Classic Computer Magazine Archive CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 11, NO. 4 / APRIL 1985 / PAGE 81

Pre-schoolers learn at home; math packages encourage fun, learning, and togetherness. (evaluation) Penny Smith.

There is an amazing array of arithmetic and counting programs available for pre-school and primary children. Some of the programs are extremely creative and interesting for both children and their parents. They deliver what they advertise in terms of educational goals and entertainment value. Other packages are not terribly enthralling. As a matter of fact, in many cases you could save yourself a lot of money if you just removed the furry dice from your rearview mirror and let your three-year-old count the spots.

In an effort to sort through some of the available program packages, we tested seven programs with pre-schoolers and young school-age children. Most of the programs were recommended for children in the four- to seven-year old range; two were recommended for eight- and nine-year olds. In evaluating these packages we tried to determine whether they actually accomplished their stated educational and entertainment goals. We evaluated their success in engaging and sustaining the children's interest. Finally, we looked for programs that could not only be used by the parent as a teaching tool but could also be enjoyed by the child alone.

The documentation in educational programs often includes a "Note to Parents." In the spirit of educational computing let me include the following note to adults who are looking for educational software for their young charges, relatives and otherwise. As we tested the programs, we found that the ability to deal with certain number concepts developed more slowly in some children than in others. We had to tread lightly to avoid frustrating those who were not yet able to grasp the concepts being stressed in individual games. Children's abilities also changed dramatically during the six months over which we tested the various programs. A child who was barely able to count to ten when we began using the programs is now easily able to do simple addition, subtraction, and seven multiplication. Quite honestly, I can't say whether this dramatic leap forward was a result of his having worked with the programs or simply that he needed some extra time before he was ready.

The point is, don't force your child to sit in a corner and wear a dunce cap if he can't handle a particular program. If he cries when he sees Mommy boot up ArithMagic, just put it away and leave him alone for a while. Bring it out a few weeks or months later and see if he is ready for it. These packages are a joy to use when the child is enthusiastic about playing with them, but trying to force them on an unwilling subject doesn't prepare your child for anything but a nervous breakdown. ArithMagic

These are three nifty little programs which can be used separately or in conjunction with one another to present a good range of basic number concepts for pre-school and primary children. Counting

The first package, Counting, is geared to three- to six-year-olds and stresses counting and number recognition. The opening options screen lists two games and a stop sign which enables the child to exit the program. Game One, Introduction to Numbers, allows the child to type any number from 1 to 9. The computer will then display that number of animated objects on the screen. A question mark on the screen at the beginning of the game prompts the child to enter his choice of numbers. The proper amount of animated objects then appears on the screen. The objects then exit the screen one by one, allowing the child to count them as they go. The objects (ballerinas, balls, seals, horses) return with a large numeral to reinforce the association between the symbol and the number of objects.

The second game in this package is the Counting Game. In this game the computer goes first. It presents the objects. The child must count them and enter the correct number. The computer allows three tries to select the correct answer, after which it helps the child count the objects.

The processes of counting and associating the appropriate number with a group of objects are essential component skills for the effective mastery of number, counting, and quantity concepts. This is a program that a child can use alone or with an adult. It is definitely geared to the non-reader. Even the option screen displays a symbol for each game along with the written title. This program, as is the case with so many pre-school packages, seems to be much more attractive to the child if an adult is there to encourage him and give help when it is needed.

The Counting Game is effective when used by the child alone as well. This is a nice option since children do make discoveries on their own when they have the time to experiment and explore both right and wrong answers. It's harder to do this with an adult looking over your shoulder and knowing which key you "ought" to push. Addition

ArithMagic Addition is aimed at four-to seven-year-olds. It takes the concept of counting presented in the preceding program one step further to include simple addition problems. In the Addition Game, the computer displays two numbers for the child to add. Each number is both shown as a numeral and represented by a group of objects. The child must count/add both groups of numbers and enter the correct answer. If the child is correct, the answer is shown, and the two groups of objects are combined to show the correct total sum. If the incorrect number is entered, the child is allowed to try again. After three tries, the computer shows the correct answer and helps the child count the objects.

The Option Screen lists a Modifying Parameters mode in which, logically enough, you can change the parameters of the addition game to stress a particular type of problem or numerical property according to your child's needs. This option expands the application of package and allows selective reinforcement of addition facts. It also extends the life of the package and makes it useful for a broader age range.

ArithMagic Addition is another good one. It complements and expands on the concepts presented in the Counting package and has the same intriguing graphics, which hold the non-reader's attention. It is not a program strictly for babies, though, and should be valuable for children in Kindergarten and primary grades for review and extra help in gaining confidence in working with numbers. This is another program which has stood the test of time. It was pulled out of the cupboard for reruns long after the initial novelty had worn off. Subtraction

ArithMagic Subtraction completes the set. It is aimed at children from five to eight year of age. Using the techniques mentioned in the first two programs, the subtraction package features a subtraction game in which the computer presents a simple subtraction problem and then illustrates it using a box which contains the number of objects in the minuend of the problem. When the child enters the correct answer to the problem, the number of objects in the subtrahend jumps out of the box to illustrate the principle of subtraction. In the problem 7 - 2, for example, two ducks jump out of the box leaving five. The correct answer appears at the top of the screen.

