ZulaWorld combines science, fun for kids

Exploring virtual worlds is a hot craze for kids. In most you become a character who goes on adventures or fights his or her way to glory. In ZulaWorld.com, kids become aliens and explore a world full of scientific challenges.

Based on the world created in the The Zula Patrol television series, which airs on NBC on Saturday mornings and PBS at other times of the week, kids enter this outer space world only after their parents agree via e-mail consent. Targeted at kids ages 6 to 9, this virtual world is free to play, but much of the more robust content is available only with a VIP membership, which costs $5.99 for one month or $29.99 for six months.

Kids start by designing and naming their alien. They arrive in Midtown Zulapolis, a futuristic metropolis that is ripe with street signs. From this hub, kids can go to a building to play seven free games, venture to the west to pick up garbage and then recycle it, or check out numerous other stores and activities.

This world's economy runs on Zlinkles, coins earned by playing games, answering science challenges, recycling and going on missions. By spending Zlinkles, kids can trick out their own spaceship, buy a pet and purchase additional accessories for their alien avatar.

In addition to walking (by pointing and clicking with the computer mouse), kids can also use a map found on a lower toolbar to teleport to other locations, including the Greater Crater Planetary Park and the Ice Station Zula. You can also hop into your own spaceship to blast to other planets. More locations and planets are coming soon.

Kids can safely chat using a drop-down menu and make friends with others by simply asking. Kids can use emoticons to show how they are feeling. A journal helps them to figure out all the things that are available to explore.

ZulaWorld.com was developed by the creators of Zula Patrol in collaboration with IBM as part of IBM's smarter planet initiative in making science and math concepts more tangible to school-aged children.

As with most newly launched virtual worlds, this one is a work in process. As kids explore, they will periodically find signs saying "Coming soon." Some of the games work well, and others seem to need some refinements. Some just need better instructions. But this virtual world has a noble mission of making science fun and interactive, so families willing to explore a new virtual science frontier will find a lot to like. Plus, families willing to help make this virtual world better can play through the games and provide feedback on the built-in form that is a part of every page.

The seven free games found in Midtown Zulapolis are all fun and work well. Some are simply classic children's games like finding the differences between two pictures, matching shapes and playing memory games. But one brings in the concept of using a fulcrum by having you move a seesaw under falling moles. The challenge is to try to catch moles on either side of the fulcrum to keep the board straight.

Other games on the site bring in interesting science principles like the affect that the sun has on a snowy slope. Unfortunately, this sledding game has unresponsive controls. Likewise, a game about crossing a boulder-filled terrain while in a bubble suit to avoid acid rain is clever, but the controls are sluggish.

A virtual world that is focused on making science fun is a great addition to the kid virtual world market. Zulaworld.com has great potential with good graphics, funky music, a terrific interactive resource that defines scientific concepts using videos, and clever ideas for games. Check out the free version, and as the site grows and refines its content, then decide whether you want to try those games and missions that are only available for paying members.

Gudmundsen is the editor of Computing With Kids magazine. Contact her at gnstech@gannett.com.

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