Technology & You
CD-ROMs FOR THE PRESCHOOL SET
My daughter is just shy of 2 years old, and like most new parents, I want to do all the right things to help her grow and develop. I had figured that computers and CD-ROMs were a few years off, until I started noticing the age recommendations on some of the software packaging: New CD-ROMs are coming out for kids as young as 2, and many target the 3-to-6-year-old set. Maybe some of this software was worth checking out.
After viewing some of the CD-ROM titles, testing kids' reactions, and chatting with educators, it's clear I was jumping the gun with respect to my daughter. Yes, she happily bobbed along to the musical riffs in Dr. Seuss's ABC. And she giggled at the gorgeous animations--from a dancing camel to a darting single-haired Zed--in the adaptation of that classic. But she hasn't yet acquired "mouse skills."
QUALITY TIME. Educators say that most children can't point and click a mouse until age 2 1/2 to 3, so your child probably won't get much out of a CD-ROM before then. Between ages 3 and 6, kids adept at using the mouse will still need guidance from their parents--which could make for some quality time together at the computer.
Parents need help, too, in sorting out the flood of new CD-ROMs for preschoolers coming on the market. The Parent's Guide to Children's Software 96 from Newsweek (packaged with a CD-ROM for $29.95), and The Computer Museum Guide to the Best Software for Kids (HarperPerennial, $16.00), both just published, do a good job of evaluating software. If parents want to know about new titles as they come along, they can check out the Children's Software Review (313 480-0040 to subscribe) or Children's Software (713 467-8686), two newsletters edited by former educators.
Don't fall for manufacturers' claims that their software will improve a child's thinking or problem-solving skills. They can offer a little rote learning--and then only if the programs are engaging enough for repeat visits.
Dr. Seuss's ABC is an entertaining program that wows kids and parents alike. The basic screens will look familiar to Dr. Seuss fans, but the program adds narration to sound out the words. Clicking at random in the pages brings in new objects, such as a couch in the letter C screen. Nimble mouse-clickers will like chasing down the Zed, which appears from and disappears behind letters. But the program is best for occasional dipping in, rather than a straight read-through. One of my 5-year-old volunteers started losing interest by the letter L.
Alone, I took an hour or so to click through the entire alphabet--something parents shouldn't do with very young kids. Interest will flag, and some children can develop eyestrain. Educators suggest limiting time in front of the computer screen. For 3-year-olds, 15 minutes a day may be enough. For 4- and 5-year-olds, 30 minutes can be O.K.
Educational programs have to snare a young child's interest quickly. Let's Start Learning! is a cheery new program designed to teach the basics of counting, ABCs, recognizing patterns, and matching objects. Kids who answer enough questions correctly win gold keys, which they can then use to change the colors of a carousel horse. Most young kids probably won't play long enough at one sitting to accumulate many keys, and some activities, such as shape-sorting, produced frustration in my kid-testers. Other activities, such as the diner where kids help to cook up weird combinations of food as they learn the alphabet and basic words, were a hit. And the singsong music appeals to very young children.
GOOD CROW. Multiple-choice testing is a mainstay of educational programs--even if it's masked by fanciful games. Still, when a child gets an answer wrong, the result need not be discouraging. A friendly crow nudges kids toward the right answer in Trudy's Time & Place House, the latest entry from Edmark Corp. One 4-year-old didn't mind the helpful hints as he moved an ant along a grid in a jelly bean hunt--and he screeched with delight when the ant wolfed down a pink jelly bean and briefly turned into a pig. Older kids will like the geography section, which offers capsule descriptions of places from the Galapagos to the Colosseum.
One nice touch: The parents' manual accompanying the Edmark program suggests things to do with your children after playing the program, such as letting your child be "time manager" for a day, telling you when to leave for a meeting or prepare dinner as part of learning to tell time. Indeed, it's important for parents to remember that even if software is "interactive" and "educational," it doesn't replace real life, or real-life parenting. By all means introduce your young one to technology at an early age. But make sure, says June L. Wright, professor of education at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic, that using the computer is simply "one of many kinds of interaction your child has at home."BY KAREN PENNAR