It Pays to Get Smart When You Pick 'Educational' Software

MOUSING AROUND

They pour in so fast and furious that Jeff Dronzek has lost count. All Mr. Dronzek knows is that the number of computer games that purport to be educational is growing.

"Every year," says Mr. Dronzek, a buyer for Learningsmith, a national chain that markets learning products, "the number that gets thrown at you gets bigger."

The good news is that the overall quality of these high-tech games has improved. The bad news is that there's more junk out there, too.

Howard Gardner, a psychologist and Harvard University professor best known for his numerous books on intelligence and learning, says "educational games are most valuable when they reflect activities which a parent values and when the child and parent can become jointly engaged in something that is fun and educational."

It is not always easy to tell which games qualify. Although brand names can serve as a guideline, they are not always a guarantee. The only way to tell is to try it out.

Some stores, like Learningsmith, allow customers to spend a half-hour or more with the latest software. Others, like CompUSA, provide terminals loaded with a smorgasbord of samplers, ranging from a 10- to 15-minute free run to what one father dismissed as "a teaser, not a sampler."

Even these, however, provide a glimpse of the overall quality. "The best games take advantage of the technology and use visuals, sound, and interaction," advises Ann Powell, a learning specialist in Boston and co-author of "How Your Child Is Smart," (Conari Press).

There is little point in exposing children to poor graphics, muddy colors, condescending narrative, and annoying music. It is also important that the child have input. For the younger ones, this means easy point-and-click maneuvers that develop hand-eye coordination. For older ones, this should also entail keyboard work in the case of computer games.

Whether it be math or verbal skills, analysis or problem-solving, games have to "begin with the child's experience," according to Ms. Powell. Then they have to build and expand on that experience. "Many of the educational games are too simple and highly repetitive," she cautions. "They don't stretch kids enough; they don't give kids enough credit."

It is important to check out whether a game allows the child to raise the level of difficulty or delve more deeply into a given topic. According to Lynn Fox, a psychologist and assistant professor of education at American University in Washington, children feel much better about themselves when they have been challenged. "Sometimes failing at the beginning and then succeeding can be rewarding," she says.

The game needs to be challenging, but not so daunting that the child cannot play on his own. "It is interesting for a parent and child to get started together," Powell says, "then let the child have some time alone. The parent can come back later and see what has been accomplished." Some of the reward children get is the ability to show parents how far along the adventure trail they have managed to progress, the great story they wrote all by themselves, or how much they have discovered about music.

Pacing is also crucial. If the aim is to help process information more quickly - say, master the multiplication table - then a game that imposes speed might be valuable. But most of the time it is better to let the child set the pace. "There are not many instances in real life where we need to solve a problem in five seconds," says Donna Stanger, head of development and CEO of Edmark, an educational software developer in Redmond, Wash. "We feel it is more important that the child understand the process."

Also keep in mind that children are tuning into more than the explicit lessons. Many games present problems (math drills, spelling bees, grammar quizzes) then reward correct answers by letting the child do something fun (play a round of Pac-Man, make the next move in an adventure game). This worries Ms. Fox. "The subtle message is that math or spelling is boring," she says.

Far more instructive are the games where a child has to solve a problem or accumulate knowledge to move to the next level - games where "education" is imbedded in the "fun."

"It reinforces the value of math or verbal skills," Fox says. Such games also promote an attitude of learning for learning's sake. "You're doing the task because it is rewarding in and of itself. Not," Fox adds, "because you're getting some outside reward."

To accomplish this, games need a large dollop of what Ms. Stanger calls "the coolness factor." Edmark's latest product, Cosmic Geometry, makes lavish use of three-dimensional imagery in which children construct their own robots and make them move.

What is cool to one child, however, may leave another cold. While conducting research, Fox noticed that boys rushed to the computers in their free time while girls tended not to. When Fox loaded a story-line game, the girls suddenly flocked to the terminals - and practiced computer skills that will come in just as handy as the knowledge the game imparts.

The lesson for parents is clear: Match the game to your child's interests and preferences. To which Gardner adds, "I don't think that any child should be spending more than an hour a day engaged in electronic games - alone or with others."

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