Summer camps and family outings can help prevent kids' brains from wilting during the empty, hot months between school. Parents will invariably turn to the blue-screen babysitters of TV and PC to fill some of the long, lazy days of summer. But pediatricians and educators recommend that screen time for elementary school-age children be limited to a couple of hours a day. A growing number of Web offerings can help ease the guilt with reasonably wholesome (even educational) fare that's also entertaining enough to keep a youngster's attention.
[If it's an older child finishing school this spring, check out these grad gift ideas.]
Many sites that cater to kids offer engaging and safe material but are full of commercial pitches that many experts fear exploit children. We've found some of the best of the rest for entertaining the young—sites that keep product pitches to a minimum and the interest to a maximum.
Safe browsing. Letting kids roam the Internet is a dangerous prospect made safer with free software from Kidzui (www.kidzui.com). Kidzui is a Web browser much like Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox that locks a user into a walled garden. The browser restricts users, based on their age, to sites that are screened by a panel of educators and parents. Rather than simply saying "no," Kidzui offers a wide array of fun and engaging choices that kids can click around. It isn't all high-brow, with plenty of silly videos and movie trailers, but pre-teens would likely chafe at the restrictions. Still, Kidzui works well enough that parents can give their youngest browsers room to explore.
Treasure hunting. Geocaching (www.geocaching.com) is a strong incentive to get kids and their parents into the wilds, or at least a nearby city park. This one usually, but not always, requires a GPS receiver or GPS-enabled phone that can track a user's location from satellites circling above. The reward is in the search, plus boxes of trinkets, toys, and notes hidden at sites precisely described by their coordinates. Even with the directions, a fun scramble ensues at the end as wiley "cachers" tuck the bins into bluffs or bushes. Just be sure to bring along a toy or something more meaningful to trade for a knick-knack from the cache.
[Location tracking is possible with a growing variety of GPS-capable gadgets.]
Out of this world. Google now enables young (and old) earthlings to explore the moon and Mars. Version 5 of Google Earth (earth.google.com), a free download, has rocketed off to include images, videos, and guided tours of notable spots on our nearest space neighbors. The software flies, for example, into each of the manned and unmanned landing spots on the Moon. Once there, explorers can zoom into panoramic photos and videos from the sites, as well as maps of where astronauts wandered and what they saw. Judging from a narrated tour by Apollo 11's Buzz Aldrin, the virtual visit can't compare with the majesty of actually being there—but it's as close as most will get.
For the new reader. TumbleBooks (www.tumblebooks.com) is a collection of animated, talking picture books for early or wannabe readers and is good for hours of wholesome and educational entertainment. The collection is available for free through the websites of many public libraries, which allow unlimited access from home. Subscriptions through schools also allow unlimited reading for students at home. The experience doesn't come close to the warmth and interaction of curling up for some reading with Mom or Dad, but TumbleBooks makes good use of animation, sound, and music in picture books that children can read along with the narrators.
For the experienced reader. The Web now includes a vast library of old books available for online reading or downloading. The biggest source is Google Books, (books.google.com) which has more than 2 million volumes available for free download because they are no longer covered by copyright restrictions. Many would appeal to kids, including Howard Pyle's The Story of King Arthur and His Knights to Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables. Google also has a selection of old periodicals that include Life and Jet magazines, as well as a smattering of newspaper archives. Another good source is the volunteer-driven Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.org).
[Download the free books and take them along in one of the new E-Readers.]
Mapping the sky. A smart phone can bring life to a summer sky, with its combination of GPS and motion sensors pinpointing the location of stars and planets in the heavens above. Just point the phone toward a section of the sky and free or cheap software can point out constellations, planets, stars, and galaxies. Google offers the free SkyMap app (www.google.com/sky/skymap) for Android phones. Owners of iPhones and the iPod Touch can get more feature-rich software from Pocket Universe or Star Walk, which each cost $3 at Apple's App Store.
For the birds. Who knew the beautiful cardinal had so many songs and chirps in its little beak, or how its accent changes in different parts of the country? The Macaulay Library (macaulaylibrary.org) at Cornell University has a collection of thousands of wildlife video and audio files that are worth hours of browsing. Birds, mostly North American, dominate the collection with a couple hundred recordings of the Northern Cardinal alone. But it also includes a broad sweep of animals on land and in water. The files are organized by breed, location, and description and a search bar makes it easy to find a specific species.
Image hopping. Yet another offering from the search company, Google Image Swirl (image-swirl.googlelabs.com) encourages free-form exploration of photos, paintings, and illustrations available on the Web. A search for "dinosaur" leads to collections of representations of stegosauri, ankylosaurs, or everyone's favorite, Tyrannosaurus rex. The images can be serious academic renderings or goofy clip art, but they're fun to follow as the service groups them with links to what Google has guessed are related images. Artists get good representation, with Google bots curating the Web's collection of Warhol, da Vinci,and paintings from the impressionists.
Silly and safe. Thousands of hours of cartoons, including classic Popeye the Sailor Man and Tom and Jerry episodes well-known to parents, are available for free from the Internet Archive (www.archive.org). The collection also includes more than a million books and other texts, but the archive is unique for its vintage television and radio shows, foreign language and experimental movies, and live concert recordings. They can be enjoyed online or downloaded in a wide number of formats for carrying along for those long vacation drives.
Cave art. The ancient cave paintings of Lascaux, France, come alive in a beautiful Web tour (www.lascaux.culture.fr) of the Paleolithic-era art. The interactive, 3D site wanders through high-resolution reproductions that are easy to explore, even for those who don't speak or read the site's French-language descriptions. Young visitors might be inspired to recreate just a few of the huge trove of images created by the pre-history painters, including the deer, bison, and horses that were so crucial to their culture of 17,000 years ago.