Play and Learn: Virtual Worlds for Kids

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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