AT their best, they are high-technology tools that creatively teach children basic math and reading skills. At their worst, they are expensive mental pacifiers that teach children little and relieve parents guilt over not finding time to read to and interact with their children.
Hundreds of interactive ``educational'' computer programs for children as young as two years old are rapidly filling shelves and young minds in toy stores, school districts, libraries, and homes across the United States. The programs vary from interactive versions of ``Dr. Seuss'' and other classic children's books to basic reading and math, to spelling, science, poetry, geography, biology, and others for older children.
Experts warn that the educational value of the programs can vary widely. They urge parents to choose programs carefully, continue to read books to their children, and not expect their children to suddenly acquire, via computer, the ability to read, add, and subtract.
``If it's too good to be true, it probably isn't,'' warns Diana Huss Green, a writer who regularly reviews educational interactive programs in parent's magazines and books. Computers are ``another form of literacy that children need to know, but books are more important than ever.''
The Software Publishers Association, a trade group, estimates that more than 600 computer companies, from textbook publishers to software developers, to media giants Disney and Paramount, are active in the five-year-old, rapidly growing field of educational programs. From computer shows to computer stores, children and adults can be captivated by some of the programs.
Higher-quality programs often use a combination of vividly colored and detailed graphics, stereo sound, songs and rhymes, and cartoon characters to lead children through a series of steps teaching them basic skills like identifying shapes, letters, words, and adding or subtracting.
Children, often less intimidated by computers than their parents, are rewarded for performing tasks correctly with catchy songs and colorful animated sequences. Children can generally navigate through a well-designed program on their own, but can need help at times.
Educators warn that the programs are not miracle tools and they vary from having a serious educational impact to being games that teach children little.
``Some of them are fabulous ... but you've got to choose the products very carefully,'' Ms. Green warns. ``We are in such a primitive stage with this material that some of them are like video games that you want to stay away from.''
Purchasing a computer for thousands of dollars or an interactive program, which generally costs from $25 to $50, should be a well-researched matter, according to education experts. No parent should purchase a program without having first seen a demonstration of it in a store or at a friend's home. Word-of-mouth and reviews in local parenting newspapers, magazines, and books can also be useful. Some libraries have also begun to carry interactive programs.
Education experts also caution that computer programs are only part of a wider educational program that includes a child being read to by their parents, classroom work, and other activities where children interact with people instead of machines.
Programs that seem to claim too much should not be trusted, experts say.
``It can definitely help [pre-schoolers] learn letters and numbers,'' says Maureen Yoder, a computer education professor at Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass., ``but I don't think any program is going to teach a kid to read.''
Jim Trelease, an education writer and staunch advocate of parents reading to their children, agrees.
``We've seen no increase in children's [reading] test results'' as a result of the programs, he says. ``The child who is three, four, or five is only playing'' a game.
Mr. Trelease says that pushing a child to read before the age of five does not necessarily create better reading skills and robs children of play time they need to learn valuable social skills for school.
With computer programs, ``parents are really trying to fill the void they have created by not spending enough time with their kids,'' he says. ``It eases the parent's guilt.''
Once a child is able to read, parents should make sure interactive programs include large sections of text and information on the topic - not just colorful video and sound effects. ``You can fill these things with all glitter and glitz and no substance,'' he says. ``There has to be more text than there is whizz-bang.''
A child's most basic, and important, educational tool is reading ability, Trelease says, and it's something parents can have a direct impact on.
``The easiest, fastest, cheapest way to get kids to read is for their parents to read to them,'' he says. ``The most important CD-ROM is mom and dad.''