The web pinball wizards

A popular series of children's storybooks has been developed into a website. Douglas Blane reports

Infant brains often leap creatively from one topic to another, like grasshoppers in a summer meadow, which makes their thoughts difficult for adults to follow. A good computer program can slow them down, holding their attention and keeping them focused.

So it is disappointing that Learning and Teaching Scotland's lively new online resource for five to eight-year-olds, Storybook Web, is a little short of the best.

At Notre Dame Primary in Glasgow, where the infants are putting the website through its paces, it does retain their attention for more than an hour but much of that is taken up with the social interactions any computer session generates among children. The games are imaginative and stimulating but could do with additional options to keep the children's interest.

Youngsters in a stimulating new environment, virtual or real, always hop around for a while, trying things, before settling down to something they fancy. Modern museums and science centres have coined a metaphor of their own for this behaviour, calling it the pinball effect - and the best of them take account of it in designing their exhibitions. They make it easy for youngsters to navigate. They include lots of visual cues, keeping text to a minimum. They provide effortless and rewarding access to each display. And they build layers of increasing depth and complexity. Websites aimed at youngsters should ideally have similar features.

So it is no surprise when the Notre Dame infants begin to show signs of impatience with the website, because the eight games, each based on a story by a popular children's author, take a long time to load. Bouncing from one to another is not really an option.

Once loaded, the games vary in child-appeal, as do the stories, each of which is available on the website in the form of a video- or audio-reading by its author.

The eight games offer a range of activities including counting, spelling, matching images to words, forming logical sequences and shading a picture using primary and secondary colours.

Oh No Peedie Peebles is a marvellous little tale aimed at the very young, and the colouring-in game inspired by it proves a favourite with the Notre Dame children.

In the game based on The Bunk Bed Bus, the children construct a person with a particular job - doctor, baker, policewoman, mechanic - by flipping through a variety of options for head, body and legs. This proves entertaining for the Notre Dame youngsters and some of the permutations they produce cause great hilarity.

They find one occupation especially fun: "Teachers don't wear sandals," says one girl, as she studies the ghastly apparition on her screen. They do if they live in Storybook Web. They also sport a mortar-board, a ginger beard, a blue shirt and socks, green jumper, yellow tie and brown corduroy trousers. They may be clever but they don't look cool.

Only eight occupations are included in this game, so the permutations are limited. The scope of other games is likewise restricted.

One of them offers just three possibilities at the easier of the two levels provided for each of them. At the other extreme, The Snow Lambs number game, which asks the children to move sheep, cows and pigs around a variety of fields, is quite rich in teaching possibilities.

Besides the interactive game and the author's reading, each of the eight sections also offers a spelling activity based on 10 words. Additional words can be added by teachers but the detailed instructions on how to do so by modifying the HTML computer code will deter all but the most fearless and computer literate.

Storybook is entertaining and some of the images, such as those in Katie Morag and the New Pier, are rather lovely. It provides a range of numeracy and literacy activities which an imaginative teacher could use in lessons motivated by the stories. This website version should make it easier for the developer to extend the games' options to retain the children's attention for longer.

www.ltscotland.comstorybookStand F6

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