Techno Family

Computer Worlds:
They’re Safe and Educational

by Carolyn Jabs

Summer’s approaching. The kids will be home for significant chunks of time. You’re worried they’ll get into mischief online or even worse trouble, what with Congress investigating the dangers of online virtual worlds. You don’t want them to forget everything they learned in school. And they don’t want to be bored out of their minds.

Happily, the household computer offers a solution: simulations. For as little as $10, you can buy child-friendly software that’s not only engrossing, but does not involve going online. These creative programs let kids step into situations and entire worlds that are engaging and, yes, educational. For teens, online simulations offer real-life, often globally significant problem-solving.

Sims are exciting and teach skills that often go undeveloped during the school year, such as strategizing and weighing assorted variables. Here are some excellent simulation choices.

Elementary Age
In tycoon games, even little kids can think through economic trade-offs such as niftier attractions versus higher ticket prices. In Zoo Tycoon (www.Zootycoon.com), kids construct a zoo and care for as many as 30 different animals. In Roller Coaster Tycoon (www.Rollercoastertycoon.com) series, they run an amusement park.

Young kids also like the simplest versions of The Sims (www.Thesims.ea.com), a game in which kids manage the lives of tiny people by designing their suburban homes and arranging for them to eat, work, play and sleep.

Caution: The Sims also appeals to older kids and adults. Some expansion packs and online versions are not suitable for young children.

Keep in Mind

Obviously, a summer consisting of nothing but simulations would be a real waste of childhood. No matter how much they enjoy virtual worlds, kids also need lots of real-world experiences with picnics, star-gazing, water balloon fights, popsicles, swimming and just hanging out in the hammock.

Still, when it comes time to write the inevitable what-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation report, the child lucky enough to have done all that and played a good simulation game will have no shortage of things to report.

Pre-teens  
Tweens can develop a passionate and sophisticated appreciation of history by using simulations. In Age of Empires (www.Ageofempires3.com), they must govern a 3-D environment in real time using tools and cultural practices available to specific cultures. The turn-taking game Civilization IV (www.2kgames.com/ civ4/home.htm) offers a more thoughtful experience as kids solve problems confronting one of 18 cultures, from Aztec to Roman.

Pre-teens are also often fascinated by the SimCity series (http://simcitysocieties.ea.com), in which they design and then manage an urban environment that includes not only the ordinary challenges of trash collection but also occasional natural disasters. Another less flashy simulation called Real Lives (www.educationalsimulations.com) gives children a powerful glimpse into the birth to death experiences of individuals from more than 190 countries.

Teens
Older students will find plenty of thought-provoking action in online sims that encourage players to experiment with solutions to real-world problems. Peacemaker (www.peacemakergame.com) challenges young people to “succeed as a leader where others have failed” in resolving international conflicts. Food Force (www.food-force.com), created for the United Nations World Food Programme, has six levels that encourage kids to grapple with real life problems such as creating a balanced diet with minimal funds.

Kids playing A Force More Powerful (www.aforcemorepowerful.org) must think about how non-violent strategies could have been used to resolve actual historical confrontations. Teens can spend hours with The Movies (http://movies.lionhead.com), a simulation that gives them total control over a movie studio where they can choose a script, audition actors, build sets and shoot their own movie.

Carolyn Jabs is a freelance writer.

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