What to look for in children's software. (Compute's Getting Started With: Kids & Computer)
While children's software may sound like a category all its own, you'll find a wide array of program types within it. And just as most corporate software libraries wouldn't be complete without at least a word processor, a spreadsheet, a database, and and an e-mail program, the software library you develop for your kids should include programs from various niches--reading, writing, math, science, and logic skills.
Software for the very young often offers you a little of each in a single program. Fisher-Price, a respected name in pre-school toys, introduces preschoolers to computers with a variety of Creativity Kits, a Picture Dictionary, and several developmental games.
Many programs are less concerned with specific topics than they are with providing a kind of learning environment that kids can explore. Typical of these are Broderbund's The Playroom. It lets kids explore a simulated playroom with various toys. By clicking on the toys, children can access games that teach basic reading and math skills. The Treehouse offers similar activities for somewhat older, primary school kids.
Yoi'll also find an array of activities in Sierra's A.J. World of Discovery. This $49.95 program is a bit unique in that you can easily (an inexpensively) add learning modules. Once installed, you can use the opening screen to access the additional add-on lessons, which have a list price of $19.95.
Sierra, in its Discovery Series, also offers specific educational activities that fit the niches mentioned above. Its Alphabet Blocks for pre-schoolers, for instance, and Ready, Set, Read for ages 4 to 7, use voice and animation to coach kids in language arts skills. And as you move through the series, you'll find other programs that concentrate on math and science but present them in fun-filled activities that kids can enjoy as much as games. For example, the Dr. Brain programs present kids with a variety of scientific challenges, and their manuals are full of experiments you can try at home. Sierra makes it easy for you to narrow your searh for software; the company prints the age rating and the skills that the program teaches right on the box under the program name.
Broderbund eschews age ratings. Its various programs--the Carmen Sandiego history/geography mysteries; the KidPix, KidCuts, and The Print Shop creativity kits; and PC USA, Discover Space, and PC Globe Maps n' Facts interactive references delight the hearts of many age groups. Moms and Dads often use PC USA and Maps 'n Facts as atlases on disk.
Carmen has become legendary in PCdom and has graduated from being just a character in a software program to becoming a star in both a book series and a PBS television series. The various Carmen games take kids on adventures through U.S. and world geography, U.S. history, and, most recently, outer space. In the latest entry in the series, Where in Space is Carmen Sandiego?, kids chase villains through the heavens on missions that feature accurate descriptions of the planets and galaxies.
Broderbund's Discover Space, an interactive reference work about space science, will delight older children as it takes them on rides through the universe and puts them in control of the wonders they'll find there. They can simulate solar eclipses or redefine gravitational properties.
Programs that present kids with puzzles, perplexities, and other conundrums challenge their thinking skills. Edmark's newest program, Thinking Things, involves kids in activities that introduce them to the principles behind Boolean logic, challenging them to find things by identifying their attributes. Children learn to use rules to identify things--first by color, for instance, and then by shape. For example, they identify red and a large round circle then narrow the field of possibilities to produce a red ball. It also introduces them to analogies (such as, x is to y as a is to b).
Davidson & Associates offers KidCAD as a kind of computerized building blocks set that lets kids design buildings, decorate and furnish them, and even stock them with pets. Using the program, they begin to identify and fit together shapes, choose colors and develop an idea of what it means to actually design structures.
Reading and writing probably stand highest on parents' list of skills they want their kids to master, and there's no shortage of software to help them do that--including Sierra's Alphabet Blocks and Ready, Set, Read; The Learning Company's Reader Rabbit series; and Disney's Follow The Reader, which prompts children to complete sentences that make Mickey Mouse on various adventures.
As children master reading and basic language skills, you'll also want to introduce them to programs that put those skills to use. The Children's Writing and Publishing Center by The Learning Company is a marvelous word processor and desktop publishing program for kids. It lets them select page styles and insert stories or book reports right into the format. It even includes clip art that they can use to illustrate their work.
If your kids are intimidated by the blank page, start them off with a program that helps them with the words and story ideas. MECC markets two programs to turn your kids into young hemingways.
Storybook Weaver allows young writers to create fairy tales by placing icons of boys, girls, grinches, and trolls on a landscape and assembling their words to tell a story. The program speaks the story as they assemble it, and when they're done, the kids can read from the screen or print their work. Another MECC program, My Own Stories, is designed for kids ages 8-14, and aims to get kids thinking and waiting about their own lives and the world around them.
The math category often presents problems in drill-and-practice fashion, but game elements and curious characters that talk to the kids turn problem-solving into little adventures. Davidson, with its MathBlaster programs, and The Learning Company, with its Math Rabbit, pioneered this kind of software. Davidson recently introduced two new MathBlaster games: Alge-Blaster 3, which covers equation-solving, factoring, and radicals, and Math Blaster: In Search of Spot, in which kids must successfully complete problems to rescue their electronic friend. Spot, from the Trash Alien. And Legacy Software, a relative newcomer in this category, recently re-released Mutanoid Math Challenge, another drill-and-practice math program with an outer space game theme.
One of the more novel math programs to enter the market comes from Compton's NewMedia. It's called Human Calculator. This program is the creation of "human calculator" Scott Flansburg, who's well-known around the country for this methods of teaching children alternative ways of learning addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Scott appears inthe program as an animated talking caricature of himself to coach kids in problem-solving methods.
Even as you read this, new software and even new categories of software are coming into the market. EA Kids' recently released its Peter Pan adventure game as the first in a series of story-painting programs. It's much like other adventure games except kids use various painting tools to solve problems that take them past hissing snakes, evil pirates, and alligators. EA says this will be the first in a series of story-painting adventure games for children.
Finally, you shouldn't forget regular computer games. Fun is the essence of learning. Children who enjoy the challenges they're given will learn from the experience. The good news in software these days is that there's a great deal of fun packed into the most educational programs.