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Friday, May 29, 2009

Undercover Mom in Poptropica, Part 1: Virtual World with educational elements

By Sharon Duke Estroff

I chose Poptropica.com as the site of my latest undercover mom investigation because of its first-place ranking in the 5-to-10-year-old bracket. With 20 million unique accounts and counting, it is indeed a heavy hitter in the burgeoning children’s virtual world market.

But I was also intrigued by the Poptropica's educational spin. The site's parent company is Family Education Network (FEN), developers of one of my favorite teaching resources, Funbrain.com. As worthy a site as Funbrain may be, however, it’s not the kind a kid would visit voluntarily without the urging of a parent, educator, or academic tutor. Could a children’s Web site as hopping as Poptropica possibly be on the same educational plain as Funbrain? I was determined to find out what kind of fare this populous virtual world was really serving up.

What I Liked About Poptropica


  • Underlying Storylines. In contrast to some children's virtual worlds that are essentially animated chatrooms, Poptropica consists of a collection of uniquely themed islands with equally unique underlying storylines. Shark Tooth Island, for example, has a distinctly reggae-like feel and is being tormented by a vicious shark. Time Tangled Island is set 50 years in the future (complete with a wrinkled, decrepit version of your avatar) and revolves around a malfunctioning time machine that has distorted history.

  • Overlying Purpose. Whatever the island's particular problem may be, it's up to you, the kid, to find the solution. Such active quests engage children from the get-go while minimizing boredom-induced troublemaking behaviors such as cyberbullying. I was also pleased to find a virtual world where kids' ultimate purpose was something besides getting and spending money.

  • Helpful, Directive Avatars. Logging onto a virtual world for the first time can be a confounding and oddly isolating experience. Poptropica takes good care of its "newbies" by sending out resident avatars to greet kids and give them the skinny on the particular mission at hand. These avatars also provide players with clues and props to assist in their mystery-busting endeavors.

  • Drop-Down Q&As. Unlike many virtual worlds that offer the option of free (albeit monitored) chat, Poptropica conversation is limited to a series of pre-selected drop-down questions and answers. While such constraints might feel like a straitjacket in more schmoozing-focused virtual worlds, it works nicely in Poptropica. Kids’ interactions remain positive and upbeat while the pre-set choices teach children how to engage in socially appropriate conversation in virtual worlds at large.

  • Educational Undertones. I was happy to discover that Poptropica does indeed boast an admirable educational dimension. Kids travel back in time and meet historical figures like Leonardo daVinci and Thomas Edison. They traipse through Aztec Ruins and learn about the dorsal fins of Great White sharks. Children who want to learn more about a particular subject can click a button that links them directly to more info at FEN's FactMonster.com.

    Next week: What I'm not so crazy about in Poptropica.

    Screenshots

  • Online chat, Poptropica-style
  • Me 'n' Leonardo Davinci
  • Solving mysteries for the betterment of mankind (kinda)

    For an index of the complete Undercover Mom series to date, please click here.

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