Growing up literate part 5. (evaluation) Betsy Staples.
Evaluating software for preschool and early elementary age children is not an easy task. We can observe the reactions of our team of young playtesters, and we can report our own adult responses, but we have a hard time pretending to know what your children will like and how long they will like it.
In many cases, the age ranges given for early learning packages are deceptive. How, for example, can a program be suitable for children aged 3 to 8? Perhaps a very precocious three-year-old and a slow eight-year-old could, indeed, enjoy the game, but we think that the vast majority of the children who will be playing it will be from a much narrower age range.
Then there is the question of staying power. Does the game have the ability to keep kids coming back--to entertain and educate them even after they have mastered it? When parents invest $25 to $50 in a software package, they certainly want, and have a right to expect, it to be a lasting source of education and enjoyment for their children, not something to be consumed in an afternoon and retired.
Based on our observations, we conclude that simple games, like simple toys, seem to have the most enduring attraction. This is undoubtedly because they offer greater opportunity for exploration and creativity. Each time the child returns to the game, he can create new creatures, try a new strategy, draw a new picture, so the game itself never seems old.
We leave the final assessment of the potential staying power of each program to you. You know your child and have undoubtedly already drawn conclusions about the types of games and toys that hold his interest. We urge you to apply these observations to educational software as well.
In the classroom, of course, this problem is less serious, since the program can be used by all or most of the children in the class not only this year, but next year, and maybe even the year after. All of the games described below are suitable for classroom use, although we suspect that teachers will prefer those which require minimal supervision.
Now, with the generalizations out of the way, let's have a look at some specific programs for preschool and early elementary school children. Stickybear Shapes
The Stickybear series from Weekly Reader Family Software is quite simply delightful. The programs are visually appealing as well as educationally sound.
Stickybear Shapes includes a hardcover, full color book that introduces the shapes--circle, square, triangle, rectangle, and diamond in a clever, colorful format. The shapes also appear on the colorful poster and on a set of eight stickers which features Stickybear, the jolly, cuddly star of the software show. Also included in the package is a four-page Parent's Guide.
The game can be played using either the keyboard or a paddle. We found the keyboard much easier to use, although our three-year-old occasionally had difficulty finding the correct keys after she had rmeoved her fingers from them. The Parent's Guide urges you to allow your child to discover the functions of the keys or paddle on his own. Our children had no trouble with this and were soon playing the game as capably as if we had spent half an hour explaining it to them.
The disk includes three games: Pick It, Name It, and Find It. The games are listed in that order on the menu, but the Guide suggests starting with Find It.
Find It consists of eight hi-res pictures, each of which includes all five of the shapes. A sample shape appears at the bottom of the screen, and the child must press the arrow keys or turn the paddle until the matching shape is flashing in the picture. He then presses the spacebar or fire button. If the answer is correct, the picture becomes animated and stays that way until the child decides to move on by pressing the spacebar again. If the answer is incorrect, the child hears "a low bloop" and must try again.
In Pick It, the child sees a picture from which one of the shapes is missing. He must choose that shape from the five samples appearing at the bottom of the screen. When he makes the correct choice, the missing shape is filled in, and the picture is animated.
Name It requires the child to read the name of the shape as it appears on the screen. The five sample shapes appear at the bottom of the screen, and the child must press the keys or turn the knob until the one whose name is displayed flashes.
The Parent's Guide offers suggestions for talking about the program with your child and lists additional activities you can do to reinforce the concepts introduced in the program.
We liked the whole package, and so did the kids. We also found that it was, indeed, suitable for the 3 to 6 age range suggested.
CIRCLE 409 ON READER SERVICE CARD Stickybear Opposites
Stickybear Opposites is our favorite in this excellent series. Like Shapes, it comes with a hardcover book, poster, stockers, and Parent's Guide, but the graphics are what makes this program absolutely irresistible.
Again, the Guide encourages you to let your child learn to use the program by experimenting with the keyboard or paddle, and, again, our children had no trouble with this--they were old pros by now.
