Thinkin' things. (educational software) (Discovery Choice) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Peter Scisco
It's amazing the things kids think about. That's why you won't find a more aptly named software program for kids than Thinkin' Things by Edmark. This collection of six learning activities offers over a half-dozen things for children to think about. Each section of the program exercises young minds with ideas ranging from making music to crafting comparisons.
Take the Fripple Shop, for example: Orders stream in by phone and fax; the inventory bounces and hops. Sound like a retail nightmare? Maybe, but it's a heck of a lot of fun, especially when you're selling fat little purple-spotted creatures with straight hair and little eyes.
Each time a customer places an order, kids must distinguish among the many different Fripples in stock. But this is more than just visual identification. Kids also get a basic lesson in logic, since Thinkin' Things employs the words and, not, and or, terms that adults familiar with computerized databases might recognize from Boolean logic. Used during information searches, these terms enable us to expand or narrow choices by grouping the information pool in different ways.
It's the same with kids selecting Fripples. They soon learn the difference between a Fripple that has "spots and big eyes" from one that has "spots and big eyes but not curly hair." All of the instructions and requests in the Fripple Shop are spoken; some of them are accompanied by visual cues. As kids become more proficient in their logical thinking, the program poses more difficult choices. Parents can also adjust the skill level manually from the game's Adult section.
When they get tired of minding the store, kids can jump into the jam with a funky monkey (ape, actually) or a yammering bird called Toony Loon. The ape's name is Oranga Banga, and he's a wildhaired drumming demon. During their play, kids create auditory patterns by clicking the mouse on Oranga's percussion instruments. They can tap the snare drum, stomp the bass drum, or play a cymbal, chimes, a cowbell, or a gong. By selecting the create button, children are free to develop their own patterns. After they've finished, they select the play button, and Oranga Banga beats out the rhythm they've built.
The Question & Answer activity flips the action by asking kids to repeat a pattern after Oranga plays it. As kids get better at remembering and repeating the pattern, which requires them to distinguish among the different sounds that the instruments make, the patterns get longer and more sophisticated. The ultimate challenge comes when kids turn off the lights and listen to Oranga play in the dark. With only the sound of the instruments (and Oranga's eyes) as a guide, kids must remember the pattern and play it back (the lights come back on at this point).
Playing with Toony Loon is similar, but pitch is added as part of the musical pattern. This crazy bird plays a xylophone, but kids can choose what the keys are made of: standard metal bars, glasses, rubber bands, or hollow wooden cylinders. Each material makes a different sound, but all are arranged in a scale. With a little practice, kids can create their own tunes. Like Oranga Banga, old Toony Loon will play a sequence of notes and ask the player to repeat them. Alternatively, kids can make up their own sequence of sounds and ask their funny feathered friend to play it back to them.
Speaking of feathered friends, that's the name of a fourth Thinkin' Things activity. During this game, kids run a baby bird factory. Feathered Friends is in some ways an extension of the Fripple Shop. While playing in the create mode, kids can build any kind of baby bird they want by selecting a body color and pattern, a hat, and a shoe. If they like, they can match the bird that appears on the factory floor, or they can create a totally different bird.
The Question & Answer activity poses a more difficult problem. While playing this part of the game, kids must identify a pattern and then create the bird that fits it. For example, the conveyor belt may contain baby birds: a blue one, followed by a green one, followed by a blue one. When asked to create a bird that fits the pattern, kids must build a green baby bird. All of the bird building and design takes place by selecting buttons, which activate different parts of the factory and finally deliver the baby bird from an egg laid by a robot chicken, I'll bet Colonel Sanders never did it this way.
To finish the day, kids can create animated scenes with the program's two design modules. They're easy to use (just drag shapes onto the drawing board and then set them in motion with the press of a button). Designs can be built as spheres or as two-dimensional shapes.
Flying Spheres is designed to enhance perception skills, particularly when it comes to spatial relations. Parents really have to see this part of the game in action to appreciate its fantastic images. Children explore the illusion of depth as spheres grow larger and smaller on the screen, passing over backgrounds of different colors.
Starting a moving sphere sculpture is as simple as dragging a sphere to the background screen and then setting it in motion with the mouse. Musical accompaniment encourages children to develop creative skills as they build kinetic displays which reflect the mood of the background music. They also get to experiment with motion and speed as they set spheres flying in all directions. An added plus: The background screen can be enlarged to cover the entire screen, allowing kids to exhibit their creations without the design toolbox interfering with the visual display.
Flying Shapes is similar, so kids will be able to move back and forth between it and the Flying Spheres activity without having to learn more about working the program. This activity sounds simple - the child drags a shape onto the design board and then sets it into motion - but these simple tools allow for very sophisticated and imaginative games.
For example: Using certain shapes, kids can create a rocket ship that moves from the bottom to the top of the screen. They might create a car, complete with spinning wheels, that moves across the screen. As a shape reaches the edge of the screen, it bounces back in the opposite direction. Kids will soon be laughing at their "cartoons," as their cars collide into the side of the screen and return a jumbled mix of shapes.
Kids can change the size of each shape. Unlike Flying Spheres, the Flying Shapes game doesn't have musical accompaniment. Instead, each shape has its own sound. On computers equipped with an audio card that has recording capability and a microphone, kids can record their own voices or sound effects for each shape.
Overall, Thinkin' Things boasts a fine, intuitive design that encourages play and learning. Parents have a lot of control over setting skill levels in the four Question & Answer games (Oranga Banga, Toony Loon, Feathered Friends, and Fripple Shop). Likewise, parents can set overall system rules so that kids can't exit the program to get into the family hard disk (and accidentally erase important household files).
For kids from four to eight years old, this exploration of shapes and sounds will provide many hours of delight. Parents will also find it difficult to resist, turning time at the family computer into shared experience, where learning and fun take center stage.