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Science everyone can do

Mike Hirst works on a game plan to tackle hands-on books and CDs

GROSS ANATOMY SECRETS OF SPACE. Innovative Kids pound;9.99 each


GET IN GEAR. By Sholly Fish and Mark Oliver. Innovative Kids pound;14.99

Don't judge a book or CD-Rom by its cover, especially when it's one of the new interactive "infotainment" titles on offer. What you get might be more - or perhaps less - high-powered than you were expecting.

Gross Anatomy and Secrets of Space, in the Crash Course Games for Brains series, are interactive books from US publisher Innovative Kids. The bright, comic-style artwork by Alan Snow, fold-out pages and press-out cardboard bits will appeal to eight to 12-year-olds interested in space or human biology. A concealed pull-out tray holds more equipment for the "mind-bending games" and "cool projects and experiments" promised on the jacket: stick-on jelly game counters and a wipe-off pen. The text style (and toilet references in Gross Anatomy) bring to mind Horrible Histories on acid, but for pound;9.99 you get 50 pages of dense, original and innovative writing and clear diagrams to explain complicated ideas.

I liked the presentation of the circulatory system as a fleet of trucks delivering fresh food and oxygen to cells, with other trucks picking up leftovers. Each of the six sections in the books finishes with a board game. These "games for brains" are well thought-out and work well with the rest of the text: Brain Gain in Gross Anatomy involves a range of quiz questions and mental tricks; in Planetopoly (Secrets of Space) you have to buy and sell planets until you have the whole press-out cardboard solar system in place.

My only reservation is about the fixed wire binding. These books are meant for two children to share - all the games need two players - yet only one child at a time can read each section. A loose-leaf ring binder might have cost more, but would have enabled two children to read separate sections at the same time before playing the games.

Animal Adventures in the Jump Ahead Frankie series is an interactive CD-Rom (PC and Mac compatible) with a similar brash style, including gaudy animation, "arcade" music and a grasshopper with a Manchester accent. It might give adults a headache, but six to 10-year-olds will love it, and beneath the garish exterior lies some clever writing and sound science. Players explore four habitats, finding animals in each one and playing games to gather points. Difficult vocabulary is clear and accessible - check out the video of crabs singing the "Regeneration Rap" as their claws fall off and regrow.

Most innovative is another cleverly conceived offering from Innovative Kids, part of the Hands-on Science series. Get in Gear has 16 thick artboard pages through which runs the drive-shaft of a small motor built into the back cover. Each page contains instructions for building a gear machine using 14 plastic cogs and sundry cardboard pieces. Switch on the motor and see if you've made the gears work. My favourite is the machine that can clean a dog's teeth and brush its coat at the same time. The final pages are stamped out like a peg-board so that children can reuse the pieces in their own inventions.

It has less text than Gross Anatomy, but is a brilliant way of explaining how gears work for eight to 12-year-olds. The estimate of "six and above" seems a little young. I played all the way from King's Cross to Peterborough on the 12.43. As the bloke sitting opposite remarked, it kept me quiet.

Mike Hirst is assistant head of Saltdean primary school, Brighton.See the special science section which starts on the facing page

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