THE WORLD INSIDE THE COMPUTER
Fred D'lgnazio, Associate Editor
Fred D'Ignazio is a computer enthusiast and author of several books on computers for young people. His books include Katie and the Computer (Creative Computing), Chip Mitchell: The Case of the Stolen Computer Brains (Dutton/Lodestar), The Star Wars Question and Answer Book About Computers (Random House), and How To Get Intimate With Your Computer (A 10-Step Plan To Conquer Computer Anxiety) (McGraw-Hill).
As the father of two young children, Fred has become concerned with introducing the computer to children as a wonderful tool rather than as a forbidding electronic device. His column appears monthly in COMPUTE!.
This month we're going to take a look at three computer products for children, all associated with the Muppets, that lovable gang of characters invented by Jim Henson and Associates in New York.
The first product we'll examine is the Muppet Learning Keys, codeveloped by Christopher Cerf of Henson Associates, Koala Technologies (which makes the popular KoalaPad), and Sunburst Software, one of the foremost educational software publishers. The keys cost $80 and plug into the joystick socket on your Commodore 64 or Apple computer.
Muppet Learning Keys is intended for children age three and up. But it is not just for children. If someone is intimidated by computers and mystified by the computer's keyboard, then the Muppet Keys may be just the thing—at least to get started. The keys are large buttons with big, easy-to-read letters, numbers, words, and colorful pictures of the Muppets. They are easy to use regardless of the shape or size of your fingers.
The alphabet keys are arranged alphabetically, not in the mysterious QWERTY order you see on typewriter and computer keyboards. Next to these keys is a paint box to change colors on the screen. There is an Eraser to erase the picture on the screen. There is a Help key, in case you are lost and need help. There is an Oops key that lets you undo a mistake. There is even a Zap key you can punch when you are tired of playing a game and you want to go back to the main menu and select a new game.
Koala Technologies' Muppet Learning Keys is an auxiliary computer keyboard especially suited for young children.
Like other touch pads on the market, Muppet Learning Keys comes with software on disk. More software is planned for additional activities. However, the important thing to remember is that this is not just a new application or software product for your computer. It is a new keyboard for the computer—especially suitable for children and beginners. Already, some of the most prestigious software publishers are designing new games and educational programs for this keyboard.
However, since it's a new product, the only thing that works with it now is the Muppet disk from Koala Technologies. This might influence you to postpone buying the product until more software becomes available. Also, you might wonder if it's worth paying $80 for an additional keyboard with pictures of Muppets, paintbrushes, compasses, and rulers. Wouldn't kids be better off using real rulers and real paintbrushes instead of imaginary ones on a computer?
Some sample screens from Brøderbund Software's Welcome Aboard! The Muppets Cruise to Computer Literacy, an educational program for youngsters.
This seems like a good question—until you have seen a young child or a computerphobic adult approach a computer keyboard for the first time. Usually they're frozen into inaction by the bewildering number of keys and the strange symbols. Muppet Learning Keys offers an attractive alternative to the standard keyboard. It is a beginner's keyboard—familiar, colorful, and inviting—and both children and adults warm up to it quickly.
The Muppet Institute Of Technology
The Muppet Institute of Technology (or "M.I.T.") was endowed by Simon & Schuster to offer early learning courses to children who use microcomputers. The Institute is the whimsical creation of Frank Schwartz of Simon & Schuster's Electronic Publishing Division. It doesn't charge a price for its software; it charges fuition. And in every package, children who complete the imaginary course are awarded a diploma and course credits.
The first two products come from the Institute's Reading Department and are intended for children ages four to eight. Each costs $40 and will be available for the Commodore 64 at the end of the year, and for the Apple early in 1985. In The Great Gonzo in Word Rider, Gonzo's favorite chicken, Camilla, has been kidnapped and carried away into the mountains. Children go on a quest with Gonzo to rescue Camilla. They have to survive several hazards on the journey. On the way, they construct vehicles that allow them to make it safely through the hazards. The vehicles are fanciful—like Gonzo's Rolling Hornblower. Yet they are also logically suited for the particular hazard the child must overcome. On the way to rescuing poor Camilla, children gain skills in reading, vocabulary, word usage, problem solving, and elementary logic.
