Education: Globes and globes of fun

Home Help 6. Geography
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GEOGRAPHY IS a gift to software publishers. In no other subject have they so much scope to show off their multimedia talents, with all those atlases and global attractions providing fertile ground for spectacular feats of sight and sound. Which is all to the good for kids. What better way of swotting up on volcanoes than watching an animated eruption from the inside? Or learning about the rainforest while listening to authentic sounds of the Amazon?

Many packages use maps as their starting-point. In My First Amazing World Explorer 2.0 (ages 4-9, pounds 24.99, Dorling Kindersley) younger children can access all kinds of facts about the world's natural and man-made environments by clicking on to the world map, animating pictures and accessing pop- up information screens.

They can also collect stickers, participate in a geography quiz or undertake long-haul journeys that are logged into their own personal passport. Flan, six, was entranced by the can-canning Eiffel tower and Edinburgh Castle's one-o'clock cannon shot that hurtles across the Channel: "I hope no one ever gets in the way, Mummy," he said solemnly. "It would make an awful mess." Fun, as well as factual, geography software for the earlier years simply doesn't get any better than this.

Dorling Kindersley's Eyewitness World Atlas (12-plus, pounds 29.99), the stylish design, ease of use and thoroughness of which makes it the best of the bunch of interactive atlases, has everything you could ever need to know, statistically speaking, on the countries of the world, as well as detailed maps, fascinating movies and photographs. Call me xenophobic, but it's also nice to have commentary in an English, rather than US, accent.

Comptons 3D World Atlas (all ages, pounds 29.99) comes a close second. There's a wealth of geographical information, some displayed on the revolving globe, some in the form of animations, videos, graphs and tables, with quite an extraordinary level of detail available on the maps. We all came to grief, however, on the World Global Trivia Challenge, barely getting one question right between us.

Part of the Encarta reference suite (Microsoft, all ages, pounds 99), Encarta World Atlas is scary stuff. First of all it comes on two discs, always rather unnerving. Sure enough, this is the interactive atlas to end all atlases. Listen to Mongolian music, direct virtual flights across continents - you name it, you can do it. However, with so much functionality, it's rather complex and daunting for younger users. "It could be a bit easier to use and move around," was 10-year-old Harry-Max's verdict. "It was a bit adultish." Still, you can find out some fascinating things.

Did you know, for example, that the UK and Austria have lower literacy rates than Tonga and Kyrgyzstan? Did you even know there was a country called Kyrgyzstan?

Closer to home, the Ordnance Survey Interactive Atlas of Great Britain (Attica, 11-plus, pounds 29.99) is great for project work, with printable maps, photographs and profiles of places and landmarks and the ability to zoom into a surprising amount of detail. I even located my house.

Geodome - Landforms (Attica, 11-plus, pounds 29.99) is rather an odd name for a useful title on physical geography. Travel around the futuristic dome - something for Peter Mandelson here, perhaps? - learning about rivers, earthquakes, volcanoes and coasts through a mixture of video clips, photographs, animations and text. Then test yourself on the quiz. Good, solid stuff.

Looking at geography inside out, Eyewitness Virtual Reality EarthQuest (Dorling Kindersley, 8-plus, pounds 29.99) shows you how our planet evolved, and the geological processes that shaped the earth. Rebuild the Earth's tectonic plates by finding gemstones and answering various geophysical questions. "Some of the questions were a bit hard for me," said Joshua, eight. "But it's fun finding gemstones, and you can make your own volcanoes and pyroclastic flow and things."

Geography games are thin on the ground, but we're back on the case with Where in the World is Carmen SanDiego (Broderbund, 8-plus, pounds 24.99). Join the jet set and fly round the world interrogating passers-by and tracking down suspects, and draft in cartoon guides to give you the low-down on different locations.

With videos and text profiles of many countries, this is a painless way for children to pick up a little geography. "Carmen SanDiego is really cool," said Josh enthusiastically. "Even if she is a baddie."

My favourite, however, was Geobee (Learning Company, 10-100 - yes, that's what it says on the box - pounds 19.99). It is based on a Sixties-style quiz show, and the cartoon format has a mad humour that kids and adults will love, and the questions range well beyond the standard three-answer multiple choice. As the title suggests, this is a US import and has a world view to match. Questions are notably US-centric; although, for those who thought that most Americans could not tell Austria from Australia, many are surprisingly difficult. All in all, this is a super title.