Tech show tackles what's appropriate (or not) for kids

•An educational virtual world. Children's online virtual worlds are exploding. The Hitwise online measurement company says visits to such sites went up 68% last year. Mattel's BarbieGirls.com site has 10 million registered users in less than a year. Disney-owned dis Club Penguin and Webkinz are exceedingly popular.

But the Cooney Center report suggests virtual worlds could be more educational. IBM ibm and Zula USA are building one that teaches 4- to 10-year-olds about math and science. Zula is mum on specifics, but launch of the free (at first) site is expected in summer.

•Keeping mind and body active. Wild Planet Entertainment's clever Hyper Dash (ages 6 to 12) and upcoming Animal Scramble (for preschoolers) use the same RFID chip technology found in electronic toll booths. The $20 to $25 games consist of an electronic "tagger," or joystick, and targets you can spread around a room. When players hear a command, a color or number, say, they scramble to tag the appropriate target. Scores are timed. At higher levels, it gets more complex. In Animal Scramble, the tagger and tags are shaped like giraffes, elephants, etc. So commands might be "Who eats bananas?" Or "Who has wings?"

Another Wild Planet game called Hyper Jump (due in the fall) is played on the floor. A saucer-size base unit has pods of different colors and numbers. Players jump on the corresponding pods when they hear "double jump 4" or "yellow, green" and other commands.

This is an age in which even younger children demand iPods and cellphones. And kids have become the chief technology officers in the house, says Nickelodeon and Viacom via consumer products president Leigh Anne Brodsky. Comforting thought for parents: In most family hierarchies, you still outrank them.

Also at the Sandbox Summit

•It's been around a long time, but Digital Blue's fun $100 QX5 Computer Microscope (a version is sold under the Smithsonian name) still delights. It connects to a PC via USB to let you magnify slides and specimens up to 200x. You can capture video, too.

•Mattel launched Barbie iDesign, a fashion-oriented $30 CD-ROM game that comes with a USB scanner. Girls scan in trading cards depicting different hairstyles, shoes, etc. They're uploaded to a "Design Studio" closet. You can alter Barbie's wardrobe and those of other models. Extra card packs cost $5.

•Want to limit kids' time in front of a TV or computer? Meet Bob. The latest model of the $69 to $99 "screentime controller" from Hopscotch Technology lets you set hourly, daily or weekly time limits for up to a half-dozen kids. Basically you plug Bob into any electronic device. When kids want to watch, they punch in a pass code. When their time is up, Bob shuts off the screen. A new feature lets parents add or subtract time in 15-minute increments.

•Need help with your math, social studies, science or English homework? Tutor.com provides online tutors 24/7 at a cost of $25 to $35 an hour; typical sessions last less than a half-hour, and students can grade their tutors.

Meanwhile, if you need help preparing for the SAT, the Princeton Review plans two virtual SAT strategy sessions this month inside Second Life, featuring a 15-to-20-minute presentation, sample test questions and answers and a chance to ask your own questions. Dates are Jan. 19 at 4 p.m. ET and Jan. 31 at 8 p.m. ET.

READERS: What role do you think technology should play in children's development?

E-mail: ebaig@usatoday.com

NOTE: This caption incorrectly named the subject of the photo. It is Tim, not Jim, Effler in the picture.

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