Education: Let the past catch you up

Home Help 5. History
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THE PAST may well be another country, but multimedia makes it a lot easier to visit. The combination of animation, video and sound can bring history to life in a way beyond most books, and the best software exploits this potential to the full. Music and sound effects, for instance, can add layers of atmosphere and give children a real feel for life as it was lived then. Titles for earlier age groups, however, concentrate on luring kids into what can be an unpopular subject. It's relatively easy to base activities around maths or English, for example, but a lot more difficult with something as unwieldy as the past.

My First Amazing History Explorer (Dorling Kindersley, 6-10, pounds 24.99) makes a brave attempt. Covering eight historical periods, from ancient Egypt to a 1920s city, kids can rescue Professor Timestein from the evil clutches of the Time Fugitive by completing the time trail. Fun and child- friendly, with plenty of rewards in the form of stickers and activities - like writing your name in hieroglyphs or devising your own coat of arms - there's nevertheless enough solid factual information to make it worthwhile. "It's all really olden days," said Flan, six, "but I really liked the chanting monks and finding stickers."

Where in Time is Carmen SanDiego? (Broderbund, 9+, pounds 24.99) goes one further. History here is thoroughly embedded in the quest to defeat devious arch criminal Carmen SanDiego and her plot to steal the past's richest treasures. Packed full of glorious cartoon cliches - characters include Ann Tickwittee and Ivan Idea - this detective adventure format offers an atmospheric, if not particularly in-depth, introduction to some of the most popular periods. "I really liked solving the case. History's boring, but this makes it fun," said Joshua, eight, who resolutely refused to stop playing for tea.

I wasn't so enamoured with Know Your Stuff: Kings and Queens (Ten out of Ten, all ages, pounds 4.99) but that has more to do with my ignorance than the software. "Aaarrrgh, not that one!" a bald little man with a Yorkshire accent yelled at me every time I chose the wrong answer in the two-minute challenge, which was more often than not.

Scoldings aside, the disc's extensive library contains everything you'd ever want to know about the monarchy and a lot more besides. A must for pub quiz fans and for every child who wants to overwhelm their history teacher with royal trivia.

Not one to do things by halves, Dorling Kindersley takes a fair swipe at the past with three titles for older children. EyeWitness History of the World (12+, pounds 29.99) whisks you off on a bright and colourful trip round time via animations, videos, pictures, text, maps and commentary. Younger users aren't inundated with information, but there's enough to provide a useful starting point for any project or homework topic. Chronicle Encyclopaedia of History (12+, pounds 29.99) is more panoramic, encompassing four million years from prehistory to the modern world. The clever ploy of couching each event as a news item gives it all real immediacy. "I liked how newsy it is," said Joshua. "It's a bit like watching Newsround or something, only really old."

Much more contemporary, Chronicle of the 20th Century (Dorling Kindersley, 12+, pounds 39.99) promises the ultimate record of our times, covering the events and the people, day by day for the last 90 odd years. It exemplifies perfectly the late 20th century tendency to reduce everything down to easily digestible, bite-sized chunks. Inevitably you look up your birthday; mine was distinguished only by a presidential assassination attempt in Ghana. A great present for Trivial Pursuits enthusiasts rather than a serious learning tool.

World Book Discoveries (IBM, all ages, pounds 49.99) is perhaps the opus magnum of history software, with a price to match. Comprising five discs and everything from the Big Bang to the present day, this encyclopaedic title uses animated paintings and sound effects to bring it all to life, and you can zoom in on pictures and text to uncover further layers of information. Fascinating, comprehensive and, once you've got your bearings, fairly easy to use, but perhaps more suitable for browsing, background, and whetting the appetite than for completing history homework.

Two titles, however, exemplify what you can achieve if you have a tighter focus. World War I and World War II, part of the Great Wars package (Macmillan, all ages, pounds 29.99), are very specific but a must for anyone who is studying or who is simply interested in modern history.

Using a combination of photographs, video clips, maps and commentary, these interactive documentaries explain and examine the wars, their genesis and their impact. World War I is the best, informative, panoramic and desperately moving, packed with haunting images and devastating video accounts with veterans of all the mud and mutilation, but both are exemplary, offering a broad window on the two greatest historical events of this century, and some timely perspective on it all just as we stand on the brink of the next.

Emma Haughton