Hacking The Kid

Published Date
01 - Jul - 2007
| Last Updated
01 - Jul - 2007
Hacking The Kid

Kids have this annoying habit of getting stuck to PCs - why not make sure they learn something while they're at it?

It's not like we have a foot in the grave here or anything, but every once in a while, today's kids make us feel old-learning how to configure your mobile phone from a 12-year old doesn't really help that youthful feeling. With a PC in nearly every middle class home, and more on the way, it's no surprise that parents summon the offspring every time an error message baffles them. The kids will be exposed to technology no matter how much you "protect" them from it-even if you don't buy a PC; the best you can do is ensure they're using applications that will be of some use to them.

EasyBits Magic Desktop
Remember Microsoft Bob? In the days of Windows 3.1, Bob was a new, friendly user interface for Windows, designed to make computers easy to use for newcomers. A little dog named Rover guided you around the OS, telling you what you could do with it. The idea was nice, but Bob was a little too friendly and quite an insult to the intelligence, and finally made it to the Dark Place where all terrible products end up. When we first started up Magic Desktop from this month's DVD, it reminded us of Bob, only without the nausea.

Magic Desktop's music player lets your child go wild just make sure to turn down the volume

Somehow, it's taken someone this long to realise that the same idea could apply wonderfully to children-Magic Desktop looks like Windows XP, only with child-friendly colours, themes and applications-perfect to keep a 5 to 10-year-old off your back. It functions like a protective layer on your XP installation, blocking keyboard shortcuts like [Alt] [Tab] and [Ctrl] [Alt] [Del], and suppressing applications and dialogs that may pop up in the background-ensuring that your child doesn't stray into your running applications and do some damage. You're also given full control over Internet access-the bundled browser will load Web sites only after you approve them. The bundled applications range from simple maths quizzes to puzzle games, and even a child-friendly e-mail client! While Magic Desktop insulates your child from everything else on your PC, you can decide which applications can be accessed from within Magic Desktop.

One of the features we liked was the bonus system-to ensure that your child doesn't get attached to just one program, you can assign bonus points to applications that you want your child to access on a regular basis, multiplication tables for instance. These points can then be used to access other applications like games or the browser. The message you send your child is clear-do your duties and your rights will follow.

Once the ten-use demo expires, you can purchase Magic Desktop for $29.99 (Rs 1,350), and we highly recommend that you do.

Google Earth
Children don't like geography, mostly. Think back to times when you really couldn't care less what the Steppes were (we used to think grasslands were really big gardens) and the world's miscellaneous geographical formations were just new words to remember.

Don't you wish you had this when you were in school?

Google Earth takes all that away and actually makes learning about the world fun-it brings the Atlas to life. We don't really need to tell you much about it-it's been talked about in these pages many times, and you've got it off our DVD often (at least, we hope you have). A lot of new overlays have been added to the new Google Earth-you can now view photos from Panoramio, a community project that matches photos to the locations they were taken at. You can take a photograph of the neighbourhood garden, for example, and mark the garden's location on Google Earth-anyone moving over that area will then be able to see your photo. The whole process of touring the earth looking at everyone's photos can be mesmerising. But we digress.

It shouldn't take much thought to assess Google Earth's educational value-schoolchildren will be able to appreciate the places they read about better when they've seen them from above, for one. Turn on the National Geographic Magazine layer in the left pane to take your child through their Africa Megaflyover-interesting sights (no sounds) from the Dark Continent. Geographical formations will also make much more sense when you get to see what they look like outside the textbook.

You could even recommend it to your child's schoolteacher, and maybe you'll have a classful of geography geeks on your hands.
What Google Earth is to, well, Earth, Celestia is to the universe! All right, so that's perhaps a tad exaggerated-though Celestia is based on actual data gathered by the Hubble space telescope, and it does let you navigate to planets and stars and view them from any angle you like.

Boldly go where no child has gone before

The universe that you view is supposedly in the state it should be at that instant-if you see the Earth at point X in Celestia, it's estimated that it's at the same point in real life. We can't really verify this, what with being unable to afford a trip to space, but we're told that the estimate is more than dependable. The interface is quite easy to use-if you're on a random star-hunt, just click on a star you like (double-click to centre that star in your view) and hit [G] to go to it. After a brief, very Star Trek-like trip, you're at the star you chose, with a little scientific information about the star at the upper-left corner of the screen. The best way to start with Celestia, though, is to run the demo ([D]), which takes you through the Solar System, some popular constellations, an interesting star or two, and a view of the Milky Way. It also gives you an idea of the features you have at your disposal-viewing the orbits of heavenly bodies, for instance.

For even more educational value, download the Celestia Educational Activities add-on from https://celestiamotherlode.net/catalog/educational.php-the tours of the universe (complete with sound) are more exhilarating than your first day at the planetarium. Each activity comes with a guide for educators-helpful if you're teaching a group of children about the universe.

You can't argue that software programming isn't a lucrative career today-and India's already booming IT industry still has a long climb ahead of it-we haven't built our answer to Microsoft yet, have we. We're not asking you to breed software engineers, but monetary promises aside, programming also teaches children to think analytically, break down problems to little bits, and generally figure out how technology works.

MIT's Scratch teaches children programming the only way they'll learn-with lots of visual elements

The researchers at MIT's Lifelong Kindergarten project have come up with the Scratch programming language, which teaches children programming through visual elements. Loops, for example, are shown as bright orange clamps that enclose code, and the code itself is a bunch of statements inside interconnecting blocks. Think of it as drawing a flowchart before actually coding, only the flowchart is the code itself. The resultant program isn't one of those boring old console programs-the scripts you create apply to animations. You can create games, presentations, and even what they like to call "interactive art."

Check out the Web site to see what Scratch is capable of, and sit down with your child and create your next masterpiece together-you can even share it on the site!

Sid Meier's Railroads!

Every child needs a break from all that learning, and Sid Meier's Railroads! is the way to do it. Miniature train sets are nothing short of captivating, and this game will let your child do it in the style of the original rail barons of long ago. The challenge is to set up a rail network in the map you play (parts of North America and Europe, mostly), manage your finances, make profits, buy and sell companies, and get rich before your opponents do. You get to play as and against some of rail history's biggest names, and the game features a veritable encyclopaedia of information on each railway engine and the history of the first railways in general. For a full review of Railroads!, pick up our January 2007 issue.

We're honestly not sure what the lesson is here-maybe your teen (the game isn't for the too-young) will learn the basics of managing incomes, expenditures and loans; perhaps they'll learn the basics of the stock market… you never know. What we do know, however, that Railroads! is one of those few games that gives the mind a good, solid workout, and that's always good.  

Nimish ChandiramaniNimish Chandiramani