PBS Kids on Friday unveiled a test version of an educational game site for kids age 3 to 6, in one of the first advertising-free efforts aimed at small children and their parents online.
The Web site, called PBS Kids Play, is a subscription-based service that lets children play animated games with characters like Curious George and learn basic skills in reading, listening comprehension, and problem solving. Parents can log onto the site separately to view their child's progress on various educational games based on national standards.
The site will officially launch by mid-March, and will cost $9.95 per month or $79.95 annually for a family of up to four children. It's offering parents a free trial before its launch.
"We're trying to take leadership and help online learning evolve into something more age-appropriate and based on national educational standards," said Ben Grimley, PBS' director of interactive business and manager of the site's development.
That PBS is catering to this age group is important because more children at younger ages are going online. Wired Safety, a worldwide organization devoted to Net safety, recently conducted a study that showed some kids starting on the virtual toy site Webkinz at the age of 3, according to Parry Aftab, founder and executive director of the group. Webkinz and virtual world Club Penguin attract millions of kids typically between the ages of 7 and 14. They specialize in creating animated virtual worlds that encourage kids to play games, socialize, and earn points that help them buy virtual goods.
PBS is well-known for its Sesame Street television show, which took off in the '70s and was similarly targeted at preschoolers. It featured a mix of entertainment like Muppets characters, along with educational activities to teach kids reading and language skills and how to respect each other.
For that reason, Aftab gave a vote of confidence for PBS' online service. "If anyone's going to do it online, PBS will do it," she said.
The Discovery Channel has introduced a similar online education site, but for slightly older kids. Also $9.95 a month, the Discovery site, Cosmeo, helps kids with their homework on subjects like math and science. Starfall.com attracts a younger set of children with a free Web site that teaches ABCs and the basics of reading through games and animations.
The PBS Kids Play site is much like a children's educational CD-ROM with rich animation, but it's Web-based and highly personalized to each child. (It requires a 3-megabyte download, however.) In the world, kids can decorate their own rooms and navigate around with a personal backpack that holds favorite games or activities.
Games in the service include Hide and Seek, where the child interacts with animals or characters like the Berenstain Bears. The game ultimately helps children develop their vocabulary (for example, find the animal behind the "big rock"). Play also features video programming, commercial free, from PBS. Shows might include clips from Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.
The site is also largely visual and graphical so that young children can navigate the site easily. It's built in a Flash browser so kids can't stray from the site to the larger Web.
For parents, the application has controls like timed breaks, including settings for each child in the family. Parents also can view a progress chart of their child on categories like literacy; reasoning and problem solving; emotional development; and science skills. There are no grades or scoring, just sections that display whether a child has developed a particular skill by playing various games.
"There's a dearth of quality content for this age group online, and most of the virtual worlds for kids are trying to turn them into little consumers," Grimley said. "This is an ad-free safe haven for kids that's also educational."
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Stefanie Olsen covers science and technology for CNET News.com. In this series, she examines the young generation's unique immersion in the Web, cell phones, IM and online communities.
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