I don’t have children, but I would imagine one of the sticking points is figuring out when to introduce the Internet, and all the things it contains. Yes, the Internet is very much an adult place much of the time, and there’s a lot of it inappropriate for children (and adults, too!), but it’s such a part of everyday life that introducing a child to the Internet, or at the very least letting them get comfortable with the computer, is important. I was browsing through addons to the Firefox web browser and found the Zoodles extension. Zoodles is – at least based on my use of it – a fun and safe environment for kids that lets them have a good time on the computer without the potential for stumbling into a dangerous or unsafe website.
Zoodles works by taking over the “chrome” of your web browser (the URL bar, forward and backward buttons, the search bar), and only allowing the Zoodles interface to appear. From this interface, kids can play games, draw, read books and more. The games have been selected by the Zoodles staff, and contain a wide variety of activities. There were sports games and building games, learning games and other educational games designed to foster creative thinking. The games can be accessed from the games tab in the Zoodles interface, and played simply by clicking the game’s picture. The games themselves come from a variety of websites around the Internet. There was a Disney games, a football game (designed for kids), from ESPN, and a ninja game from Hasbro. I didn’t try out every game, but I think they’d be fun for kids (and some were even kind of fun for me!).
The nice thing is that parental controls do exist, even on a website targeted to kids. You’ll need to sign up for a free account in order to use Zoodles; this allows you to create different accounts for multiple children, as well as for the parents to control what type of content is seen. If you want less violent children (which would remove the ninja training game), you can click a checkbox. There are also options to remove all video content, as well as to set time limits and to promote educational games. As the parent, you can also view what activities your child spends time doing on Zoodles, and what subjects those games promote. The free account includes a 14-day trial to the parent’s premium features, which include the ability to “promote subjects, block ads, block content and gain insights into how their free play on Zoodles maps to the skills they should be developing.” The free area for kids will remain free, even after the 14-day trial expires.
In addition to games, there is a basic drawing application. Children can choose which color to draw with, the size of the pencil tool, erase mistakes, and even save their art when it is complete. These pictures can then be viewed, edited at a later point, and you as a parent can give gold stars to particularly good work.
There is also a reading area. At the moment, it is populated with a few classics for kids: Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Princess And The Pea, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack And The Beanstalk, The Emperor’s New Clothes, and The Tortoise And The Hare. Although all of these books can be looked at by kids, only the first can be viewed by a child on his or her own. That one already has a video recording of a father reading the story to his daughters. You can record your own reading video, which would then be available to your child, or you can go to the Zoodles website and read it from there. Each book is illustrated with color pictures, and can be navigated by the child by clicking big forward and backward arrows.
As I said at the top, I’m pretty impressed with Zoodles. The interface is full of big, colorful text, big, colorful navigational buttons, and lots of fun games for kids. This isn’t something you’d want to leave an older child with, necessarily (leaving Zoodles is as simple as clicking an “X” button, typing “QUIT” and hitting the Enter key, which then reveals the standard Firefox web browser ready to browse the entire, unfiltered Internet. But for young children it’s a nice choice, I think. Lots of fun, a safe environment, and even the possibility of your child learning something! It’s free to use, with added controls and parental options for a fee. The extension works with the Firefox web browser, and can be downloaded from the Firefox Addons page below.