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Review of
American Girls Premiere

American Girls screen shot Publisher: The Learning Company
Year: 1997
Age Range: 7 - 12
Glass Wall's Suggested Age Range: 7 - adult
Platform Information: Mac or PC
Reviewer: Marlene Kliman

Is the Game Mathematical?

The American Girls Premiere enables children to develop plays based on six periods in US history, with characters, places, and events drawn from the American Girl book series: 1770's colonial Virginia; 1820's New Mexico; 1850's pioneer mid-West; 1860's post-civil war Philadelphia; 1900's New York; and 1940's war-time New Hampshire. For each period, children choose from a rich and diverse set of characters and surround them with historically accurate backdrops and props. Children bring their characters to life by writing (or recording) dialogues for them to perform, and by selecting actions, emotions, and costumes for them. They can heighten dramatic tension with lighting, background music, and sound effects.

Although this program does not claim to be mathematical -- its stated educational focus is dramatics and play production, writing, and history -- children can engage in a great deal of mathematics as they create their plays. One rich source of mathematics is an on-screen numerical counter that keeps track of time as the play runs. The counter is useful for planning length of dialogues, actions, acts in the play, and the play as a whole; it's also useful for coordinating various elements in the play. For instance, if you combine several actions to create a dance for a character, you can use the counter to help you plan music to go along with it. You need to figure out how long the dance takes ("the counter went from 212 to 305 while Addy danced, so the dance is 97 long"), and then choose a song or combination of songs that will last as long as the dance ("this song is about 50 long, so I could play it twice for the dance"). Likewise, you can use the counter to make sure that events happen at just the right moment and take the right amount of time -- for instance, the counter can help you time a character's scream to coincide with a jug falling from the table, create an opening monologue that lasts for the whole time a character remains alone under the spotlight, or ensure that each of three acts in a play is about the same length. All of these involve determining starting and ending times, calculating (or estimating) elapsed time, and making staging decisions based on the results of the calculations.

Some children will naturally begin to use the counter to structure their plays; others may not attend to or know how to use this important tool. Adults can encourage children to use the counter to enhance their plays -- and at the same time, do some mathematics ("Let's get some background music for this scene. What about some creepy music that lasts while Kirsten is lost in the woods, and then, just as she finds her way out, change it to happy music?"). If children are unsure of how to use the numerical information on the counter, adults can model this ("How could we figure out how long Kirsten is lost in the woods for -- what does the counter read when she first realizes she's lost? What does it read when she finds her way out? So, she's alone in the woods from 312 to 573. About how far is it from 312 to 572?"). For children not ready to do such calculations on their own, adults can talk through their own ways of solving the problem. What's most important is that children see that math can play a critical role.

In addition to computation and number, children can also become involved in the math of visualizing and coordinating spatial relationships, planning, and sequencing as they develop their plays. For instance, suppose you want Felicity and Nan to begin at opposite sides of the on-screen stage, run headlong into the center of the room, bump into each other in front of the chair in the center and both fall giggling on the floor. You need to figure out where to initially place each character and how they should move so that they meet at the right place and time.

More broadly, the American Girl Premiere offers a natural context for using mathematics as a tool for enriching understanding of people, places, and events throughout history. As children develop stories based on the lives of the American Girls, they often begin to pose questions rich with mathematical potential: How long ago did Samantha, a child at the turn of the century, live? Could she still be alive today? How old would she be? Could Felicity, a child in the 1770's, have lived through the Civil War? Could she have met Josefina, who grew up in the 1820's? One girl, intrigued by questions such as these, took the initiative to calculate which American Girls could have met during their life times, how old each would have been when they met, how long ago each lived, and whether she could meet any of them in her own life time if they were real people. Another girl became curious when her father asked her if she thought any of the American Girls could have met. Since she was unable to figure this out on her own, father and daughter worked together to do the necessary calculations and develop a timeline illustrating the lives of the American Girls.

Is the Game Equitable?

The American Girls Premiere has many features that research shows appeals to girls: opportunities to design and create, female characters, and a strong focus on communication and story-telling. Many girls and boys enjoy the kind of imaginative play this program affords. Children in this age range often spend hours planning, refining, and acting out stories with their friends, and with toys such as plastic figures, stuffed animals, and dolls. This program enables them to extend their play onto the computer screen as they develop, record, view, revise, and edit their own plays.

This program, like all of the books and materials in the American Girls series, is marketed only to girls. Although the program has the potential to offer excitement and challenge to all children, boys may be reluctant to use it if they see it as a "girl" toy. This would be unfortunate, as its educational value is so strong in its target areas of history, writing, and dramatics, as well as in math.

Is the Game a Good Game?

The American Girls Premiere offers almost limitless possibilities for engagement and challenge. Children can create anything from short scenarios composed only of a couple of characters and actions to long multi-act dramas with sophisticated lighting, background music, and special effects. Some children may spend hours just experimenting with the many features -- arranging characters on the screen, writing dialogues and having the computer read them in different voices, and so on -- before they even record their plays. As children's ideas and abilities develop over time, they can return to the software again and again, to create new plots, staging, and dialogue.

All the power that this software offers comes with some complexity. The many features of this program are available from a variety of on-screen graphic and pull-down menus and sub-menus. While it's possible to discover all the features by exploring these menus, if children are to take full advantage of all the capabilities of the software, they'll benefit from reading the manual or initially working with an adult who has done so. Preadolescence is a critical time for the development of girls' confidence in their mathematical abilities and their enthusiasm about math. One of the most effective ways of fostering girls' engagement in math is by building on the contexts, situations, and activities that girls are interested in. Given the success of the American Girl book series, this program has the potential to engage many girls in mathematical activities that they find meaningful, relevant, and appealing -- particularly if girls are encouraged to use math to enhance their plays and to build their understanding of the lives and times of the characters in them.

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