Kids software that delights and educates

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

For the ideal children's gift that doesn't end up in the back of the closet, consider educational computer software. Quality programs with a strong learning component allow kids to learn and improve their skills while having a great time. The best software not only engages again and again but can grow with the user's skills.

So skip the point-and-shoots and arcade-style games and take a look at the following notable offerings (most retail between $20 and $30) from the past year:

Jumpstart Toddlers (Ages 18 months to 3 years). It's debatable whether children under the age of 2 or 3 have much business at the computer at all, but for those inclined to test the waters, Jumpstart's popular series has a new version of their toddler program. Children can join DeeDee the Duck on her trip upriver, exploring numbers, colors, shapes, and letters along the way. There is a lot of music, which is quite engaging, and the colors and graphics are vibrant. The technology is set to allow for activity changes just by moving the cursor over an area, making it especially easy for tiny hands unfamiliar with clicking a mouse.

Recommended: STEM Heroines: Math role models for girls

Blue's 123 Time Activities (Ages 3 to 6). This is a fun, very simple, math-oriented program that complements last year's best-selling Blue's ABC Time Activities. In this one, Blue goes to the Backyard Fair, where she and her friends explore number, shape, and pattern recognition, prediction and estimation, even counting and spending money, all in the guise of games.

There's also Blue's Treasure Hunt Adventure, in which preschoolers help Steve search for a series of treasure hunt scrolls leading to keys to the Land of Great Discovery.

Freddi Fish 4: The Case of the Hogfish Rustlers of Briny Gulch (Ages 3 to 8). Freddi Fish fans will be thrilled to note that the popular series has added another adventure. As players navigate through a colorful and lively underwater world, they discover clues and collect tools to help release Calico Catfish's kidnapped prize-winning hogfish. It's standard Freddi Fish fare that experienced young players will enjoy right away.

Newcomers, however, would be better off with the original, as the game launches straight into play mode with little guidance as to how to proceed.

It's low-key, even tediously slow in spots, but quite challenging for the age range. Three years old is way too young to do much besides casual exploration, while even some 10-year-olds will have trouble solving the mystery. However, this makes it an especially effective game for sibling sharing.

Reader Rabbit Thinking Adventures (Ages 4 to 6). The Learning Company has provided the most-used software to schools for more than 15 years. The most recent release in the Reader Rabbit series is its first-ever "thinking" title, and it's a clear winner. A birthday party theme with more than 50 interactive games and printable activities draw children into play areas that reinforce a variety of logic, reasoning, and problem-solving skills. The graphics are flat and relatively cheesy, but the games themselves, from compare and contrast to memory and planning-ahead strategies, are quite enjoyable and can be programmed for three different ability levels. A second CD-ROM provides customized workbooks and activity sheets. One of the appealing aspects for young kids is the name recognition: Reader Rabbit can address players by name.

Mathblasters and Reading Blasters (K to fifth grade). This extremely popular and valuable series has re-designed its characters and come up with a whole new look to engage kids in learning math and reading. Four new grade-appropriate titles feature intergalactic travelers G.C. and Max Blaster in adventures involving a variety of reward games that help develop basic math and reading skills. A printable chart lets kids track their progress. Treasure rooms offer kids printable puzzles and open-ended activities. The games range from the basic rudiments to some requiring critical-thinking skills on a number of levels, and by and large, they are quite entertaining for even the more reluctant learners.

Arthur's 2nd Grade (Ages 6 to 8). One of a series of grade-oriented learning programs, this one is totally charming on the animation level, especially for fans of the adorable aardvark. However, the learning games themselves, as the children accompany their parents to work, are a little dry and uninspiring, and may appeal only to the most academically oriented kids. They cover the bases: geography, math, reading comprehension, measurement, telling time, but the games are not as lively as some of the other programs.

Carmen Sandiego's Think Quick Challenge (Ages 8 to 12). Carmen Sandiego fans will be happy to note a new title in the series. However, it doesn't quite come up to previous programs. It's tricky to figure out at first, especially the rather lame point-and-shoot games to capture robots that precede each thinking challenge. The games themselves, however, are in a quiz-show format that should appeal to kids, and there's a lot of tangential information offered along the way in subjects ranging from math and science to art and music. One new feature is that it comes in a multiplayer format, allowing up to four players at a time.

The Cluefinders' Reading Adventures (Ages 9 to 12). This is a terrific program for older kids, playing off their inherent interest in pinball-type games, but involving the thinking processes as well. The dramatic setup is also quite a bit more involving than most, based on an adventure that takes the young ClueFinders on a trip across the galaxy to rescue a dying planet from an evil sorcerer's spell. Players help the ClueFinders gather clues and decipher information, bringing in skills in reading comprehension, spelling, grammar, vocabulary, and critical thinking. As with Reader Rabbit, The Learning Company's A.D.A.P.T. technology helps get kids started at one of four different skill levels within each activity and monitors their progress.

There is also a second disk for tips and printable workbooks and activities.

A few more notable new titles may not be as attractive as gifts, but are valuable additions to software libraries.

Typing Tutor 10 offers typing lessons for all abilities along with delightful games that children and adults both will enjoy to help build speed and accuracy.

The new Simon and Schuster New Millennium Children's Encyclopedia and Reference Library offers six reference books on two CDs, making it a good resource for homework and school projects.

And to help with reading, the JumpStart Phonics Learning System (Ages 3 to 8) offers a system of software, videos, and workbooks to develop and reinforce verbal and reading skills. A microphone is included along with speech-recognition software to allow children immediate feedback on their reading progress. (The package retails between $60-$70.)

In addition to these new releases, don't forget the tried and true classics that your children may not already own. From Gizmos and Gadgets to Kidpix, there's a wealth of software that can engage kids over and over. And won't end up at the bottom of the toy box.

Helpful Web sites

A good source for software information is the New York Times-Kids First! "Guide to the Best Children's Videos" (Pocket Books). There are also Web sites that offer information and reviews of software; many provide links to online shopping sites that allow you to compare prices and purchase by the click of a mouse. They include:

www.barnesandnoble.com

www.childrenssoftware.com

www.familypc.com

www.hotfiles.com/educate.html

www.smartfun.com

www.thereviewzone.com

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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