Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 138 / FEBRUARY/MARCH 1992 / PAGE 94

Kid Works. (software package) (Evaluation)
by Heidi E.H. Aycock

Your child comes home an hour later than you'd expected. You ask where he's been. "What took you so long?" you ask.

"Well, there was this big dinosaur in the school parking lot, and he wouldn't let me get on the bus," your child says. When you hear the tall-tale engine reviving up, do you stop the process pronto? Or do you listen carefully, ask for details, and pull out some crayons and paper so your child can draw an artistic rendering of the events in question?

Imagine, if you can, swallowing your anger and encouraging your child to express what's in his imagination. Paper, pencil, and crayons make ideal tools for elaborating on such tales, but so do computers--especially now that Davidson & Associates has released Kid Works, a kid-sized writing program with graphics and sound.

There's a big difference between exercising your imagination and lying. Relish your child's fabricated adventure. Turn on the computer, start up Kid Works, and say, "Tell me more. Type in what happened."

Your child sits at the computer and sees an electronic sheet of paper that looks just like the especially lined paper he uses in elementary school--lots of space and a dotted guideline running between the lines. Hands poised on the keyboard, your child begins to type an epic tale of stout-hearted courage.

After he's put several well-written lines onscreen, he jumps up from the computer and tells you he's finished. "Read my story," he says.

"Let's make the computer read your story," you say. "Click on the mouth at the top of the screen to hear it."

Your child easily finds the correct icon, and a robotic voice read back the whole exciting tale.

"Some of these words would make good pictures, wouldn't they?" you say to your child.

"Yeah, like the dinosaur," he says.

"Let's click on the button that turns words into pictures," you say. You have to point this one out because it isn't as obvious as the Mouth icon was. Your child clicks on it, and suddenly several of the words become small pictures. The word run changes into a small picture of a child running. The word eat changes into a kid eating a slice of pizza; the word fast, into a picture of a tortoise racing a hare, with an arrow pointing at the here. The word dinosaur changes into a picture of a green thunder lizard.

"That's not what the dinosaur looked like, though," says your child. "For one thing, it wasn't green, it was purple." "Why don't you draw one? Click on the picture of the paintbrush and bucket," you say.

Now he has colors, drawing tools, and funny stamps with which he can draw his dinosaur. When he finishes, he can insert the picture into the story. He can draw other scenes for the story, too.

After he's finished writing and illustrating, he can play the story back. The robotic voice reads his words and icons while his pictures pop up, full size. In effect, your child has written his own electronic storybook.

Kid Works is a treat for children and a godsend for parents who want to encourage creativity. It's a perfect adjunct to reading aloud and adds new meaning to the idea of storytelling.

Besides helping your children write picture books, the program can do many other tricks. It can help them learn to read new words; the electronic voice will read aloud any word they choose. By setting up matching games, parents can reinforce associative skills; the computer can check the child's work by reading aloud the words as they're matched. Kids can learn about sequencing and comparing by writing whole stories from icons--the program provides loads of icons--but you can make your own, too. Kid Works looses a flurry of projects and games for kids. Even before they can type, your children can benefit from this new package if you'll sit with them, typing the words that they say and helping them draw pictures.

The program is large in scope, and the collection of tools is deal. While it won't replace the time you spend reading aloud and spinning yarns with your children in your lap, Kid Works will add a new dimension to the concept of telling stories. Because it emphasizes all of the elements of a good tale, this program will stir up creative juices and reinforce imaginative play. It will encourage such varied behaviors as parent-child cooperation and child independence. You can work together on a project or let your kids produce surprise masterpieces.

The speech portion of the program sets it apart from many other children's word processors and graphics programs. Kids will love to hear their stories read aloud by the computer (though to an adult the voice may sound a little sterile and mechanical). Because you can teach the voice to read words it doesn't already know, you can teach it to say your child's name. Best of all, you don't need to run out and get a sound card to benefit from the speech capabilities. Even on a plain PC speaker, you can hear the voice very well. Kid Works also sports some charming sound effects that punctuate the interface, but to hear these, you'll need an Ad Lib, a Sound Blaster, or another add-on sound board.

Kid Works' only weakness is its interface. The program is so massive and has so many modules to manage that it's easy to get lost. Some icons clearly denote their functions. Others, however, are obscure.

Creating these icons must have been a tough challenge for the program designers. Imagine coming up with an icon for the move function (analogous to cut-and-paste in many word processors). Kid Works uses the image of two moving people carrying a crate. Pretty good. But when it comes to the icon for cancel, the designers might have come up with a more obvious choice than a hand with its palm facing out.

In some parts of the program, you have to go through too many steps. If you want to quit, for example, you click on the Stop icon at the top of the screen. If you haven't saved yet, the program makes you go through the save procedure--clicking in a few dialog boxes--before it quits. The program should simply ask you if you want to save before quitting and do it for you. The save process itself requires two clicks too many.

In spite of the interface problems, Kid Works is still a great program. Don't let the complexity of the package scare you away from the enormous benefits. Your kids can only grow more creative and more confident in their abilities if they use this program.

Imagine your child has finished writing his story about coming home from school.

He's drawn illustrations of his battle with the dinosaur, his triumphant exodus from the schoolyard, and his tired journey home. You've replayed the talking picture book six times, sitting together. You've exchanged a few laughs, a few hugs, a few daydreams. Then you say, "OK, that was a great story, but what really happened?"

Your child looks down at his hands, winces a little with the sting of the truth, and then lets you have it: "I traded my watch to Timmy for this cool lizard he caught. Then the lizard ran away, and I had to help look for her. I lost track of time."

"Your new watch! The one Grandma got you for your birthday?" You shudder. "What did the lizard look like?"

It may have taken a long time to uncover what happened, but Kid Works made it a fun time. And your child learned the difference between a tall tale and a true tale--and the value of each.