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The Online Mom provides internet technology advice and information to help parents protect their kids, encourage responsible behavior and safely harness the power of technology in the new digital world. Social networking, photo sharing, video games, IM & texting, internet security, cyberbullying, educational resources, the latest on tech hardware, gadgets and software for kids 3-8, tweens and teens, and more.

Gaming as an Educational Tool

With all the passion that kids put into videogaming, wouldn't it be great if they could learn something at the same time? Well, arguably they do: in Got Game, John Beck offers some tantalizing evidence that gamers work better in teams and are better natural leaders; and in Don't Bother Me Mom - I'm Learning, Marc Prensky argues that games develop critical learning skills. But what about actual content: the subjects, concepts, facts, and skills that have traditionally gone with education? Are there educational games to help with all that? Absolutely.

If your young children have older siblings - or if you're a younger parent who remembers playing educational games yourself - some of the titles you'll find may sound very familiar. Math Blaster. Reader Rabbit. JumpStart. Oregon Trail. Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. Carmen Sandiego. They're classics at this point, and they're all still around - upgraded to varying extents (and, often, to make them compatible with newer versions of Windows.)

Hey, we're not talking about Halo 3 production values here: the money just isn't there for that in the educational software business. But some of these games just might give your kids a real headstart in the classroom.

There's a wide and diverse collection of free educational software available, too: some real games, some simple "drill and practice" software. Three great sources are: www.gamequarium.com, www.educational-freeware.com, and the Top 100 educational game collection at http://mmh.lethsd.ab.ca/games/top100.htm.

Although simulation and strategy entertainment games have been around for a long time (the Sims, SimCity, Zoo Tycoon, etc.), educators (and others who want to reach kids) are gradually recognizing the powerful value of simulations in teaching. A growing number of intriguing simulations are being developed. There's Food Force, a free educational game in which you serve on a team of UN experts who must fight hunger on an island that's suffering from both drought and civil war. There's the online game collection at www.NobelPrize.org, which helps older kids understand the science behind many important Nobel Prize winners. And there's Democracy, in which the player acts as President of a democratic country, making decisions about taxes, economics, and foreign policy, and seeing their impact on the citizenry.

Also worth mentioning in a discussion of planning and strategy games for kids is the U.S. Army's popular recruiting tool: the tactical multiplayer first-person shooter game America's Army. Although not exactly educational, this game is hugely popular among teens and, if your child is into role-playing and shooter games, he or she will undoubtedly be exposed to it sooner rather than later. Recent updates of the game have drawn rave reviews from gaming critics and the U.S. Army has embarked on an ambitious program of taking demos of the game to state fairs and exhibitions. Whatever the entertainment or educational value of the game, parents should be aware that behind the action and tales of heroism there is an unmistakable recruiting message.

Finally, don't forget about educating parents and grandparents! Brain stimulating video games like Nintendo's 15-game compendium Brain Age are coming onto the market and an ever-increasing rate. So if you or Grandpa are tired of reaching for the newspaper for crosswords or Sudoku puzzles, then pick up a Wii or Nintendo DS and join in the fun!

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