More than just a homework tool

10th October 1997 at 01:00
Eyewitness Children's Encyclopedia. CD-Rom for Windows PC (Macintosh version published this month). Requires Pentium, Windows 95 and quad speed CD-Rom drive; Pounds 39.99 inc VAT.Dorling Kindersley Tel: 0171 836 5411. Age range: 7 - 11

The main screen of Dorling Kindersley's Eyewitness Children's Encyclopedia resembles nothing so much as a Fisher-Price Activity Centre. You know, one of those noisy, multi-game, plastic near-indestructibles which children throw, bite, hit, and generally have an enormous amount of fun with. Either that, or this reviewer is suffering classic symptoms of infantile regression.

The Navigator, as the main screen is known, is fully interactive and allows users to enter their names and dates of birth. Text-to-speech software will then read these back and even offer birthday greetings on the appropriate day. In fact, the text-to-speech system will operate wherever a small trumpet icon appears on the screen. The software can be tailored to the preference of each user, and teachers or parents will probably welcome the option to mute the sometimes distracting background noises.

At the top of the main screen, six subjects are represented by clickable icons - culture, nature, history, science, geography and atlas - which all have their own drop-down menus. These, in turn, reveal two more levels. As well as being a simple way of navigating from the general to the specific, this search method is a relatively painless introduction to the wonderful world of hierarchical file structure and information retrieval. But the easiest and most direct way of finding anything is by entering a query in the Search box and clicking.

Complementing a multimedia content of 40 videos, 5,000 screens and pop-ups, 70 animations and over two hours of audio clips, the encyclopedia contains more than 650,000 words, 700 biographies and a 3,000 keyword glossary. The language used throughout has been carefully selected to be suitable for children in the chosen age group of 7-11. There are times, however, when simple, literal, descriptions have an unintended humour, as in this account of Henri Matisse's famous portrait of his wife, "painted with a green stripe down the middle of her face".

Among the "fun" aspects of the encyclopedia are a quiz, an animated sequence and Grab-a-Gag. The quiz can be set for one or two players at three levels of difficulty. Players can choose to answer questions on any of the six main subject matters or a combination of all of them. The questions are multiple choice, but unfortunately the limited database means that they keep recurring far too frequently.

A superb 3D sequence takes one from cityscape to ocean to countryside via four navigational buttons and a series of hyperlinks. High-quality graphics and sound effects give the journey an excitement and mystery children are sure to enjoy. A further layer of hyperlinks is connected to a series of general knowledge questions.

As for Grab-a-Gag, the randomised joke-teller that supplies what the publishers refer to as, "thousands of corny jokes", well, the less said the better. An example.

Question: What's green and sings? Answer: Elvis Parsley.

The text-to-speech facility, a high level of interactivity and Dorling Kindersley's unique presentation make this title suitable for special needs children, some of whom are acutely aware of their learning difficulties and have a strong aversion to being patronised by inappropriate software.

Sensibly, the publishers have largely adhered to the established on-screen software protocols and icons - drop-down menus, function symbols - that children will encounter as they advance through school. And a click on an icon on the home page will take connected users to the publishers' site on the World Wide Web, where they can join the Active Learning Club.

Children's Encyclopedia is not a direct competitor to more conventional multimedia offerings such as the Kingfisher or Oxford Children's, but any parent or teacher looking for an engaging, alternative way of presenting knowledge and information will find it impressive. It's a significant and lively resource which Dorling Kindersley (DK) hopes children will turn to for fun rather than just for homework.

Until the end of February 1998, DK will, upon receipt of a completed form enclosed with the disc, supply a free copy of this encyclopedia to the school of your choice.

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