In the second program, Kermit's Electronic Storymaker, children build stories using nouns, verbs, and prepositions, plus Muppets, locations of Muppets, and Muppet actions. For example, children can place Miss Piggy in a desert and make her fly, or they can set Kermit spinning under the ocean. Children learn new words as they build their stories. Then they can make the computer display their stories, like a slide show, and save the stories on disk so they can read them later.
Welcome Aboard! The Muppets Cruise To Computer Literacy
The third Muppet computer product, Welcome Aboard! The Muppets Cruise to Computer Literacy, comes from Henson Associates and Brøderbund Software and costs about $40. This is another product, like the Muppet Learning Keys, that is ideal both for children age five and up and for all computer beginners.
You begin your voyage with the Muppets by viewing a cross section of their ship on the computer screen. The picture of the ship is really a disguised menu. You can choose different activities by pressing the arrow keys to position a small anchor in any of the rooms, including a Message Center, Computer Room, Joke Library, Salon de Beauté, Game Room, and the Bridge.
The beauty of Welcome Aboard! is that on the surface you're playing make-believe games with the Muppets, while actually you are learning about important computer applications, such as using the computer as an electronic typewriter, post office, and file cabinet. You are learning how to create computer pictures, or graphics, and how to program the computer. And, most importantly, you are learning to take control of the computer and use it as a tool to accomplish meaningful goals.
In the Message Center, for example, you don't just write letters. Instead, you send messages to the crew of the Muppet boat, and then they send messages back to you. You can choose to edit the messages or save them on disk for later reference. On the Bridge, you use a Logo-like Muppet programming language called Slowgo to pilot the Muppets' ship across the treacherous sea to its goal—either Pig Island or Frog Island.
In the past, I've been a major critic of teaching children how to program in regular computer languages such as Logo or BASIC because I feel that programming has little meaning to a child, and it has little practical use in the child's world. In Welcome Aboard!, however, both of my criticisms have been at least partly answered. Children program the computer to help the Muppets navigate a boat (a practical task), and to help them reach their destination without sinking (a meaningful objective).
Many of the computer products on the market for children suffer from the same maladies. Either they are trivial copies of activities children would be better off doing with paper, scissors, glue, modeling clay, and fingerpaints, or they are cheap commercial spinoffs of popular products in other media—software Smurfs, superheroes, and Barbie dolls. Or they are so insipid and uninspired that adults avoid them and children quickly get bored with them.
But the Muppet products are a pleasant surprise. They are charming, educational, and practical. They are equally attractive to children and adults. They take characters which are successful in other media—on TV and in the movies—and bring them to life on the computer "stage." They teach fundamental skills such as how to use a computer, how to read, plan, and reason logically, and they do it not by dull, rote drill, but with exciting adventures, like rescuing other creatures, piloting a ship across hazardous straits, and communicating with other creatures. These products teach computing not as a science or hobby, but as a tool to accomplish practical goals and to help other people.
However, the key ingredient in all these products is missing if you plop your child in front of the computer and walk away. The ingredient does not come packaged inside the boxes and it's not found inside any computer. The key ingredient is your attention. If you and your child use these products together, the experience will be far richer and more valuable for both of you than if you use them alone.
For More Information
Koala Technologies Corporation
3100 Patrick Henry Drive
Santa Clara, CA 95050
Sunburst Communications, Inc.
39 Washington Avenue
Pleasantville, NY 10570
Simon & Schuster Electronic Publishing Group
Simon & Schuster Building
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
Brøderbund Software, Inc.
17 Paul Drive
San Rafael, CA 94903