Robillard
Mango Plumo's Space Adventure
QA International, 514/499-3000, www.mangoplumo.com; $27; Ages 5-10
The sun is sick and slowly growing dim -- thanks to the scheming of evil wizard Hocus Pocus -- and it's up to you and Mango Plumo to save it. In QA International's well-animated, though sometimes confusing, Mango Plumo's Space Adventure, players head off into the solar system with Mango Plumo, a small red bird, to answer questions, solve problems, and learn how the universe (and our own planet) works.
Along the way, Professor Funnybone explains unfamiliar concepts, although his scientific explanations can seem repetitive after a while. An audio track featuring Mango and Professor Funnybone singing can easily be muted if it becomes tiresome.
Mango Plumo cleverly combines education and entertainment elements. But the game isn't linear, and the variety of characters and options for moving through the software -- players can choose to perform experiments, play games, or learn new concepts -- can be overwhelming. It may take players some time to master, and many users will need to refer to the included booklet to stay on track. QA International also offers a companion title: Mango Plumo's Weather Adventure. -- AR
The Graph Club 2.0
Tom Snyder Productions, 800/342-0236, www.tomsnyder.com; single user, $80; site license, $900; Ages 5-10
Graphs are everywhere -- from the daily newspaper to advertisements. But learning how to visualize numbers and interpret different types of graphs can be challenging for young students. The Graph Club 2.0 makes learning about and using graphs interesting for both students and teachers. Designed for teachers, the program has Spanish and English modes, and it offers more than 30 activities in math, science, social studies, and language arts. Time-strapped instructors will appreciate that the activities require little or no planning to teach. A tutorial clearly and concisely explains the objectives of the program and allows students to learn independently. Teachers can also project the program onto a large screen for full class participation, and they can customize the program's preferences for added control over the learning environment. Prices vary according to how many computer licenses you need. Additional activities are available on the Ready-Made Activities CD, which is sold separately. -- AR
Math Advantage 2003
Encore Software, 310/719-2890, www.encoresoftware.com; $40; Ages 11 and Up
For students struggling with advanced math concepts such as algebra and trigonometry, Encore Software's Math Advantage 2003 offers extra attention, with exercises that clearly explain an array of mathematical concepts. Aimed at middle-school through lower-division-college students, Math Advantage 2003 comes as an eight-CD set, with Pre-Algebra, Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, Trigonometry, Pre-Calculus and Calculus, Statistics, and Real World Math sections. (A Business Math section runs only on Windows.)
Students work in one subject at a time, which ensures that they stay focused. Each disc uses a straightforward and easy-to-navigate interface with step-by-step tutorials and an explanation of the prerequisites students will need to master the lessons. In addition to explaining the concepts for each math subject, the software also includes timed examinations. If students do well, they're rewarded with the opportunity to play games.The breadth of mathematical concepts covered makes the $40 investment a clear value for a family, school, tutorial center, or even a student who needs extra help or wants to study beyond the materials provided in a math textbook. However, the program is less useful for beginning students, as math basics are not covered. -- AR
Master Math Word Problems 1.1
Fast Rabbit Software, info@fastrabbitsoftware .com, www.fastrabbitsoftware.com; single user, $13; site license, $60; Ages 7-13
For many students, the mix of numbers and words in mathematical word problems can be foreign and frustrating. Designed for elementary-school students, Master Math Word Problems, a shareware program by Fast Rabbit Software, gives students extra practice; this game's simple, quizlike interface serves up word problems and their solutions. There are three modes: addition and subtraction, multiplication and division, and a combination. Students select from multiple-choice answers. If they're having trouble, a guidance option offers straightforward direction on how to solve the problems.
The free version of the shareware limits rounds to only three addition and subtraction problems. Once the program is registered, it offers all three practice modes and runs through rounds of as many as 25 questions. At the end of each round, the student's results appear on screen, with a hint for solving missed questions. These results can be printed with the student's name, making it easy for a parent or teacher to track the progress of multiple students.