I found the subtraction program to be the least effective of the series. Illustrating the problem only after the child is able to figure out the answer seems a bit backward. There may be some great educational concept in force here, but I missed it. The young children who tested the program (pre-school and Kindergarten age) found it difficult to keep track of the balloons, ducks, and horses they were supposed to be deleting from the box. The older kids were bored with puppies and kitties and seemed to want a little more action. Summary

Roger Schank's ArithMagic series does a very good job. It begins with basic number recognition and the concept of what it means to order objects and numbered groups and progresses to counting. Then, using the concept of counting as a foundation, it presents addition and subtraction. The series is very visual and concrete. Memorization of number facts progresses naturally through repetition. There is no sense of pressure or competition; all of the games move at a very calm, even pace.

Finally, all of these programs can be used and enjoyed by a child alone or with the help of an adult. There are no fancy tricks to make them work, and the documentation is very complete, explaining all of the ins and outs of running the games and modifying the various parameters so that even a novice parent can understand them. The Sweet Shoppe

I have to admit to an immediate bias against a program which displays on the front of its package a chubby green jellybean clutching a bag of popcorn (probably candy-coated), an ice cream cone, a fudgesicle, and a jar of jellybeans to its bosom. However, I will try to lay aside my brown rice and brewer's yeast mentality and give this arithmetic learning package a fair evaluation.

Mr. Jellybean is directed by a joystick to select one of three learning games in the opening screen. We can choose to count jellybeans, subtract ice cream cones or add popcorn. Let's start with the jellybeans. Mr. Jellybean spills a jar of jellybeans, and the child must count what falls out. He must then maneuver Mr. J. under the piece of candy which contains the appropriate number. If the answer is correct, a happy face is drawn on the screen in jellybeans. If it is incorrect the jellybean does a flip and encourages the child to try again.

The ice cream cone subtraction option displays three ice cream push carts, two of which contain numbers in a subtraction problems. The third cart is empty. The potential answers to the problem are displayed on fudgesicles at the top of the screen. The child directs Mr. Jellybean to the answer. If it is correct, he eats the ice cream. If it is wrong, he does a Good Humored flip and waits for further instructions. The ultimate reward for a correct answer is a great big gooey ice cream sundae. Popcorn addition operates on the same principle as the other two games.

The graphics are very well done, and Mr. Jellybean has some clever antics. Also, because the program is produced for younger children, the addition and subtraction problems are presented graphically, reinforcing the number concepts.

The package, unfortunately, is not self-correcting. If the child for some reason cannot or will not choose the correct answer, Mr. Jellybean continues doing flips until the child's next dental appointment. This can be a very sticky situation.

The documentation on this program is a little sketchy and not a little hard to find. It is cleverly concealed in a plastic pocket on the front of the box. There has to be a note inside the box which tells you where to find it. This minimal documentation is not a significant difficulty, though, because the games are simple enough for a very young child to figure out. They require no reading ability to operate well.

Note to parents: It might be a good idea to monitor the child's behavior while playing the game and be ready to wipe the saliva from his chin before it damages the keyboard. Math Magic

If the ArithMagic series wins the parents' award for educational soundness, Math Magic wins the children's vote for "playability." Math Magic is essentially an arcade game with counting, addition, and subtraction practice thrown in for good measure.

The object of Math Magic is to defeat all the monsters by breaking down their walls before the child runs out of balls. The player scores points by bashing out individual bricks in the wall with a tennis ball. She can also score points by answering arithmetic problems which appear periodically when the monster pops up from behind the wall. The ball is kept in motion by means of a paddle at the bottom of the screen. If the player misses the ball with the paddle, the ball disapeears and cannot be recovered. The game is over when the player runs out of balls. The player can receive either points or present for her efforts. The game may be set for the age of the child; the younger child automatically receives presents and the older one receives points. The ball speed increases with each successive level of play, and the paddle size decreases.

In addition to allowing the adult to modify the game play generally by the child's age, the menu offers the opportunity to customize the game according to the individual's needs and abilities.

The game is infinitely easier to play with a joystick than with the keyboard since the paddle does not respond quickly enough to keyboard control.

One criticism I would mention is that there appears to be no provision for correcting entry mistakes in answering the math problems. Once a number is entered, I could not discover a way to clear it. Therefore, the child cannot check and correct his own mistakes before the computer buzzes and provides the right answers.

Another minor matter which would be alleviated by a note in the documentation is that when the child types in a two-digit number in answer to a problem, she must type the right most digit first (as you would when doing multi-column addition or subtraction). This is fine for the more complicated problems, but it is not the way younger children are accustomed to writing numbers. Since a mistake in entry cannot be corrected, this can be quite frustrating to a child who knows the answer but can't make it come up on the screen.

Math Magic is a fun game. The children enjoyed it enormously. It is particularly valuable in that it allows a broad range of skill levels. The ball speed and paddle size can be adjusted to fit the eye-hand coordination of the child. The graphics are well done, and you can choose to reward the child with pictures of nice little presents (sailboats, horses, kittens, etc.) or gruesome creatures.

Math Magic provides a nifty bit of practice in arithmetic or counting skills. Despite the elaborate customizing features, however, this game is not a strong teaching tool. The math/counting practice occurs in a very incidental way as part of the game. This is not necessarily a defect, but it is a point to be noted in your evaluation.

Math Magic is not a calm, gentle, let's-work-on-this-together game. It is a fast and competitive game that encourages the child to outwit the monsters. The kids love it, and I can recommend it as a supplement to other more laid-back learning games. If it is treated as a game and used in concert with other math supplements, it should be a winner from both the parent's and the child's point of view.

Products: ArithMagic (computer program)
The Sweet Shop (computer program)
Math Magic (computer program)