25 top children's programs. (Kids & Computers)
by Warren Buckleitner
Does the thought of little fingers reaching for your computer make your heart pound and your palms sweat? Relax. Years of watching children use computers leaves no doubt--as young as age 3, they can successfully use computers for both fun and learning.
A computer can also become a shared interest between you and your child. The key to its success, however, lies in the software you select--it must be easy to use, have the appropriate content, and be designed with the special attributes of your child in mind.
Here's a handy checklist of what you should look for when selecting children's software:
* Is it easy to use? Does the program greet your child with an easily understood picture menu? Does it put your child in control from the start?
* Is it child-controlled? Look for program that require frequent reactions, decisions, or creative input from your child. It should never leave you feeling trapped in an activity. Child-controlled software always gives a child many appropriate choices.
* Is the program childproof? The disigners of good programs know that it's natural for children to push buttons. Good programs can handle busy fingers (and an occasional elbow) without bombing or accidentally eraring important files from your hard disk.
* Does it have learning potential? Does the program engage your child's skills, or does it merely entertain with fancy graphics and sound? Check to see how many activities the program includes. Look for a broad range of challenges so that the program continues to be useful as your child grows. Open-ended activities that allow experimentation add value to any program.
* Is it designed with children in mind? Look for programs that are of interest to your particular child. Programs that offer novel challenges that are meaningful to your child will keep him or her returning again and again.
* Is it worth the price? Weigh the price of a program against what you get for yoru money. After all, $44 (the average retail price of a software title) can buy a lot of storybooks, crayons, and paper. If you already know which program you want, check the mail-order sections in the back of computer magazines.
Over the past two years, the software industry has greatly increased its support for the PC. After a thorough search and evaluation of over 170 MSDOS software titles, I've discovered many notable titles. Here are 25, in no particular order, that will get you and your child off to a good start.
The Playroom (Broderbund Software, 500 Redwood Boulevard, P.O. Box 6121, Novato, California 94948-6121; 800-521-6263; $49.95; ages 3-6) is an excellent general-purpose program that has set a new standard for early childhood software. Your child uses a mouse or the arrow keys to explore a playroom full of objects. Six of the objects trigger activities that involve counting, clocks, combining picture parts, letters, upper- and lowercase letters, and words. The high degree of child control, along with the wide range of activities and levels of challenge, makes The Playroom a worthwhile purchase. If your child is three to six years old and you can afford only one program, this is the one to choose.
The success of the Playroom has prompted a similar product from Broderbund--The Treehouse ($59.95, ages 5-10)--with even more content and a similarly designed easy-to-use interface. It's perfect for Playroom graduates.
Children's Writing and Publishing Center (The Learning Company, 6493 Kaiser Drive, Fremont, California 94555; 800-852-2255; $69.95; ages 7 and up) is an easy-to-use program that combines word-processing features with a 159-picture graphics library. Picture menus and a mouse-driven interface allow your child to select any of eight fonts, add pictures, save files to disk, and print in color or black-and-white.
Another excellent program from the Learning Company is Math Rabbit ($39.95, ages 3-7). This program allows your child to count using a number line and music scale, match numerals, match a set of objects or a math problem to a given number, solve math problems to create number patterns, and match set of objects, numbers, and math problems in a concentration-game setting.
A similar program, called Reader Rabbit (The Learning Company, $49.95, ages 3-6), provides practice with letter combinations, word patterns, and other early language skills. With Reader Rabbit 2 (The Learning Company, $59.95, ages 5-8), your child can practice beginning and ending consonants, vowel sounds, synonyms and antonyms, and dictionary skills.
Mask Parade (Queue, 338 Commerce Drive, Fairfield, Connecticut 06430; 800-232-2224; $39.95; ages 4-12) lets your child design and print life-size masks and other cutouts. The design component requires choosing the parts of the mask (eyes, nose, and so on) using the arrow keys and space bar. The picture menu makes it easy for your child to use the printer and save his or her creations to disk. No reading is required. Many preschool children, some as young as three, especially enjoy Mask Parade around Halloween time.
A similar program, Facemaker Golden Edition (Queue, $44.95, ages 4-8), lets your child use the space bar to select facial features (eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and hair), as well as a body, hat, and glasses. You can then program the face to move, or you can use it in a memory game. The resulting product can be printed, along with up to half a page of text. It's available only in a CGA version.
I've reviewed more than 20 programs designed to teach children facts about shapes. Mosaic Magic (Kinder Magic, 1680 Meadowglen Lane, Encinitas, California 92024; 619-632-6693; $29.95) is one of the few that teaches a child how shapes really work--how they can be reversed, moved, made into pictures, and so on. It's an open-ended tool with a palette of ten basic shapes and colors that allow the creation of hundreds of shape and color combinations. These can be placed on a 100-square grid to create mosaiclike designs. Also included are 120 puzzles, pictures, and patterns of varying complexity with missing pieces. The child selects the missing piece using a mouse or keyboard.
