PBS Kids provides fun for preschoolers

With summer vacations rapidly approaching and out-of-town jaunts to exotic locations seeming out of reach, families looking for ways to keep children engaged while staying home can find some help online at PBS Kids. In addition to numerous free online games and activities, which can be found at www.pbskids.org, the site also offers two premium services: PBS Kids Play! and PBS Kids Island, which are well worth checking out.

PBS Kids Play!(5 stars out of 5; for ages 3 to 6; $9.95 a month or $79 a year)

Launched in March 2008, PBS Kids Play! is a subscription service of exclusive, high-quality educational computer games and activities for kids ages 3 to 6. For $9.95 a month, parents get access to a safe online destination where their preschoolers can play and learn with some of their favorite characters, including Curious George, Bob the Builder, Thomas the Tank Engine and the Berenstain Bears. There are also characters from Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, Franny's Feet, Mama Mirabelle's Home Movies, and the online exclusive property called Wumpa's World.

What makes this subscription worth paying for is its ability to adapt to children's needs, track what they do on the site, and then make recommendations about what they should play next, based on their past performance. Unlike free games offered on the PBS Kids website, the games on this service save your progress and offer you harder levels only when you have mastered the content presented. The quality of the games is comparable to what you would expect to find on edutainment CD-ROMs that retail for $20 to $30.

PBS Kids Play! provides an online "walled garden" in which to play where, once kids are logged into the service, they can safely and easily move around, switching among favorite characters to explore new activities. The service offers 35 games, most of which can be played on three levels of difficulty. As kids play through the content, characters make recommendations about what they should check out next. The site also has a special parent section that provides these recommendations as well as a summary of the child's progress.

The games cover more than 20 skill areas, including math, science, language, literacy, creativity, healthy living and social studies. In one, Curious George needs help planting a garden. Kids choose four different seeds, plant and water them, mix the soil and then click on the sun to add sunshine. By returning four more times, they can care for the plants and eventually harvest the vegetables.

The games found in this collection are special. They all feature voice-over, display appealing graphics and have been carefully crafted to meet a child's learning needs. And they are accessed from a "Homeroom" that each child personalizes, making it comfortable to explore. Families can try this service free for 15 days, and then decide whether it is worth investing in for further use.

PBS Kids Island (4 stars out of 5; for ages 2 to 5; free to play)

Developed in partnership with the U.S. Department of Education, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Ready to Learn Partnership, PBS Kids Island is an online destination where kids play sequenced reading games to build an island full of amusement rides.

While PBS Kids Island is free, it requires parents to register an e-mail address and password so that they can create profiles for their preschoolers. With these profiles, the website can save and keep track of the progress of each child.

The site starts with four reading games on a carousel. All games provide voice-over instructions. As kids succeed at these games, more unlock as new amusement park rides are constructed. There are 30 games that cover the literacy skills of rhyming, letter identification, alliteration, phonics, letter sequencing, phonemic awareness, reading and vocabulary. The games feature characters from the PBS Kids television shows Super Why!, WordWorld, Between the Lions and Sesame Street.

By playing the games, kids earn tickets that can be turned in to earn printable trading cards and coloring sheets, learning videos and toys to decorate your own personal treehouse located on the site.

While somewhat repetitive, the games in PBS Kids Island offer a nice collection of early reading activities.

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