The good news: the answer to every question your child will ever ask is available on the World Wide Web. The bad news: it may take hours or even days to locate it. As most parents quickly discover, searching online is easy. Finding is another story. All too often, kids and their parents get buried under an avalanche of information that stifles curiosity instead of stimulating it. For elementary and even middle school children, the best solution is search engines designed just for kids. Several are available and they correspond loosely to the research tools parents remember from their own school days:
The Answer Man. Asking a well-informed adult is one of the best ways for young kids to get information. At Ask Jeeves for Kids (ajkids.com), children can type in questions instead of key words. Like a real adult, Ask Jeeves is better at answering some questions than others.
Reference Books. Factmonster (factmonster.com) puts a dictionary, almanac and encyclopedia at your child’s fingertips. It’s a great choice when a child needs "just the facts."
Card catalogue. Yahooligans (yahooligans.com) produces a list of kid-friendly resources culled from the larger database at Yahoo. Like the old-fashioned card catalogue at the library, it may include a just-right website. More likely, your child will need to browse dozens (but not thousands!) of websites to find relevant information.
Librarian. Librarians have recommended and reviewed the resources at Kids Click (http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/KidsClick!/), so kids can have the benefit of their expertise without having to stammer out their question. Not every topic is covered, but the information kids find has been screened for accuracy and accessibility .
How fast kids outgrow these search engines depends, in part, on how interested they are in popular culture. Kid-friendly search engines often don’t produce results for hot artists or computer games. Also, some time during middle school, most children will be assigned a research project that calls for the more sophisticated power of an adult search engine. To use grown-up search engines effectively, kids need to know just a little about how they work. The biggest search engines, such as Google (google.com) and FAST (alltheweb.com), depend on crawlers — software powered robots that scan millions of web pages to find key words. Crawlers are fast and effective, but not intelligent. They won’t distinguish between sites providing information and those selling products. They can’t tell the difference between an authoritative article by an expert and the half-baked opinions of a crank. Though some include filters for pornography, they won’t automatically recognize unsavory websites. Before turning kids loose with such search engines, parents will definitely want to review family rules about surfing and may also want to consider filtering software. (For suggested programs, see Getnetwise.com). Directories, a second kind of search engine, try to organize the content on the Internet into subject areas. The websites listed by Yahoo (yahoo.com) and other directories have been reviewed by real people who identify those that are most likely to be useful. Sometimes this yields more relevant results, but not always. To get a grip on the strengths and weaknesses of different search engines, suggest that your child use several to look up a topic he or she knows well, and compare the results. When it comes time to search for unfamiliar material, encourage your child to choose key words carefully. Not only will that make searching more effective, it will also help your child focus his or her thinking. Figuring out exactly what you want to know is the first step to a successful search.
Here are some other tips to share with your child: —Be specific. Writing about boa constrictors? Put that into the search engine instead of snakes. Also, consider using synonyms that may be more precise. —Work from left to right. Put the most important words first, followed by less important words. If your child doesn’t get enough results, drop the last and least important word. —Use quote marks around words that should appear together. Looking for "John F. Kennedy" will zero in on the former president instead of returning websites about his family members. —Add wanted words. Using + before a word tells the search engine it must be included. To find information about famous female basketball players, try basketball +women. —Subtract unwanted words. Using – tells the search engine to eliminate sites with that word. Looking for Cowboys –football will produce better information about herding cows. —Add FAQ to get basic information. The Internet is full of Frequently Asked Question pages written by experts tired of answering the same questions again and again. They can be goldmines for kids. —Add News to get timely information. Searching for News +Iraq produces the latest headlines, instead of background information about history and culture. —Finally, encourage your child to be persistent and enjoy the journey. Parents who grew up with encyclopedias probably remember that the best part of looking something up was getting lost in articles about subjects you never knew existed. The World Wide Web offers the same serendipitous satisfactions. If a search is really successful, children will both find what they are looking for, and discover new things they want to know.