by Marty Demarest
In the spirit of "back to school," families may want to take stock in the uses to which their home computers are being put. "Teen" and "Mature" rated computer games can be fun, but the intellectual benefits they offer are usually slim.
There is, however, an entire genre of games designed to inform. Lumped under the unfortunate name "edutainment," titles in this genre are produced primarily for preschoolers and young children. Far from being merely palavers for concerned parents, however, preschool computer games can be as technologically advanced and entertainingly conceived as their more mature counterparts.
One of the most engaging titles currently available for the anklebiter set is Jump Start Animal Adventures. In it, kids explore four different environments filled with native animals. Along the way, they pick up information about each creature through hilarious musical numbers and games. Parents will also appreciate the fact that most children four years old or older will have no problem playing without any assistance, while they pick up science, spatial relationship and computer keyboard knowledge.
A little more classic in style is Where's the Blanket Charlie Brown? In this game, Snoopy guides kids as they try to track down Linus' missing blanket. It's unique in that it allows kids to play as either a male or female character. Its intuitive math and music puzzles and open-ended approach make it a little more challenging than some other games, but children ages five and older shouldn't have any problems.
The most original recent edutainment title, however, is Ollo in the Sunny Valley Fair. In this game, kids help Ollo, a gender-neutral blue ball with expressive eyes, save the residents of Sunny Valley when a prize tomato grows too big and rolls away. A scavenger hunt across six different levels sets the stage for dozens of learning games that are so well integrated into the storyline, kids may not realize they're learning things while they play. Not only do the graphics, games and music all add up to a fully entertaining learning experience, but the game is broken up into chapters, making it easy to digest even for kids with short attention spans.