ODD MAN OUT
Writing programs for preschoolers
by JOHN and MARY HARRISON
One of the major functions a computer can perform in the home is to aid in the children's education. In two previous articles, we examined the expanding role of the computer in formal education. Now it is time to focus on the home, a child's first school and the location of that marvelous machine we purchased to help our children, the ATARI home computer.
Although the computer can be readily applied to most subjects and all age groups, we will begin our discussion of educational software development at the preschool level. This is a challenging area because the audience has a short attention span and very few "academic" skills. We must use every means to retain the child's attention and promote a positive learning experience.
A CHOICE OF TOPIC
When writing educational software, the topic chosen must lend itself to use with the computer. There is no reason to develop educational software if the topic can be better covered in a traditional manner. The ATARI computers present a useful medium for the development of many skills. They are capable of presenting a variety of problems, randomly varying the exercises and consistently providing a reward based on achievement. The computer is a tireless and even-tempered companion, willing to endlessly repeat a series of drills or stop at any point the child desires.
One of the first skills a child must develop is visual discrimination, the ability to distinguish between different shapes. This sharpens a child's powers of observation, concentration, and attention to detail. Visual discrimination is also an important reading and number readiness skill. A child must be able to recognize the difference between the letters "E" and "F" or "m" and "n" before these symbols can be assembled into words. Similarly, the child must learn to distinguish between various groupings (sets) of objects and between symbols such as 6 and 9, 12 and 21. Educators think these abilities are so important that questions testing them often appear on I.Q. and achievement tests. Therefore, our program, Odd Man Out is designed to develop visual discrimination skills in preschool children.
STATEMENT OF OBJECTIVES
After choosing the topic, precise goals must be determined, a method of presentation selected, and a format developed. Proper preparation is important. Time spent defining and refining the program's objectives reduces the number of annoying problems that appear as the project begins to take form. Many people find that an outline is a useful method of organizing their thoughts.
The objective of this program is to teach a preschool child to select the "different" shape from a set of four. This objective can best be met through a drill and practice program.
Various levels of difficulty within the program, ranging from concrete pictures of familiar objects to abstract symbols, help the child to develop visual discrimination. The shapes are arranged horizontally to familiarize the child with standardized test formats.
The child must practice to become proficient at this skill. However, drill tends to be dull and boring. Through the use of sound and color graphics, the material can be presented in a manner that maintains the child's attention while effectively drilling the concept.
Now that we have a general idea of the program's goals, let's get specific. The first thing to decide is how many levels of difficulty it should include and what they should contain. This program allows the child to progress through seven levels of difficulty:
Level 1 -- everyday concrete objects: star, tree, house, arrow, heart, boat, and rocket.
Level 2 -- simple geometric shapes, diamond, square, triangle, ellipse, hexagon, rectangle, and cross.
Level 3 -- reflections and rotations of the letter "E" and the shape "[".
Level 4 -- capital letters of the alphabet.
Level 5 -- Lower case letters of the alphabet.
Level 6 -- digits 0-9.
Level 7 -- sequences of three digits.
Different levels are indicated by different background colors. Four randomly selected symbols are displayed in the middie of the screen. Three symbols are identical; the position of the odd (fourth) symbol is randomly selected. A small box appears under each symbol. Using the joystick, the child positions a little animal beneath the symbols and indicates a choice by pushing the trigger. If the choice is correct, a happy face appears and a pleasant sound is heard. An incorrect choice results in a sad face and a crying sound. A new selection of symbols noes not appear until the correct choice has been made.
A game consists of 10 selections. The score is kept and displayed at the end of each game. If the child answers at least seven problems correctly on the first try, a graphic reward appears on the screen. After the game, the original menu is displayed so that another round can be played at any level the child chooses.
BELLS AND WIHISTLES
Children tend to push buttons, particularly the [BREAK] and [SYSTEM RESET] keys on ATARI computers. Unfortunately, there is no way to disable the [SYSTEM RESET] key from BASIC. However, our program does disable the [BREAK] key. All other keys are ignored by the program.
Young children often have difficulty manipulating the joystick and may push the trigger without realizing it. To minimize this problem, our program slows and modifies the joystick response. It does not recognize the trigger unless the animal is actually beneath one of the four symbols.
Most children, even those who do not yet read, can recognize their names. Our program asks for the child's name and uses it in the final graphic reward. For the parent, a simple record keeping system keeps track of the level attempted and the score obtained each time the child plays the game. This record keeping option is only available on the game's disk version.
Next month we will provide the complete program for Odd Man Out. The end result will be a useful piece of educational software aimed at the preschool age group, but the article also will identify and briefly explore how various graphics techniques are useful in such programs. Space prohibits us from describing all the details of the procedures. However, a rudimentary knowledge of BASIC, the desire to keep plugging away at the program, and a good ATARI graphics reference book should be enough to help you master the techniques we will cover.
None of the procedures are difficult, but they do go beyond the cursor graphics explanations found in the ATARI BASIC manual. Your local Atari dealer should have several graphics books available and may recommend a particularly good reference guide to you. Next month we continue to explore Odd Man Out, a program designed to develop visual discrimination skills in preschool children.
John and Mary Harrison are parents, teachers and ATARI hobbyists. Mary teaches math and computer science at the high school Ievel. John holds an M.S. in computer science and develops educational software. They will be coordinating the Education Department for ANTIC.