Kidscope - review of kids' websites    

By Dan Sumption (age 31) and Rowan Jhes Sumption (age 4)

I was sitting at my desk, minding my own business, when Kidscope called me and asked for some website reviews. More specifically, kids website reviews. Well, I can do the web bit with my keyboard tied behind my back, but despite an ongoing battle between my age and my shoe-size, I needed a real kid to help me find out where it's at virtually. Kids' websites are all, I imagine, built by adults; for another adult to review them without reference to the target audience would be a pointless exercise in mental masturbation. Kids respond well to images on the screen: ever since she saw me working on the Coco Pops website a year ago, Rowan draws my attention to "the monkey from your computer" each time we visit a supermarket. So I was interested to see how she would find our small selection of websites.

The sites we reviewed were all TV media-owners' sites - they have a wealth of kid-ready content just waiting to be piped onto the web. I wasn't familiar with too many of the characters, but fortunately Rowan proved to be a good guide.

We sat at the computer and headed first for the Children's' ITV website (or CITV as it's now known: today's hectic pace of life means that now children, like adults, only have time to relate to sets of acronyms). Rowan's initial verdict was "quite good" (although she didn't sound like she meant it). We were asked to vote on whether Pokémon or Batman had the best baddies (Batman - but surely best baddies is, like much of CITV's output, a little oxymoronic). In general, the site was not very appealing or well thought out - pictures were limited to 1 or 2 a page, and even where links had been made graphical, they were just graphical versions of text in a funky font. Research shows that kids tend not to read copy on the web (from my experience most adults don't either) and to be honest this site seemed a little pointless. Individual shows' pages gave a (text only) synopsis of the latest episode and introduction to the characters (yawn) with, if you're lucky, one or two thumbnail pictures.

The Cartoon Network was a great improvement - bright pictures, picture links, a few nice sounds, and we were able to find things that half interested us. Living as we do outside the cable zone, in a region not covered by On Digital, and a Sky blackspot, we are not privy to the delights of channel surfing which the rest of the nation enjoys so much. However, Rowan knew most of the characters here and had fun pointing them out to me. The first cartoon friend she spotted though was not a member of the Network's roster, but little rabbit peering from the top of the screen - "It's milk-shake!!!" she shouted, as she spotted the banner ad for Nesquik. The banners on the site were well targeted - another ad appeared to show a dog mauling a Pokémon, but was actually the Lycos hound "fetching" information on the little yellow critter. In general the site was fun - we enjoyed squirting milk all over the screen from Cow's udders in the Cow & Chicken section - but aimed at slightly older children than Rowan.

My first online excursion with Rowan - over 2 years ago now - had been to the BBC's Teletubbies site. At the time I was impressed by the beautiful and relevant design, and the games which even a 1-year-old with no mouse skills could grasp, all accompanied by educational justification for the benefit of concerned parents. I decided it was high time we paid the BBC another visit, and was very glad we did. Being older and wiser, Rowan has graduated from Teletubby obsession to Tweenie obsession, so we headed straight for the garish puppet-humans' playful world.

Finally we had found an example of everything we were looking for. The site was great for both kids and parents, easy to navigate, packed with things to do, but most of all fun. First we went for the songs - a neat little online stereo playing every song featured in the series, with the words below and the option to print out a song-sheet. At this point Rowan grabbed the microphone I had been using to record her comments, and joined in with the rendition of "Hey, Hey, what do you say...". It took several more songs before I could drag her to another section of the site, and before long I even found myself singing along (all recordings have since been destroyed).

Elsewhere we found Milo playing the drums - a game which let Rowan hit keys to make different drum sounds, and watch Milo hitting the appropriate drum at the same time. We watched some rather fuzzy videos (which, apparently, the Tweenies found "on the Internet" - so we're not the only kids online) of fast and slow animals, and then we browsed through the contents of some of the shows - the level of detail was amazing; each song and activity from each show was available online. My only complaint with this site was that download times were rather long (up to 2 minutes for a page), but Rowan and I had plenty to talk about between pages, so this was not a big problem.

I would like to have reviewed some more sites, but Rowan just wouldn't let me leave the Tweenies behind. Eventually I prised her away from the computer (there was still plenty to come back to on the Tweenies site), but the fun continued offline - she sat herself down for the next hour and coloured in the Tweenie pictures and calendar pages which we had printed at the site.

Building websites for kids involves a little more than building a plain vanilla website and slapping on some wacky fonts. As with the web in general, there's a lot of dross out there and very little quality work, but thankfully the BBC is there to provide inspiration for us all.

© Dan Sumption (age 31) and Rowan Jhes Sumption (age 4), March 1999

Dan Sumption is a Loose Cannon at hard reality Ltd.
Rowan Jhes Sumption has a bright future in the arts, media, sports and politics.

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