Play and Learn: Virtual Worlds for Kids

Innovation is alive and well in the children's technology sector. Once a month, I will share with you something new that is happening involving children and technology. We will look at Web sites, video games, software, toys, and other areas where children are using tech.

A series of three products for kindergartners, first graders and second graders is brilliantly melding the gaming world and education.

For years, Knowledge Adventure has produced cutting edge children's educational software. In the 1990s, this is the company that ushered in grade-specific learning adventures known as JumpStart software, which taught a whole generation of kids how to read, do math, and variety of other school subjects. When you entered kindergarten, you would play "Jumpstart Kindergarten." Going into sixth grade? No problem, you got to play "JumpStart 6th Grade."

While these older, grade-specific software titles were revolutionary at the time they were introduced, they no longer play well with the current generation of kids who've grown up on video games.

But Knowledge Adventure is a company that knows kids and understands the changes in the children's technology landscape. After years in development, Knowledge Adventure has just ushered in their newest version of Jumpstart called "JumpStart World," and it's a masterpiece. By providing a gaming world that contains educational content, these games are a fun hip, and engaging place to learn.

You can enter the "JumpStart World" at kindergarten, first or second grade.

When you do, you find a personalized 3-D gaming world, full of learning games and fun activities that are constantly changing.

"JumpStart World" creates a dynamic world by making use of both broadband Internet access and your computer's hard drive. While your child plays within the "JumpStart World," the program connects to the Internet to send information about your child's progress and receives new content based on that progress. But parents needn't worry about their children's safety, because their children are never playing online.

Upon entering this rich, vibrant world where waterfalls flow, butterflies flutter and virtual friends are always available; kids pick a character to represent them while they play. They use the computer's arrow keys to control their character. Then they're off on missions suggested by characters they meet inside the JumpStart World.

In the "JumpStart World Kindergarten," they may need to find floating red orbs (a clever way to get you to explore the world), interview other characters to solve a mystery, or buy something from the game's vending machine to help another character. Gems, the currency within this world, are earned by playing learning games in either the Math Arcade or the Reading Arcade.

While going on missions is fun, kids can also decide to just explore the games' big open environments. Unlike other educational children's software, these games do not require you to follow a linear path. With so much to do, kids can decide to forgo their mission and explore a new path, bounce on jump pads that send you flying across the world, take a ride down a massive slide, swim in a lake, talk to other characters, paint pictures, acquire and then play with pets, explore educational games, and much more. The games even build in recess from the missions to make sure children have time to simply explore.

Because acquiring gems is essential to being able to fully engage in this world, kids will need to play frequently the educational games that earn them. There are more than 15 games available at any time. Kindergartners can match upper and lowercase letters in a concentration-type game, hop across moving logs to match shapes in a Frogger-type activity, and collect letters in alphabetical order as they drive through a grid. With gems, kids can buy pets, decorations for their cottage, music tracks to place in jukeboxes, and presents for others.

Every time kids enter this beautiful, dynamic world, there is always something new to find. The seasons change, holidays are celebrated, educational games change, and new areas open as more content is added. Plus this world is personalized. When you install the game, you can enter birth dates and relevant holidays, add favorite photos and create personalized banner signs for airplanes to fly overhead. Even better, when children make artwork within the JumpStart World's art studio, their creations appear on billboards throughout the JumpStart World.

"JumpStart World" cleverly mixes the exploration of a constantly changing animated world with accomplishing missions that require kids to practice essential school skills, including math, reading, vocabulary, spelling, science, art, logic, and social responsibility. As kids learn to navigate the expanding JumpStart World, they build confidence about trying new things. By playing, they earn rewards that stress social themes like friendship, sharing, and teamwork.

"JumpStart World Kindergarten," "Jumpstart World First Grade," and "Jumpstart World Second Grade" are meant to be explored over time. A grade-specific boxed game or downloadable version (from www.jumpstartworld.com) costs $20 and contains the first two of 12 installments of content. That means children can explore more than 30 educational games and missions, and parents will receive regular e-mail progress reports and parent tips. Thereafter, additional installments are available for $8 apiece, which build on the skills already learned. Each installment opens new parts of the JumpStart World and contains new games and missions. After a year of this content, kindergartners will have explored more than 180 math and reading lessons, first graders over 210 lessons, and second graders more than 230 lessons. If you start with kindergarten and add each additional grade, the characters will age with your child and the world they explore constantly expands. It is magical.

RATING: 5 stars (out of 5)
Best for ages 5-8
From Knowledge Adventure, www.jumpstartworld.com, $20 (for first two adventure packs, then $8/each for remaining 10), Windows only, with Broadband Internet connection.

Jinny Gudmundsen is the kid-tech columnist for the Gannett News Service and USA Today.com, and is also the editor of Computing with Kids Ezine (www.ComputingWithKids.com ).

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