Zurk's Learning Safari. (educational software) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Peter Scisco
Children will be fascinated by African animals and music as they develop basic skills in this natural learning adventure.
The Serengeti in Tanzania isn't the first place parents look for high-tech learning experiences to share with their kids. But it's an ideal location; children are fascinated by wild animals. Now you can take them on a wilderness excursion like no other. Zurk's Learning Safari, from Soleil Software, brings the creatures of Africa to young discovers, teaching basic skills in a natural environment.
Zurk, an electronic elf, leads the way through various activities, from a simple adventure to challenging jigsaw puzzles. Throughout, the African theme embellishes the program with interesting pictures, music, and possibilities.
At the opening screen, where a lion cub is perched on the arm of an easy chair with a bespectacled lion father reading from a storybook, kids and parents select any of the program's six activities: Zurk's Magic Box, Zurk's Puzzles, Alphabet Soup, Animal Picture Book, Hide and Seek, and Maya's Adventure.
The simplest activity, Zurk's Magic Box teaches shape recognition. Even very young children can open the box by matching two shapes that appear on its front. If, for example, a large crescent and a small circle decorate the box, your child must click on the box, cycling through the smaller shapes until a match appears. After making the match, your child is rewarded with a brief animated sequence featuring Zurk.
Zurk's Puzzles will entertain the youngest children as well as their older siblings. The simplest puzzle, an elephant, shows lines that indicate the shape of the pieces that are to fit in specific places, much like the beginning wooden and cardboard puzzles sold in toy stores. A child drags a piece onto the puzzle, and it snaps to the screen when it's on the correct spot.
The pig puzzle, which doesn't assist with shape lines, will challenge older kids, and the most ambitious puzzle solvers can tackle the landscape puzzle. This puzzle begins with basic shapes like squares, circles, and hearts, and then uses oddly shaped pieces that encourage real logical thinking.
Rounding out the puzzle games are a letter recognition puzzle (put the alphabet on a crocodile's back) and a counting (to ten) puzzle, both suitable for kids ages 4-6.
The same ages will have fun building letter recognition skills with Alphabet Soup. In this game, they match letters that float in a bowl of soup with the same letters that appear in a border around the edge of the screen. Zurk makes an appearance here, running around the border and disappearing beneath one of the letter tiles.
To make Zurk reappear, children must select the floating letter that matches the tile hiding him. If they're successful, Zurk lets out a gleeful yelp before running and hiding under another letter. The game continues until the child has matched all of the letters in the alphabet. Wrong answers aren't punished--but Zurk won't emerge until the correct answer is chosen.
When a letter is selected, it rises from the bowl, transforms into an animal, and then changes back into the letter. Audio-equipped computers pronounce the letter, speak the name of the animal, and then pronounce the letter again. Such audio reinforcement is instrumental in helping kids memorize letters.
The soup bowl uses uppercase letters; the alphabet puzzle, lowercase. Parents can't switch from upper- to lowercase, so children have to move between the games for practice with both cases.
Animal Picture Book contains drawings of each of the 31 animals featured throughout the program. Not an alphabet book with animals from A to Z, the book attempts to strengthen early reading skills. Kids also became familiar with many of the animals indigenous to the African continent and can hear the animals' names pronounced by clicking on the pictures.
The last two activities in Zurk's Learning Safari are more ambitious and will appeal to kids up to age 7. In Hide and Seek, kids hide ten animals in a Serengeti landscape. As they hide the animals, they learn (with their parents' helpful direction) how animals use camouflage to protect themselves. A green turtle may hide among green lily pads on a pond, while a gray lizard may become a shadow against a gray rock. Siblings can be encouraged to play together, one hiding animals and the other finding them.
The second half of this game works in the opposite direction: The computer hides the creatures, and the kids must find them. This is like an electronic version of the popular hidden-picture puzzles in many kids' magazines.
Hide and Seek opens itself to many different ways to play, and it gives parents a chance to talk about other subjects away from the computer. It's a good way to start conversations about prey and predators as well as the wild life of Africa, for instance.
Maya's Adventure rounds out the program's activities. Childen help Maya, a lost lion cub, find her family. Kids use the mouse to move the lion cub around the screen. Maya seeks assistance from her animal friends by poking at them with her paw. On three of the panels (the entire adventure takes place on six panels, but only three are interactive), kids must find the right animal friend and then follow that friend to the next panel. At the end of the adventure, Maya is reunited with her mother and father.
Throughout, Zurk's Learning Safari is lovingly illustrated. Both the animated sequences and the background pictures are rendered in fine detail. The narration, pronunciations, and sound effects do much to enhance the learning and playing experience.
Special attention must be given to the music, which is inspired by African instruments. For that alone, Zurk's Learning Safari deserves praise. Purists may wish for exacting African tunes, but Zurk's Western accommodation helps to introduce children (and parents) to the polyrhythmic sounds they might not otherwise hear. Too few American kids get a chance to appreciate the musical heritage of another culture.
The game's sound effects are generally well designed and used to great effect, from Zurk's high-pitched giggles to letter pronunciations. However, in a program that features so many animals, it's curious that animal sounds are not included in the audio repertoire. Perhaps the idea is that such an inclusion would distract early learners from the lessons that form the core of the program.
Zurk's Learning Safari also gets a good score for its brief manual, which introduces each game with a rhyme and suggests activities for parents and kids that can be enjoyed at or away from the computer.
A few technical notes bear mentioning. Online help is not available; the conventional use of the F1 key to summon help is likely to cause a system crash. Potential buyers should also be aware that the game requires a VESA-compatible video card with 512K of video RAM. Most contemporary cards will meet this specification, and Soleil provides VESA drivers with the program. But if you own a machine that's more than two years old, you should check your manual to make sure you have what's required.
On balance, Zurk's Learning Safari is a fine example of state-of-the-art preschool software. Parents in the hunt for early reading and discovery software can add this to their trophy room of captivating teaching tools.