Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 159 / DECEMBER 1993 / PAGE S9

How to build a children's software library. (Compute's Getting Started With: Kids & Computer)

The library of the future will be . . . no, make that: The library of the present is electronic. We may never find ourselves curling up in bed with a good computer. But text, as a resource, frequently works best in electronic form where it can be indexed for easy reference and referral. And for children striving to master reading and math, computers present learning in fun-filled interactive activities that will keep them coming back.

As we careen toward the 21st century, there seem to be few things that inspire a child's interest in learning and discovery more than a generoud library of computer programs. In fact, in this electronic era you can, without guilt, send encyclopedia salesmen on their way, knowing that the references your child needs are as close as your hard disk.

And, with copies of computer-based programs, such as EA Kids' Peter Pan or The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, on your software shelf, you'll have enough keyboard learning activities to fill rainy days as well as idle summer afternoons when the kids complain that there "isn't anything to do."

Finding the right software, however, can be a challenge. Few programs come with the satisfaction guarantee offered by Davidson & Associates. Davidson allows you to send back software within 30 days of purchase if you simply enclose your receipt. But you can't always count on money-back guarantees. And making the wrong choice when you go to buy programs will often set you back the $29.95 to $65.95 that a kid's program normally costs. To be on the safe side, you must first be sure the software will run on your equipment. That's usually a matter of matching the kind of equipment you have to the requirements listed on the box. Few things are more disappointing to children than opening a colorful software package on Christmas day, only to plug in the disks and find that they can't use the program. But beyond that, parents face a more intuitive challenge to insure that whatever program they buy is one that's appropriate for the child and will hold his or her interest.

Tackling the hardware problem isn't tough if you're aware of what you have on your computer system and remember to check it against the requirements printed on the software box. It only requires a bit of familiarity with hardware. Software, however, is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. It comes in different sizes and styles--on 3 [degrees]-inch or 5 [degrees]-inch disks, some for Macintosh, some for IBM-compatibles, some for older CGA video systems with few colors and grainy resolution, some for modern super-VGA video that brings as many as 256 colors to the screen in crisp high-resolution images. You'll naturally need disks that fit your drives and system type. Some programs support sound that you won't hear if your system isn't equipped with a sound card that's supported by the software, and some come on compact disks that you can't use unless you have a CD-ROM drive.

It's a good idea whenever you shop for software to take along a specifications sheet of just what your system is equipped to handle and match it to the program requirements listed on the software box. If this seems to be simplistic advice, it is! But it avoids costly mistakes. And those mistakes are getting easier to makes as children's software supports a multitude of system standards and enhancement devices in order to run sound, animation, and video.

Make note on your spec sheet of the type and speeds of the processor (33-Mhz 80386, for instance) installed in your system, the amount of memory that's installed, the available space on your hard disk, the type of drivers your sound card supports, and the throughput (in milliseconds) of the CD-ROM player, if you've installed one. And, of course, you must know the video standard your video card and monitor support. The best children's software these days is being written to support VGA video.

System requirements printed on software boxes are easy to overlook. They usually appear in very small print near the bottom right corner on the back, and reading them is a little like reading the ingredients on the backs of canned goods in the grocery--a somewhat tedious enterprise but one which will insure that the software will run when you get it home.

The larger challenge is making sure your kids will want to run it. The best insurance for that is to take the kids along on a buying expedition and let them choose what they want. This tends to eliminate the surprise on Christmas morning, but it does insure they'll get what they want.

For help in finding something that's as educationally sound as it is entertaining, partents can turn to several different resources. EdMark, makers of the KidDesk menu system and the prize-winning educational programs Bailey's Bookhouse and Millie's MathHouse, publishes a small booklet on how to choose children's software. The education team, which works on developing of the company's educational software, assembled this "Parent's Guide to Educational Software for Young Children" and makes it available to parents on request. (Edmark; P.O. Box 3218; Redmond, Washington 98073; 206-861-8200.)

The booklet offers tips on how to review your children's educational needs and identify software that will meet those needs. It advises you to make sure your children can use the software independently and that the software allows them to explore at random.

Another tip is to look for skill levels and challenges suited to kids of different abilities. This insures the software will grow with the child. Be sure, too, to choose software that's challenging, lively, and entertaining.

Broderbud has a Parents Club service that offers newsletters about the company's products and the technologies and education that goes into them. This helps give you an idea of what the programs are about before you buy.

There are many software programs on the market, and, until you see them, it's difficult to divine how good they are simply by looking at a box. If it's a mystery to you which programs are more challenging and lively than others, you may wish to consult the Computer Learning Foundation, a nonprofit foundation based in Palo Alto, California, and sponsored by Apple Computer, IBM, and a number of children's software companies and educational and technical publications. The foundation reviews children's software and gives its seal of approval to the products that make its grade in the areas of language arts, math and science, social studies, tools for the classroom, CD-ROM, and video-discs. And, of course, software reviews, such as those you'll find in COMPUTE and in other computer magazines, can help you sort through the many programs that are available.

Much of the children's software you'll find in stores has an age rating printed on the box, and this too, can he helpful when choosing programs. However, with software that doesn't teach concepts traditionally geared to age groups, the age ratings can be deceiving.

Some of the most popular children's products are also popular among adults. Broderbund's The Print Shop, for instance, was designed as a creativity kit to allow kids to devise banners and greeting cards, but many adults use it. Davidson & Associates decided last year to drop the age rating from its KidWorks 2 reading and writing program after the company discovered many teens and adults were having fun with it.

Instead, the labels advise "for children of all ages." You'll find many other programs, particularly among the multimedia story books such as Broderbund's Living Books, Ebook's story book series, and Discis' Peter Rabbit, that will charm the whole family.

As you go about your buying expedition, don't worry too much about what the kids are using at school. A popular misconception among parents is that they must find software that conforms to what their kids are learning in school. That can be tough to nearly imposible. IBM's popular and effective instructional software, Writing to Read, which was widely--and successfully--used in schools has never been adapted to the home market.

Other companies, such as The Learning Company, Davidson, and MECC, sell to both homes and schools. There's no guarantee their programs are used in your child's school, and there's no reason to rule out the programs simply because you don't fimd them there.

Each of those companies has won awards and recognition for its offerings. So it's better to shop for a variety of programs that will simply bring a balance of topical offerings to your software shelf. These might be a few games and adventure programs that challenge your children's reasoning skills; some reading and writing software, which coaches them through word use and pronunciation and encourages them to write sentences and assemble stories; a print kit, or music or drawing program to challenge their artistic skills; some reference works that make it fun to look things up; and science and geography programs, which challenge them to learn more about their world.

Many programs also present kids with interactive adventures, challenging enterprises, and activities that take them away from the keyboard. With these, you'll often find non-electronic resources such as coloring books and puzzles. Broderbund packs tiny stuffed toys into its Playroom and Treehouse exploratory games for young children.

The Learning Company extends the fun in its Super Solver's games with membership forms for joining the Super Solver's Club. Members receive regular newsletters with game tips and other suggestions for maximizing the fun. And programs from these companies, as well as EdMark, Davidson & Associates, and others mentioned here, come with excellent documentation that allows parents to extend the learning into everyday activities with ideas for home projects.