Kids, Parents Gather 'Round the Computer For Summertime Fun

Summer vacation is around the corner and, with it, that dreaded childhood complaint: "I don't have anything to do." If that's a common phrase at your home, maybe it's time to turn on the computer. Parents are finding creative ways to entertain their children electronically.

We're not talking about shoot-em-up video games here. The computer activities listed here can bring families closer.

Take Steve and Victoria. Ever since they bought their home computer last fall, they have made time for their nine-year-old son Matthew to get involved. At first, computer games were the ticket. Steve and Matthew worked through Myst, a compelling fantasy of mythic characters and places. Too hard for Matthew to work out himself, the game became a team effort that they finally solved. I recommend the game to anyone who loves to work out a complex mystery.

The duo still plays another game: "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" - an adventure classic that can't help but teach geography, even to adults. But the family has spent more intriguing computing time writing a mystery novel. That was Matthew's idea. "Matthew sits us down at the computer," says Steve. "I do most of the writing and Matthew and Victoria do most of the plotting. It's been lots of fun."

That's an important rule in family computing. Imagination and a desire to spend time together are much more important than fancy new software.

If you do want a little software help to get young children writing, try the CD-ROM program "Storybook Weaver Deluxe" from MECC. You'll need a CD-ROM player, of course, but the same disk works in both Windows-based and Macintosh machines. The software allows children to illustrate their story and add sounds and music.

Family-based computing doesn't require the latest and greatest hardware either. Tom and his son, Philip, spent last summer playing Earl Weaver Baseball - a late 1980s creation - on a decade-old IBM-compatible XT. The game's primitive graphics haven't dulled the enthusiasm for this summer's father-son rematch. "I just hope I can beat the pants off him," Philip says.

To find games that run on these older machines, look for shareware. You can download such games from on-line services. Or look in the classified section of a computer magazine to find companies that sell loads of them, often on a single CD-ROM.

Planning a vacation? Let the kids help with a computer. A computer encyclopedia will give them background on the important sites they'll see. If you're driving, children can help chart the journey with a mapping program. I like Automap, which calculates the distance, time, and even the amount of gas money you'll spend on your trip. Other programs, such as the CD-ROM-based DeLorme Street Atlas USA, show city streets.

Of course, you can skip the computer completely and use paper encyclopedias and maps. But I like the idea that children can print out their computerized information and take it with them in the car. Maybe the printouts could serve as the starting point for a summer scrapbook.

Don't forget on-line services. They offer plenty of material for a youngster to explore. Prodigy, for example, has hosted on-line tours of Mayan ruins and Antarctica. America Online hosts a "Kids Only!" area for ages 5 to 14.

I'm ambivalent about "Kids Only!" Parts are fun, others are populated with lonely children who post personal ads and talk about their parents' divorce. Instead, I'd like to see parent and child sit down and explore together.

So this summer, fire up the computer for Junior - and yourself. It sure beats blowing up the kiddie pool.

* Do you have family-computing tips? Send them my way via Internet (laurentb@delphi.com) or to CompuServe (70541,3654) or Prodigy (BXGN44A).

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