Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 159 / DECEMBER 1993 / PAGE S1

Are they really learning? (software for children) (Compute's Getting Started With: Kids & Computers)

Take a look at any of the new kids' software, and you'll wonder whether you're looking aat interactive learning or a Saturday morning TV show. Where in Space is Carmen Sandiego?, the latest entry in Broderbund Software's hit educational mystery adventure series, features enough creepy creatures to do George Lucas's imagination proud; and The Learding Company's Reader Rabbit keeps going as strong as the Energizer bunny, carrying your children through adventures that prompt them to read.

It may look a little cartoonish, but children's software has carved a niche all its own. Dubbed "edutainment" by some, it's part education and part entertainment. And it offers a lot to learn behind the look and feel of a cartoon show. Don't be too worried if the software seems too fun to be educational. There's no law that says learning can't be fun. In fact, there's a fair amount of research that indicates when it is fun.

Choosee software that masks education behind lively animated characters and intriguing adventures, and you'll engage your children in learning enterprises without theeir being aware of it. The good news for parents is that the latest software for kids is often packed with as much authenticity as entertainment. Behind the brightly colored space age characters in where in Space are more than 50 lustrous, digitized, and scientically accurate photos, illustrations, and fly-by video clips of the planets. These are authentic representations of our galaxy. And many actually hail from NASA archives. The pictures and videos are accompanied by detailed information screens that present children with authoritative information about the geography, mythology, and science of outer space. All this comes in the guise of clues that help children solve a mystery game, but there's a galaxy of learning hidden in all that adventure.

In fact, all the sound and animation you find in these programs will hook kids' interest in educational themes faster than a workbook, text, or set of encyclopedias--even when the software is encyclopedic in nature. Knowledge Adventure has built a series of programs around interactive references. These virtual encyclopedias on disks make looking up information more fun than a trip to the library. Knowledge Adventure has added two dynamite reference programs, Undersea Adventure and Dinosaur Adventure, that present kids with animated videos--complete with sound--to bring of life monsters of the deep and of prehistoric times. Text windows present detailed information about the lives and habits of these creatures and their environments. It's like an illustrated encyclopedia come to life. The dinosaurs roar and the sea creatures move as if they're in their watery realm.

The key to using these programs well is to consider them supplemental. Do not expect them to match what the kids are learning in school. Few of the commercial software programs available for kids at home can match the curricula you'll find in schools. What you do find in these programs is a wide variety of game-like, entertaining approaches to many concepts that are taught in school. And if your child has an interest in one particular array there's probably an array of programs that will supplement that interest.

In fact, computer games offer a great way to extend learning in any household. For example, in KidCAD, Davidson & Associate's new design program for kids, children can design and furnish their own building. Turn them loose on it and watch them assemble and colorin shapes until they've constructed houses or skyscrapers. The program works more like an onscreen LEGO kit than a lesson in math. Think of it as a kind of readiness program for geometry, and you'll realize the value of this software reaches far beyond the activity you see onscreen. Children become aware of shapes and how they fit together, and the program's own viewer lets kids obverse their work from different angles so they also begin to understand perspective.

Much of today's software for kids is similar to KidCAD. They're not simply computer adaptations of textbook lessons, as many of the kid's programs of yesteryear were. In many ways, they're exercises in participatory learning. Children either control activities in the program, as they do with KidCAD, or they join with the program's cast of characters as a kind of participant. The Learning Company, one of the first software vendors in the educatianment business, offers a long line of entertaining interactive adventures to engage children in learning exercises. Time Riders in History presents them with a boy-girl buddy team that races through time, in order to correct the misdeeds of a villain bent on messing up history. It's up to your kids and their computer friends to uncover these foul deeds and rectify them.

The program is so entertaining because of its multimedia elements--the sound and animation. Multimedia made great strides this year as more and more PCs with built-in sound cards and CD-ROM players were sold to the home market. As these types of systems become standard, more software companies are developing programs that exploit this new capability. The result is a group of computer cartoon characters with all the screen presence of a Mickey Mouse or Fred Flintstone. And because they control these characters via the keyboard or mouse, kids actually or mouse, kids actually become part of the fun.

Carmen Sandiego has the greatest media presence. this character from Broderbund's children's games now has her own game board and TV show. And she's not the only character who has merited her own software series. Alphabet Blocks' Bananas, the chimp, and jack, the jack-in-the-box, who urged children to match letters with sounds in the language program from Sierra, and back in Sierra's Ready, Set, Read. This one is for kids ages 4 to 7. In this game, Banans joins Jack and chatters instructions for games that build vocabulary and boost learning skills.

With the program characters acting as computer playmates, kid's software loses its resemblance to textbook lessons ever when reading, math, and logic skills are being taught. You end up with an electronic play set. A trip to the zoo--such as the one you find in Davidson's Zookeeper--is only as far as they keyboard, and it's an adventure that children can repeat every day. In fact, if you look over their shoulders at the screen long enough, you may even be tempted to join the fun.