Virtual worlds for pre-schoolers? They're here

Knowledge Adventure, the maker of kids' educational game software JumpStart, plans Monday to begin selling virtual world software for 3- to 5-year-olds.

The ride-height requirement on virtual worlds is about to move down a few inches.

Knowledge Adventure, the maker of kids' educational game software JumpStart, plans Monday to begin selling virtual world software for 3- to 5-year-olds. The software, called JumpStart Advanced Preschool World, will encourage kids to learn their ABCs by playing games in a 3D version of the beach or a jungle, with heavy use of voice and images instead of text. And it will give young ones their first taste of creating and decorating an avatar.

The software will sell for $29.99 at stores including Target, Best Buy, Office Depot, and Amazon.com. But Knowledge Adventure plans to launch a Web site in July that will let parents and kids access the virtual world online on a monthly subscription basis. For between $8 and $12, parents can check their kids' progress on educational games from the Web; and kids will be able to share artwork with peers, personalize their environments, and play new games.

Torrance, Calif.-based Knowledge Adventure is the latest media company to join the virtual world fray with the goal of staying relevant to a generation of tech-savvy kids. Disney, Nickelodeon, PBS, Mattel and a raft of start-ups are frantically trying to create destinations that will appeal to children.

Like Disney and others, Knowledge Adventure is aiming to build onto a brand that's already familiar to parents and kids. But it's one of the first companies to dip into serving pre-schoolers online.

"We're extending a trusted brand to the Internet," said David Lord, CEO of Knowledge Adventure. "A lot of people are raising money to build something new, but we're not building something new--there are 15 million people who've already bought these products," he added, referring to JumpStart's educational software.

Still, some child safety advocates worry about younger children in interactive virtual environments. Parry Aftab, an online child safety advocate, said that virtual worlds are trending younger and younger. She's even seen 3-year-olds using Webkinz, one of the more popular simulated environments for kids.

But, she said, parents and the companies that serve these kids don't often realize the risks involved in an interactive environment where kids are socializing online.

For example, kids as young as 5 or 6 years have been known to use virtual worlds as a way to "cyber bully" peers, she said. And they'll figure out how to do it within the parameters of the environment. A child might name a virtual room after another child that he or she wants to ridicule, e.g., "Mary is fat."

"A lot of the offline companies don't know what they're dealing with online and don't have the right risk management and participation from parents to prevent these issues," Aftab said.

JumpStart's preschool software is heavy on participation from parents--and it will be the same when the company introduces its online component in July, Lord said. For example, parents can upload family photos into the virtual world, or send messages to their child in the world.

Founded in 1991, Knowledge Adventure was acquired by Vivendi Universal in the late 1990s. In 2004, the media conglomerate spun out the kids-software division. At the time, it raised $21 million from Azure Capital and Telesoft Capital. Last month, it raised another $5 million from the same venture capitalists so that it could get to profitability. The company has been working on an online virtual world component to its software for the last three years, Lord said.

"We are very skilled at building software products for kids, with immersive 3D play, gaming, and adventure-based learning. (This new software) is not a hangout place--it's an immersive environment," he said.

 

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