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Review of
My Make Believe Castle

My Castle screen shots Published by: Logo Computer Systems Inc.
Year: 1995
Age Range: 4-7
Glass Wall Suggested Age Range: 4-8
Platform Information: Mac or PC
Reviewer: Marlene Kliman

Is the Game Mathematical?

My Make Believe Castle provides an engaging and easy way for children to create animations. Children "program" their animations by positioning characters on the screen, drawing the paths these characters will move along, and putting icons -- small pictures representing actions -- along these paths. When a character moves over an icon, it does the associated action: when the jester moves over the ballet slipper, she dances; when she comes into contact with the magic wand, she turns into a poodle; when she moves over the puddle and then the magnifying glass with the "-" sign in it, she gets wet and shrinks. It's easy for children to revise their animations by re-drawing paths, and by moving or changing characters or icons.

Creating animations brings in a range of mathematical reasoning and problem-solving skills. If a child wants the witch and prince to start at different ends of the room, meet under the coat of arms and then start dancing, she needs to figure out where to initially place each character and how they should move so that they meet at the same place and time. If she wants the dragon to jump for joy, sing aloud, jump up on the chair and meet the princess, then twirl to the mirror and take a look, she needs to plan a sequence of actions, emotions, and interactions.

In addition to the animation features, My Make Believe Castle contains several varied activities. Three of these are design-oriented (creating a drawing to hang in the castle bedroom, making a family crest for the front of the castle, composing a tune for the harp). The others deal with problem-solving and reasoning. Two involve some mathematics, and are geared toward the younger end of the 4-7 age range. In one, children practice with spatial relationships as they guide an ant through a maze. In the other, they count and work with counting and sequencing as they play an entertaining memory game similar to the card game "concentration." In this game, they match pairs of hidden action icons. When they find a pair, designated characters do the action.

A couple of other activities purporting to engage children in reasoning are less successful. For instance, in one activity, children set up a catapult that hurls a fruit at a target. The catapult is set in motion when a character jumps on it. Only certain combinations of characters and fruits reach the target at the correct angle; children need to figure out which ones work. The manual explains that this activity is designed to introduce concepts of weight, angle, and distance -- a heavy character can only launch heavy fruits at the correct angle; a light character can only launch a light one. While children will find meaning in exploring these concepts with actual objects, this pairing of fruits and characters seems arbitrary when transported to the computer screen, where things have no weight.

An adult presence is at least initially helpful if children are to use the activities, since they are "hidden" throughout the castle environment. For instance, to get to an obstacle course activity, children need to find and click on a hidden scroll which appears in some rooms, then carry out an animation sequence given on the scroll. While persistent children who click on everything may eventually discover this and other activities, others may not readily find them on their own.

Likewise, although the on-screen animation menu is easy to use, most children will benefit from the presence of an adult who can introduce them to the animation features. Adults can also encourage children to develop ideas for animations that are feasible yet challenging. ("Can you get the dragon to climb up and down the tree?" "Can you find a way for the prince to cross the moat without falling in?") The manual contains quite a few good questions that adults can ask to stimulate children's curiosity and exploration; it also offers ideas for related off-line projects that support and enhance work with the program.

Is the Game Equitable?

Although My Make Believe Castle is not designed specifically for girls, it contains features that many girls will find appealing. Research suggests that girls are particularly attracted to computer games that offer rich stories, female characters, opportunities for communication and collaboration, no time pressure, and chances to design and create -- all of which are present in My Make Believe Castle. My 7 year old daughter agrees: "I think girls would like this program because it's got fantasy, a castle, and a princess in it, and girls like that. You get to draw and make up stories, and girls like that, too!"

My 5 and 7 year old daughters use this program for the same type of imaginative play they do with other media -- with plastic people and animals, with pencil and paper, with costumes, and with musical instruments. In all of these, they tell stories, arrange figures in different places, and discuss relationships among characters. What this program offers that's different is a way to plan and record the story, watch it acted out, and then revise and extend it.

My Make Believe Castle accommodates a range of learning styles: while some children will be comfortable designing animations of their own, others will at least initially benefit from more structure. For these children, the program provides activities, on-screen suggestions for some fairly simple animations, and suggestions for a wider range of animations in the manual.

Is It a Good Game?

Children's long-term engagement with the program will probably center on designing animations. Although some of the activities afford opportunities for creativity and problem-solving, they offer little variety, and some children, especially at the older end of the age range, may outgrow them quickly. The animations, by contrast, can be approached at many different levels, and are likely to sustain children's engagement as their as their skills and imaginations develop over time.

The suggested upper limit of the age range for this program is 7, but it can offer appropriate experiences for slightly older children as well. Although my 7 year old can use more complex programming environments and has lamented the fact that she can't enter text into the stories she creates with My Make Believe Castle, she returns to the program again and again, to make increasingly complex animation sequences and to weave stories around them. I suspect she will continue to use this program in rich and challenging ways even as she gets a bit older, as long as her interest in castles and fantasy remains.

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