When she grows up, 11-year-old Blossom hopes to become a writer, a scientist, or a beauty-salon worker. Cleo, who is 9, wants to be a "vetenarian." And 14-year-old Cassie seeks a job where she "can hang out and surf the Internet all day."
These and lots of other kids are already claiming the World Wide Web as their own. The youngsters jotted down their career aspirations in response to a question posted in the KnowZone section of Jam!z (http://www. jamz.com), an online clubhouse aimed at ages 8 to 14. Among the other recent topics in KnowZone was a discussion of staying healthy. "Eat your vegetables, dude and dudettes!" advised a 9-year-old girl. But a 14-year-old boy took a different tack: "I hate eating food that's good for me! Spinach sucks."
HODGEPODGE. For all the talk of the Internet as a deleterious destination for children, the Web is emerging as a vast and--with reasonable parental precautions taken--amusing and educational playground. "The Internet has great resources for kids, as well as resources developed by kids," says Jean Armour Polly, a onetime librarian and author of The Internet Kids Yellow Pages ($19.95, Osborne/McGraw-Hill.)
Indeed, the Web contains a hodgepodge of materials that may appeal to children of all ages. They can visit a volcano or NASA, check out an array of museum exhibits, fill in a coloring book, solve puzzles, and get an inside peek at some terrifying roller coasters. Socks, the First Cat, leads a virtual tour of the White House. At the Yuckiest Site on the Internet (http:// www.nj.com/ yucky), kids can read A Day in the Life of Rodney Roach, a tale that puts a positive spin on those yucky bugs. PBS Online (http://www.pbs.org) includes separate home pages for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and The Magic Schoolbus, as well as material for older family members.
Many Web sites feature a not-so-subtle commercial message, though they're not all objectionable. Walt Disney's page is a giant billboard for the company, but kids still might like to download video clips from 101 Dalmatians, Mary Poppins, and other classic movies. Crayola's site (http:www. crayola.com) includes a demonstration of how crayons are made. There's a basic animation lesson at the Warner Bros. Online site (http://www.warnerbros.com), and Web pages for Tweety Bird and other cartoon characters. Kids can also download "connect the dots" and jigsaw puzzles, though they'll need Macromedia's Shockwave plug-in software to take advantage of these multimedia games.
Schools have a growing presence on the Web. Many elementary and secondary institutions maintain pages that allow students and teachers to speak out about topics that concern them. Some sites also offer assistance for projects and term papers. The MAD Scientist Network (http://medinfo. wustl.edu/~ysp/MSN/) lets children, or anyone else for that matter, submit questions to graduate and medical students at Washington University in St. Louis on subjects such as astronomy, botany, and genetics. ("How old is the oldest tree, and what kind is it, and where is it growing?" asked one visitor.) In many sites, kids can exchange ideas and opinions with pen pals around the planet.
FILTERS. Of course, "don't talk to strangers" takes on a whole new meaning in cyberspace. Because of the nature of the Web, unsupervised kids may end up clicking on links that transport them to inappropriate territory. So as in a real playground, parents should not let the little ones wander off too far online by themselves. Whenever possible, parents should check out Web pages before the kids do. They should sit with small children at the PC. And they may even want to restrict their older kids' access to the Net by using a filtering program, such as SurfWatch Software from Spyglass (800 458-6600) or Cyber Patrol (800 828-2608) from Microsystems Software (BW--Feb. 12). America Online, CompuServe, and other commercial online services also let parents block certain areas to kids.
Be especially careful in newsgroups and chat areas, says Julie McKeehan, author of Safe Surfing: A Family Guide to the Net ($24.95, AP Professional). That's where pornographic or violent material is likely to be disseminated and unsavory characters most often congregate. McKeehan urges parents to caution their kids never to reveal their E-mail or home address, phone number, last name, or other personal data.
Some of the frustrations grownups have in surfing the Web may turn out to be intolerable for kids' short attention spans. Regardless of modem speed, many Web sites can be painfully slow. And when graphics take a lot of time to materialize, young children "just can't sit through it," says McKeehan. "They want to know what's coming, what's coming, what's coming...." That said, snazzy graphics may appeal to some kids, so discovering the proper balance may require some test runs.
SHOW AND TELL. Indeed, surfing for kid-friendly Web sites isn't much easier than finding grownup sites, which is one reason some parents might prefer to stick to the fine kids' fare offered on AOL, Prodigy, and CompuServe's new family WOW! service. Parents who go the Internet route (which they can also do via the commercial online services) can call upon the usual Internet search engines in finding children's sites. Yahoo! has a special version for sites designed for 8- to 14-year-olds called Yahooligans! Kids can search by topic (school bell, sports and recreation, science and oddities). Berit's Best Sites for Children (http:www.cochran.com/ theosite/ksites.html) contains links to other Web pages that are rated on a five-point scale. Jean Armour Polly's Fifty Extraordinary Experiences for Internet Kids (http://www.well.com/user/ polly/ikyp.exp.html), from the Yellow Pages author, and Uncle Bob's Kids' Page are also decent places to begin your query.
Landing on suitable Web sites should be only the first step. Steve Bennett, who runs the Family Surfboard site, believes "the real learning starts when you turn the computer off." Bennett says that after youngsters visit KidNews (http://www. vsa.cape.com/~powens/ Kidnews3.html), a free news service for students and teachers, they might clip articles from newspapers and magazines, tape them to the refrigerator, and hold weekly "editorial sessions" with family members. Or, kids who check out the Global Show-n-Tell page (http:// www.telenaut.com/gst) where a California condor and red-spectacled parrot are currently on display, should be encouraged to follow up with a family show-and-tell evening.
MAKING PAGES. The ultimate show-and-tell vehicle for the children may be Web pages that they create and post themselves. Microsoft's $35 Creative Writer 2 for Windows 95, scheduled to debut in September and aimed at 8-year-olds and up, includes features that will let kids easily publish their own Web pages. Similarly, Vividus' $30 Web Workshop for Apple Macintosh and Windows comes with easy-to-use paint tools, background images, and clip art. Kids can also record their own voices and automatically add links to Yahooligans! and Kids Clubs displayed on Vividus' Web site (http://www.vividus.com). By pushing a button, children can publish the pages on their Internet service provider. They can also download free software for creating rudimentary pages on services such as America Online.
The World Wide Web can already help children stimulate their minds and connect with new friends. But just like adult-oriented material, kiddie content on the Internet is still in its infancy. As the offerings become faster and more compelling, you may find that one computer for the family is no longer sufficient.