In Opposites, the child uses the arrow keys or paddle to switch between detailed hi-res pictures illustrating words opposite in meaning. For example, in the illustration of up, we see Stickybear climbing a flight of stairs. When we switch to the opposite picture, we see him descending the same stairs. In another picture we see Sticky's back followed by an about face which shows his smiling front. In each case the word being illustrated appears on the screen along with the graphics.
Flipping between the two pictures in each pair occurs instantaneously, and there is only a short delay when moving from one pair to the next. The child can flip back and forth as many times as he wants in a given pair, and there are enough pairs of words to keep him playing for quite a while.
The Parent's Guide says that Opposites encourages computer awareness and exploration and discovery wile teaching the concept of opposites. It certainly seems to do all those things well and in an entertaining way.
The Guide also includes suggestions for using the program with your child and lists additional activities to reinforce the concepts introduced.
As we said at the beginning, this is our favorite Stickybear program. Children who could read enjoyed seeing the illustrations of words they knew; children who were learning to read enjoyed guessing the words after seeing the illustration; and children who could not read had fun just learning the concepts and recognizing the pictures. We recommend Stickybear Opposites without reservation.
CIRCLE 409 ON READER SERVICE CARD Stickybear Basket Bounce
Stickybear BAsket Bounce is not an educational program. We have included it here simply because it is a program that can be played by preschoolers and enjoyed by the whole family; there are not many games about which that can be said.
Basket Bounce is a low pressure version of Kaboom. Stickybear, carrying a large basket, runs back and forth at the bottom of the screen trying to catch the objects that fall from above. You control him using the keyboard, joystick, or paddle to move him back and forth and the spacebar or fire button to make him jump.
There are 16 rounds, each harder than the one before. As you progress in the game, you get to catch different kinds of objects, and the point value of those objects increases. You begin with four baskets and earn an additional one each time you complete a round.
If you allow Stickybear to be hit or tripped by a falling or rolling object, you lose a basket. When you have no baskets left, a bulldozer appears from the right and pushes Stickybear off the screen.
The top ten high scores are stored on disk, a feature that puts this simple game on a par with many of the more difficult arcade games.
Our young playtesters were charmed by Stickybear Basket Bounce. They giggled at the silly bear running back and forth and marveled at their own ability to control his antics. Our adult players had fun too, although we won't pretend that our teenage arcaders were satisfied with it for long.
Stickybear Basket Bounce is an enjoyable game which allows youngsters and their parents to compete on an almost equal footing--and with some practice the adults may eventually achieve higher scores than the kids!
CIRCLE 409 ON READER SERVICE CARD Jeepers Creatures
While we are on the subject of programs that are simply fun, let's talk about Jeepers Creatures from Kangaroo. Like Basket Bounce, Jeepers Creatures makes no claim to be educational. It is simply an entertaining program for children aged 3 to 8.
Like the old picture books the pages of which are cut in thirds so you can place a fireman's head on a clown's body and a gorilla's feet, this program allows the child to create new creatures from the body parts of familiar ones.
As the program begins, the current "zoo" is displayed. Ten animals appear with their names printed below their hires pictures. The child is then invited to mix and match the body parts by pressing one key from each of the three middle rows of the keyboard. When a new animal is formed, its name, consisting of syllables from the names of its components, appears under it. A panda's head with a dog's body and an owl's tail and feet, for example, becomes a pandogowl.
When the child tires of the first zoo, he can press RETURN and get ten more animals to rearrange. Most of the animals are familiar enough that children do not have to be able to read to identify them. The new names are lost on non-readers, but beginning readers have fun sounding them out.
When the child creates one of the original animals, he sees a congratulatory message.
The children all enjoyed Jeepers Creatures, and it seems like the sort of program that would wear well--children should have fun playing it more than once. The creatures in the zoo are cute, recognizable, and drawn simply enough that their parts match up nicely when they are combined. Our only criticism is that it seems just a bit overpriced at $34.95.