You've probably seen ads for Mickey's ABC's (Disney Software, 500 Buena Vista, Burbank, California 91521; 818-841-3326; $39.95; ages 2-5). Your child presses any letter key to see a letter-related routine--for instance, the letter L causes Mickey Mouse to turn off a light. The program includes 80 appealing animated responses. A major drawback is the program's copy-protection puzzle which requires an adult or older child to solve. If your child likes the Disney characters, he or she will like using this program. Other programs in the series are Mickey's 123's ($39.95, ages 2-5) and Mickey's Colors and shapes ($39.95, ages 2-5)--both more entertaining than educational.
Another letter program that's not as well known is Fun with Letters and Words (Wescott Software, 2750 Prairie, Evanston, Illinois 60201; 800-669-9886; $20; ages 2-6). It takes the press-any-key-to-see-a-picture theme one step further by letting you enter custom information about your child in a setupt file. When your child presses a letter, the familiar names of pets or friends appear on the screen.
Bake & Taste (MindPlay, 3130, North Dodge Boulevard, Tucson, Arizona 80716; 800-221-7911; $49.99; ages 6-13) gives your child a way to experiment with cooking without making a mess. Your child selects a recipe, gathers ingredients, mixes the ingredients (learning a little about fractions), selects the right pan, sets the stove timer, and waits. The recipes are real, and you can even spill the flour (a little hand comes out and cleans up). The next part is the most fun--when your brownies are doen, a group of guests comes over for a sample. If you followed the recipe correctly, your guests smile. If you made a mistake--if you set the oven for a few extra minutes--their faces show it. Just like real cooking. The easy-to-use picture menu has an option that lets you retrace your steps to see what you did wrong. There are over 20 actual recipes that vary in difficulty.
Another popular program from MindPlay is Easy Street ($49.99, ages 4-7). Using the arrow keys, your child moves a boy with a wagon down a city street. The boy goes past various storefronts in search of items on a shopping list. Finding an object requires finding the right store and then selecting from perhaps four similar-looking objects--an appropriate task for four-year-olds.
New Math Blaster Plus (Davison and Associates, P.O. Box 2961, Torrance, California 90509; 800-556-6141; $49.95; ages 6-12) is an upgrade of the original Math Blaster, which was designed by a former elementary schoolteacher. The program provides a little sugar (in the form of great sound and VGA graphics) to help the medicine (math facts) go down. It includes four separate activities with six difficulty levels, as well as a vast database of problems in addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, decimals, and percents. Children especially like the arcade-style activity where answers are selected by skillfully flying an astronaut through space.
Another outstanding math-fact program is Stickybear Math (Optimum Resource, #10 Station Place, Norfolk, Connecticut 06058; 800-327-1473; $39.95; ages 6-9), a 20-level math program that keeps track of your child's performance and automatically adjusts the difficulty level. The content ranges from simple counting to three-place substraction with borrowing.
The Super Solvers Series (The Learning Company, $49.95 per title) is a set of similarly designed programs featuring problem-solving activities. I've reviewed four titles so far. Treasure Mountain (ages 5-9) for reading, math, and science; Outnumbered (ages 7-10) for math and problem solving; Midnight Rescue (ages 7-10) for reading practice; and Ancient Empires! (ages 10 and up) for practice with logic games. Each title shares a common theme--a sleuth moves through a simulated environment, such as a spooky radio station or a series of underground caverns. The programs give children a lot of control, which keeps them engaged. They hardly realize they're doing the same kind of problems they get for homework.
Another outstanding program using a similar format is the famous Where in the USA Is Carmen Sandiego? (Broderbund, $49.94). It's an excellent way to enhance your knowledge of geography. I've watched a group of eighth graders literally wear out an almanac while using this program.
For drawing, Color Me (Mindscape, 1345 West Diversey Parkway, Chicago, Illinois 60614; 800-829-1900; $44.95; ages 3-10) is so easy to use that even our 2-year-old child mastered it. Your child can draw, select colors, or write text on the screen, using a variety of basic drawing options (a mouse or joystick is required). Unfortunately, it's only available in CGA, which limits the choice of colors.
A better and more sophisticated drawing program is Kid Pix (Broderbund, $49.95, ages 5 and up). The color-Macintosh version is the most exciting creativity program to date and should be available for MS-DOS by the time you read this. It combines sounds with a variety of graphics options.
For an introduction to both drawing and programming concepts, Delta Drawing (Power Industries LP, 37 Walnut Street, Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts 02881; 800-395-5009; $69.95; ages 4 and up) offers a creative context in which single commands can create pictures (press D to draw, R to turn right, and so on). As the picture is drawn, each command is stored as a program, which can be edited. You can also print or save your pictures. It's similar in some ways to the programming language Logo, but easier to get started with and more appropriate for younger children.
Stone Soup (William K. Bradford Publishing, 310 School Street, Aton, Massachusetts 01720; 800-421-2009; $75; ages 5 and up) is an electronic version of the well-known children's tale. Using the mouse, a child can click on an arrow symbol to turn the pages, much like a book. Unlike with a book, however, you have the ability to select any object in the story and move it. This lets your child play with the characters, illustrations, and text of the story. The consistent menu design, interactive visual format, and appealing graphics make this program appropriate for a wide range of ages.