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March of the (social) penguins

By  Aug 31, 2007

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At camp this summer, my 9-year-old son came home most days with stories about penguins and igloos.

Two of the boys he palled around with were members of Club Penguin, a community site/virtual world where kids 8 to 14 choose a penguin avatar; live in (and decorate) an igloo; adopt pets; and play winter, indoor, and ocean games with other kids.

After hearing his camp friends talk about it all summer, our boy asked if he could join Club Penguin too.

We had concerns. Making friends in a virtual world is much different, of course, than making friends in our nonvirtual one. And who would these "friends" be—how safe would he be in a social site for youngsters?

We told him he could try it out to see if he and we —his parents— liked it. We watched over his shoulder as he became a member, decorated his igloo, and interacted with the other penguins. As we watched, we grew comfortable with his safety on the site.

Our bigger concern, it turns out, is not what he may do on Club Penguin but what he may do instead of Club Penguin. We want to strike a balance between his participation in his real and unreal worlds.

With school starting, he is seeing his school friends again and playing on his sports team and of course doing his homework. We don't want him replacing any of those real activities with virtual versions. And yet, the computer is an important part of his generation's life—and will continue to be. We want to foster those online skills as well.

So after he is done with everything else in the real world, our little penguin goes to hang out with other flightless seabirds.