CIRCLE 410 ON READER SERVICE CARD Mix and Match
Mix and Match is (oddly enough) a mix and match game licensed from Children's Television Workshop and sold by Apple. In this one, the child chooses the parts of Muppets. On the screen are the heads, bodies, or feet of Big Bird, Grover, Ernie, Oscar, Bert, and Cookie Monster. Each has a number next to it, and the child types in the number of the part he wants to choose.
When he has made his choices, the Muppet parts disappear and Cookie Monster appears stirring a bowl and saying "me mix up for you." Shortly thereafter, the new Muppet appears with his new name printed below.
The hi-res representations of the Muppet are very well done. Unfortunately, the text on the screen--including the name of the new Muppet--is almost impossible for a young child to read. Even when we copied the new names on paper, our beginning readers had difficulty pronouncing names like Oscarernver.
Since only six Muppets are represented, this game has considerably less staying power than the one reviewed above. Children, or course, adore their friends from Sesame Street and are fascinated to find them in the Apple but we noticed that they grew bored after about ten turns.
Also included in the Mix and Match package are three additional games: Animal, a language and classification game; Layer Cake, a simplified version of the Towers of Hanoi problem; and Raise the Flag, a Hangman variation. These three games were developed by Creative Computing Software in 1980 for the computer center at Sesame Place in Bucks County, PA, and we were surprised to find such relics on a disk being sold in 1984. There is nothing wrong with these games if you don't mind the fact that you can buy them along with about 98 others in Basic Computer Games for well under $10.
What you don't get in Basic Games is the supplementary documentation that comes with Mix and Match. Along with instructions for playing the games, CTW has provided in the instruction booklet several pages of suggestions for play expanding on the concepts introduced in the games.
We can think of no better way to describe Mix and Match than "a mixed bag." It has a few strong points, a few weak points, and quite a number of mediocre points. Look 'N Hook
Look 'N Hook is a package of word puzzles for beginning readers. A very elementary form of crossword puzzle, it requires the child to spell words based on picture clues and rewards him with a familiar nursery rhyme tune.
The documentation booklet advises you to review the pictures and the words they represent before playing the game. Included in the list are 24 three-letter words in the consonant-vowel-consonant pattern: cat, hen, pig, pot, nut, bug, etc.
As the program begins, you turn the sound on or off by pressing the fire button on the joystick when a picture of music notes is flashing. You then choose the puzzle you want to do in the same manner.
The puzzle then appears with the letters required to complete it displayed on the lethand side of the screen. The squares at which two words intersect are divided in half diagonally with half of each picture on each side.
To complete the puzzle, the child uses the joystick to move a picture of a hook back and forth between letters and puzzle. When the hook is over the letter he wants to fill in, he presses the fire button to grab it and moves it over the appropriate square in the puzzle, pressing the fire button again to release it.
Each time he places a letter in the correct position in the puzzle, a few more notes are added to the reward tune, so that when the puzzle is finished, the tune is also complete. If the child tries to place a letter incorrectly, the letter floats back over to the side of the screen.
The packaging says that the program provides practice in alphabet recognition, reading and spelling 24 three-letter words, eye-hand coordination, and small muscle dexterity, and it seems to do a good job with those goals. When we first tried to hook a letter with the joy-stick, we had such difficulty that we feared the children would never be able to control it, but, as usual, they shamed us by handling the task with ease.
The package includes two disks, each of which contains five puzzles, and a small eight-page booklet. The booklet contains the pictures and two pages of "skill booster activities" for beginning readers.
Our beginning readers liked Look 'N Hook; completing the puzzle and the tune provided extra motivation for sounding out and spelling simple words. We only wish that there were more puzzles included in the package. Electronic Playground
At $24.95, Electronic Playground would be a bargain if it contained only one good game, but you may safely multiply that value by two--and maybe even three--for this package includes two high quality games and one "filler" program that will keep your child happy for hours.
The game begins as the child selects the game he wants to play from the pictorial menu using the joystick--a very simple task. Although it is the last choice on the menu, Heidi's Program is the simplest and probably a good place to start if your child is not familiar with the computer.