Master Math Word Problems is easy to use, and teachers and parents will enjoy the independence students have to practice a variety of word problems. But the problems are very basic, and advanced students may not feel challenged. -- AR
PrimeTime Math: Cliffbound
Tom Snyder Productions, 800/342-0236, www.tomsnyder.com; single user, $90; site license, $800; Ages 11-13
Combining a television-style presentation with real-world drama, Tom Snyder Productions' PrimeTime Math series tries to make math concepts less abstract and more relevant to students' lives. In the Cliffbound edition (the third title in the six-program series), students must calculate rates and ratios to rescue two stranded rock climbers.
The program is designed for group, not individual, learning, and it works best in classrooms equipped with a large monitor or LCD projector. Students learn what to watch for, view the video twice, and then solve the problems with the help of included worksheets. (The program also comes with homework assignments that students can complete independently without the computer.) It typically takes two to four hours to move through the entire program, but teachers can break the activities into shorter units to match the pace to students' skills. When they're done, students enter their answers into the computer for evaluation. Thanks to an interesting setup and practical situations, PrimeTime Math does an excellent job of demonstrating the importance of math skills in real life and making students active participants in solving problems. Prices vary according to the number of titles and computer licenses you need. -- AR
History and World Studies
The Learning Company, 800/395-0277, www.learningcompany.com; $25; Ages 8-12
Working in tandem with the PBS television series by the same name, Liberty's Kids teaches students about the American Revolution through interaction with key figures of the time. Players investigate historic events with the help of Sarah and James, two young reporters at Benjamin Franklin's The Pennsylvania Gazette, and then compose newspaper articles to earn a score. Sarah is British, while James is American, and they share their different opinions on the unfolding events.
When researching the Boston Tea Party, for example, the player must search Boston for important Revolutionary figures such as Phillis Wheatley and John Adams. The game also reinforces basic journalism principles as players answer the who, what, when, and where of the events, and collect key objects that the historical figures request along the way. The game is informative and entertaining, but it requires patience as the player memorizes which characters are behind each door and figures out which items to collect.
Liberty's Kids is an affordable, engaging, challenging, and interactive game. The game covers the Boston Tea Party, Lexington and Concord, the Declaration of Independence, Washington crossing the Delaware, Saratoga, Valley Forge, and the Battle of Yorktown. Students can work independently, in pairs, or with parents and teachers. -- AR
Decisions, Decisions 5.0: The Constitution
Tom Snyder Productions, 800/342-0236, www.tomsnyder.com; single user, $150; site license, $600; Ages 9-16
Many students may feel that historical events are far-removed from their own lives and have little relevance to the present. The Decisions, Decisions social-studies series, by Tom Snyder Productions, tries to change this attitude by placing students in the center of the historic decisions that shaped the modern world. The series covers fifth through tenth grades and offers 15 titles focusing on world and American history, including The Constitution, which is reviewed here.
The program divides students into four groups; each group takes on the role of a different fictional character as defined by the included advisor briefing booklets. Using their characters' viewpoints as a guideline, the different teams debate the merits and modern relevance of historical doctrines such as the Articles of Confederation. Each on-screen scenario takes about ten minutes. The teacher's guide is an excellent resource, providing worksheets, technical help, and classroom-management tips. The role-playing activities make learning interactive and visual, and help students develop critical-thinking skills,
but the program is not a replacement for a U.S. history textbook. Classrooms with only one computer will benefit from a projector; otherwise, groups must rotate use of the computer. Prices vary according to how many titles and computer licenses you need. -- AR
World Book Jaguar Edition
World Book, 800/967-5325, www.worldbook.com; $68; All Ages
World Book has updated its stellar multimedia reference software of the same name to take advantage of OS X 10.2. The Jaguar edition -- which still comes on a two-CD set and includes a complete encyclopedia, an atlas, a dictionary, homework wizards, and a word processor -- not only capitalizes on the Mac's graphics prowess but also sports new and improved features that make this package even more compelling than before.One new feature that will please teachers is World Book's enhanced Sticky Notes. Using Jaguar's Rendezvous technology, Sticky Notes lets students working on a network share notes while they collaborate on a project. Anyone who has difficulty using a mouse and keyboard will appreciate the program's support for speech input, which lets you launch, navigate, and quit the application with voice commands. And a new Just Listening section lets you sample music and animal sounds in 14 categories. Our only gripe: you have to keep the second CD mounted to access its contents. -- Franklin N. Tessler
Phonics and Reading
Disney's Phonics Quest
Disney Interactive, 800/228-0988, www.disneyinteractive.com; $20; Ages 5-8
To help first and second graders build important phonics skills, Disney turned to one of the most enduring images in its huge library of animation -- Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer's Apprentice. The result is Disney's Phonics Quest, an innovative and entertaining game that focuses on a wide range of learning activities.
