First came Dick and Jane, then Sesame Street. Now, there's Nigel's World. Nigel, a globe-trotting photographer, stars in a computer game that teaches kids geography as they "travel" with him on his faraway assignments. Just as earlier generations relied on books and TV to supplement classroom learning, today's kids are turning to PCs. But with 10,000 educational programs on the market, parents can be overwhelmed with choices.
Where to begin? First and foremost, a program must be engaging and fun, says Marion Blank, co-author of A Parent's Guide to Educational Software ($14.95, Microsoft Press). "Kids will do what they're asked in school, but no one's going to look at a dreary program at home."
Other factors to consider are ease of use, interactivity, and longevity. "Is a program able to grow along with your kids?" asks Warren Buckleitner, whose High/Scope Survey of Early Childhood Software ($19.95, High/Scope Press) evaluates programs for 3- to 7-year-olds. Games that can be played at varying levels of difficulty can stretch a program's life.
PIANO LESSON. Consistent award winners are Broderbund's Playroom and Treehouse ($49.95 and $59.95, respectively, though prices vary; those listed here are retail for IBM-compatible machines). Almost every object on the screen performs a trick at the click of a mouse. In Treehouse, the keyboard turns into a piano on which kids can play and compose music. Or climb into the piano to play a kid's version of Name That Tune. A car-racing game teaches math, a theater game helps with grammar skills, and an animal game introduces basic biology. Such programs could appeal to siblings of different ages for years.
For 2- to 5-year-olds who haven't mastered reading, talking programs are a must. Macintosh PCs have good built-in sound, but for IBM clones, you might invest some $200 for a sound card to improve quality.
In Mickey's ABC's from Walt Disney ($49.95), Mickey Mouse runs around his house highlighting objects that start with the letter your child pushes on the keyboard. A "B" sends Mickey to the bathroom to brush his teeth. At the same time, the letters and words are displayed on the screen--and spoken, if your PC has sound capability.
Computers are also useful for teaching the repetitive drills kids need to master the three R's. After all, a computer can repeat routine problems without losing patience. Many programs for older kids, ages 6 to 10, bury math or grammar problems in adventure games. In the Super Solvers series ($44.95 to $59.95) offered by the Learning Co., trapping or zapping the agents of the Master of Mischief produces word and math puzzles a child must solve to unmask this rather friendly menace. In another program, Operation Neptune ($59.95), kids solve math problems to negotiate a dazzling underwater maze.
While drills have their place, Judy Salpeter, author of A Parent's Handbook: Kids & Computers ($16.95, Sams) prefers open-ended programs that let kids explore, write, and draw according to their own inspiration. Programs such as Davidson's Kid Works ($49.95) or Broderbund's Kid Pix ($59.95) are graphics programs that include basic word processing. They encourage kids to write by avoiding the frustrations of hand-scrawling.
ETHNIC DIVERSITY. Also, from ages 6 to 10, children start reading to learn rather than learning to read, says Blank, and they begin to explore social studies and science. In programs such as Lawrence Productions' Nigel's World ($49.95), kids learn about cultural diversity. In First Byte's Eco-Saurus ($39.95), they learn about recycling.
Educational programs for kids aged 10 and up exercise reasoning skills. In MECC's The Oregon Trail ($49.95), they experience a wagon train's journey through the Northwest in 1848, deciding how to apportion food and resources. Maxis' SimCity ($49.95) and SimEarth ($69.95), for ages 12 and up, put children at the helm of a city and planet, respectively, in which they must balance environmental, economic, and political factors. Such games teach kids to plan ahead, adapt to changes, and make decisions--skills most adults could probably afford to brush up on, too.