Essentially a filler demonstration, Heidi's Program invites the child to place colored rectangles of random sizes on the screen by pressing the keys on the keyboard. We found that younger children were content to watch the display longer than the older ones; the older kids began to want to exercise control over the size and color of the shapes: "How do I get a big, black one?" and became bored when they discovered that they couldn't. So we moved on to Matchbox.
At the start of Matchbox, the program displays another menu, which allows the child to choose to match shapes, upper- and lower case letters, or numbers and objects. The Matchbox playing field consists of four boxes--one in the center of each side of the screen. In the number-to-objects game, a series of objects appears in the upper lefthand corner of the screen and a number appears in each of the boxes. The child must use the joystick to move Matchman, a cute little creature with feelers, from the center of the screen to the box that contains the numeral that matches the number of objects. If he is successful, a tune plays. The procedure is the same for shapes and letters.
By pressing CTRL-I from the Matchbox menu, you can enter the Adult Management Interface and modify the difficulty level of the matching task.
Our playtesters' favorite game on the disk was Magic Blackboard, a drawing program that allows the child to draw, erase, and fill in with various colors. Just as we started to explain Magic Blackboard to the kids, the phone rang, and we had to leave the computer for about ten minutes. When we returned, the program, and were happily drawing, erasing, and painting.
The most amazing feature of the Magic Blackboard is the hi-res catalog which allows the child to save, load, and delete his own pictures without adult supervision and without using the keyboard. The catalog has room for 12 pictures, each of which is displayed in miniature in black and white on the screen for easy identification. Creating, saving, and recalling their own pictures gave the older children exactly the control they were looking for in Heidi's Program. Talk about staying power--even we had to tear ourselves away from this one.
Of all the games reviewed here, Electronic Playground definitely offers the best value in terms of hours of probable play versus cost. The package is only the second released by Software Entertainment Company, and we look forward to seeing what they come up with next. Balloon Bandit
The last program in this month's collection appears to be intended for the slightly older child; there is no age range suggested. Balloon Bandit combines basic math skills with basic verbal skills in a game format.
The top of the playfield is occupied by nine balloons, behind each of which is either a letter or a "bad star." Below the balloons is a small figure which moves back and forth under the control of the arrow keys.
The object of the game is to solve arithmetic problems. With every correct answer, you get a chance to shoot one of the balloons--not a very challenging task. When the balloon pops, it reveals either a letter or a "bad star." If you get a letter, you get to guess at the scrambled word behind the balloons. If you get "too many" bad stars, you lose. Your score and the high score for the session are displayed at the bottom of the screen.
This package has several problems. The main one is a lack of correspondence between the skill needed to solve the problems and the skill needed to guess the scrambled word. There are four levels of difficulty, and we found that children who could easily answer questions on the novice and intermediate levels didn't stand a chance when it came to unscrambling the mystery word and quickly lost interest in doing so. We are certain that older children who would be able to handle both the problems and the word scrambling would be bored silly by the game.
Another problem is the random factor introduced by the bad stars. If the purpose of the program is to reinforce arithmetic skills, why should a child who gets the problem correct have to sacrifice his turn to something that counts against him. We realize that randomness is a key factor in many arcade games, but we think it is out of place in an educational program.
The documentation, called a Teacher's Guide, is a 4-page mimeographed "booklet" inaccurately cut, folded, and stapled into a piece of colored paper. We received only instructions for running an Atari tape with our Apple disk.
The first paragraph of the documentation promises that the users of the program will be "taught basic math skills and use elementary reasoning." The package falls so far short of this goal that we are reluctant even to repeat it. Balloon Bandit is a package in dire need of a large dose of professionalism; we cannot recommend it.
Products: Stickybear Shapes (computer program)
Stickybear Opposites (computer program)
Stickybear Basket Bounce (computer program)
Jeepers Creatures (computer program)
Mix and Match (computer program)
Look 'N Hook (computer program)
Electronic Playground (computer program)
Balloon Bandit (computer program)