When Child Meets Mouse, Give Software That Teaches

The kids are headed back to school and you want to make it their best year ever. You've done all the really important things - loved, taught, and respected. Don't overlook an important aid: educational software.

So many children's software programs are coming out that there's plenty to choose from. Warren Buckleitner, editor of a newsletter called Children's Software Revue, estimates that nearly three new titles cross his desk every day. And the good news, he says, is that the quality is getting better.

But how do you choose? At $20 or $30 a pop, children's software isn't cheap. Here are some guidelines I gleaned from educators, editors, and software developers:

1. Stock the basics. A word-processing program, computer dictionary, encyclopedia, and online service are all great tools. Don't worry too much about which brands these are. Your home computer probably came with many of these programs already loaded and they'll do fine. For most children, it's a good idea to use Internet filtering software, such as SurfWatch or X-Stop, to block out questionable online material.

2. Figure out how your child learns. Addie Swartz, president of an innovative children's software research company called BrightIdeas, tries to match software to children's learning styles, such as logico-mathematical, spatial, linguistic, musical and so on. Your child probably uses more than one style.

For example, logico-mathematical kids love to figure out things. So the highly rated Math Blaster series from Davidson & Associates or the acclaimed JumpStart series from Knowledge Adventure might be great picks. But your child may also display spatial skills, such as drawing. So Orly's Draw-a-Story or Kid Pix from Broderbund or the classic SimCity and its derivatives could be useful. Linguistic kids want to read and write, so give them Arthur's Reading Race or Microsoft's Creative Writer 2.

3. Do your research. Several outfits make it their job to rate software for educational and entertainment value. Children's Software Revue (www.childrenssoftware.com) puts up its list of All Star Software on the Internet. The list is a couple months old. The most up-to-date listing is published in the group's $24-a-year newsletter that's published six times a year. Several computer publications, such as PC Magazine and FamilyPC Magazine, regularly review educational software. Next week, FamilyPC (www.zdnet.com/~familypc) will host an online panel of education experts from The Learning Company to answer parents' questions about software. Ask other parents. Search the Internet for online comments from parents.

4. Pick age-appropriate software. Just like choosing the right toy, choosing the right software demands a keen eye to the level of difficulty. Don't be impulsive. "Software packaging can be seductive," Mr. Buckleitner warns. "It looks like it's going to give your child a master's degree." You'll know in two weeks whether you made the right choice.

5. Trust your instincts. "It's a real personal decision," says Kelley McDonald of BrightIdeas. No one else knows your children as well as you do. So give them what you think they're interested in.

One of the unfortunate things about software is that you usually can't return an opened box for a cash refund. That's why BrightIdeas (www.brightideas.com) has set up a network of more than 500 local consultants to meet with groups of teachers and students to discuss and sell appropriate children's software. Best of all, if your child doesn't like the software, you can return it for a full refund. Its an intriguing idea from a young company.

* Send comments to lbelsie@ix.netcom.com or visit my In Cyberspace forum at http://www.csmonitor.com

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