Disney's Phonics Quest opens with a familiar scene; the sorcerer leaves Apprentice Mickey alone, which, predictably, leads to trouble. Mickey opens the sorcerer's magic book and loses all six of the sorcerer's belongings. You must help Mickey recover the items by completing a series of activities that test reading comprehension, word-building and rhyming skills, and other abilities. Along the way, players get to interact with well-known Disney characters such as Goofy, Minnie Mouse, and Donald Duck.
What's most innovative about this game is its use of speech-recognition technology. It's helpful for kids to learn how to sound out words themselves, not just read and listen to them. Multiple skill levels and a randomization feature keep the game challenging even when it's replayed.
And a sign-in feature helps keep track of individual players -- a useful addition in classrooms and homes with multiple school-age kids. The game froze up on us once or twice, however, and had to be restarted. -- PC
Reader Rabbit Learn to Read with Phonics:1st & 2nd Grade
The Learning Company, 800/395-0277, www.learningcompany.com; $25; Ages 5-8
Arguably one of today's most well-recognized educational-software franchises, The Learning Company's Reader Rabbit is a complete line of software aimed at helping kids develop an interest in reading, from the time they're toddlers straight through second grade. Now The Learning Company has expanded the series, with two phonics-based titles: one is aimed at preschoolers and kindergartners; the other, at first and second graders.
Reader Rabbit Learn to Read with Phonics: 1st & 2nd Grade comes on two CDs and covers the spectrum of phonics skills, including blending consonants, practicing long and short vowel sounds, using and understanding compound words, examining word families, and more. Players can choose either Adventure Mode, where they play through various activities as part of a story, or Practice Mode, where they hone specific skills. By using one of more than a dozen interactive storybooks, kids can also practice what they've learned and put their new vocabulary skills to good use.
The second CD is packed with extra goodies, including ten audio tracks that will play in a regular CD player, additional skill-building activities, and a collection of crafts, puzzles, and games that kids can print out and use away from the computer, ensuring that their experience is more than just point-and-click work. -- PC
Reading for Meaning
Tom Snyder Productions, 800/342-0236, www.tomsnyder.com; single user, $100 (Internet subscription, $60); site license, $1,000 (Internet subscription, $350); Ages 8-14
Teachers are always looking for new ways to teach essential reading skills. Tom Snyder Productions' Reading for Meaning is a complete set of tools for building and implementing reading-comprehension lessons for students in third through eighth grades. The program includes more than 60 different lessons that focus on building critical skills, understanding selected literature passages, and teaching popular children's literature such as The Call of the Wild. The program comes in a three-ring binder with instructions, literature excerpts, and worksheets that can be printed out or photocopied and used in the classroom.
What's great about Reading for Meaning is that students and teachers can use the program with any piece of literature, so it's flexible enough to fit into a variety of settings. The program can be used for entire class activities, smaller groups, or even individual practice. The program's price is determined by the number of users. Schools can also buy a less expensive Internet subscription. For OS X 10.2 users, a software update is available from the company's Web site. -- AR