Resorting to computer software does not have to be seen as a cop-out. If you were you planning to take the kids to a museum of science or natural history, for instance, one of the Knowledge Adventure multimedia packs might be a good back-up activity.
There is a standard format for all the titles in this series - a wealth of reference material in multimedia format, plus games and quizzes to reinforce learning. Earlier titles are available on floppy disks as well as on CD-rom, but the disk-based versions cannot include the full complement of moving video clips and so are rather poor counterparts.
The latest title in the series, The Discoverers, is based around a 30- minute movie that incorporates morphing - distorting and metamorphising images - 3D-images and virtual reality effects.
The advantage of moving images on your computer rather than on a video recorder is that you can use it as the starting point for your own investigation. By clicking on the screen you can explore other related subjects. So if you want to know more about Mars, just click on it and then carry on clicking for more and more detail. The Discoverers links present-day exploration with past achievements. So you can fly the Magellan probe around Venus or meet historical Magellan and hear about his voyage to the Pacific Ocean.
The program gives you plenty of ways to approach the wealth of information it contains - you can choose different periods in history or different geographical locations. The games test your recognition of famous explorers while telling you more about their achievements. The Mis-Discovery Game is a maze game about famous scientific mistakes.
Our family favourite is Science Adventure 2, for its sheer breadth of coverage. It includes more than 100 video clips, has 24 'exhibits' to explore in its science lab and 1,000 items of reference written in a clear and informative style by Isaac Asimov, the science fiction writer. For younger users - or lazy ones - you can opt for Kids Text and hear a simplified version of the same material. Dr Zoom's Game of Bogus Science also qualifies as family fun.
The other titles in the same series cover well-defined subject matter - the 3D-Body Adventure is about human anatomy and health, Speed Adventure is about propulsion and reaction - in humans, animals and machines - while Undersea Adventure is about the marine environment and its inhabitants. The idea of combining video clips, sound effects, narration and background music with interactive access to a great deal of factual information works well for all these topics.
There are three titles which are aimed at younger children. Dinosaur Adventure will soon have addicts well-versed in the differences between an apatosaurus and an albertosaurus. Bug Adventure is more appealing than its title suggests and is a fascinating insight into the world of bees, ants, spiders and other creepy crawlies; Kids Zoo is about baby animals.
If the idea of traffic jams and queues put you off a visit to Alton Towers then you could try building your own version. In Theme Park you have to design the rides and the infrastructure - paths, catering, shops, even the loos - and the environment - trees, lakes and so on. The game involves research into what your customers want, personnel management and economics as well as fairground engineering. I have to admit I did not like the advertising pitch on behalf of the Midland Bank which I thought rather cheeky given that this is full-price software.
Adventure games for children are often more fun when approached as joint activities. My all-time favourite is Ecoquest an 'environmental' in which you help Adam, a 12-year-old boy, and Delphineus, a dolphin, find and rescue Cetus, a whale. This adventure has many different elements, including puzzles, riddles and a maze, and will appeal to 8 to 12- year-olds or younger children with assistance. It features really attractive graphics of undersea locations and even has pleasant background theme tunes.
The same age group can expect fun with either of the two sets of Eagle Eye Mysteries, one set in small town America and the other in London. Both feature the same American teenage characters, Jake and Jennifer, a brother and sister team of amateur detectives.
Each of the packages includes 50 adventures all with a common format in which you gather clues by talking to people you meet and examining the scene of the crimes - so when you have played one you have completed learning about the software and can start again with a new mystery to solve. Again this is suitable as a group or family activity.
Knowledge Adventures; pounds 44.95; Guildsoft, 752 895100. Theme Park, Eagle Eye Mysteries; pounds 44.99; Electronic Arts, 0753 549442. Ecoquest; pounds 34.99; Sierra, 0734 303171.
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