A Child's Garden Of Software

I enjoyed being a toddler-from what I can recall. But if I had it to do all over again, I would kick and scream and hold my breath until my parents got a multimedia computer that could run the newest preschool software.

For parents of 2- to 6-year-olds, this software offers a form of educational play that is an invaluable addition to Tonka trucks and Barbie dolls. Most programs are remarkably creative and entertaining. Kids as young as 2 love to sit on their parents' laps and watch, while older kids become mesmerized by the things they can do. After reviewing several dozen products, I've picked some favorites. Most cost about $40, and some work on both Windows and Macintosh systems.

FAMILY VALUES. Why Do We Have To? offers an amusing look at rules kids despise, such as "clean your room" and "share your toys." Animated cartoon characters, led by Lester Lion, start out playing in a clubhouse without using rules--and end up fighting and deciding rules are worthwhile after all.

Featuring a family motif, Fisher-Price's Dream Doll House is one of the few programs aimed at girls, although my 2-year-old son cried when I dragged him away. Each room has toys and figures that become animated when you click on them, such as a vacuum that cleans up messes.

Examples of preschool computing at its best are reference books previously inaccessible to young children. One is My First Encyclopedia. Its central image is a giant "tree of learning" with lots of objects on its branches representing topics such as animals or anatomy. Clicking on an object triggers a video of a kid explaining the meaning of a word. The main drawback: You can't simply type in a word and get a definition.

TINY TUNES. Two worthwhile early-reading and -writing programs are Fisher-Price's ABC's and Fisher-Price's 1-2-3's. The ABC's program features a "jungle jukebox," which plays a little song about each letter. It also provides simple games, such as matching a letter with a picture. Kids have to find coins hidden in a cafe where the game takes place--then use the coins to start the jukebox. The 1-2-3 game uses animated "counting critters" to help kids learn numbers up to 10 in such settings as a snack shop.

The most bizarre program has to be Bug Adventure, which is filled with zany videos of real bugs. There's a shot of a praying mantis catching a spider, and--this was a first for me--a spider catching and eating a fish. The subjects are great, but video quality could be better.

Popular picture books are often translated into computer games, and the newest revolves around illustrator Richard Scarry's How Things Work in Busy Town. It lets kids interact with characters and objects from the book while they listen to a narrator describe the action. You can also build a tractor, though this task takes some coordination. Several other big titles will be hitting the market pretty soon. An early version of Madeline has spectacular artwork. And Houghton-Mifflin will shortly be releasing CD-ROM versions of Curious George and The Polar Express.

Fair warning before rushing out to buy these programs: Most require enormous computer power, including at least a 486 chip. Some need 8 megabytes of random-access memory and updated video drivers. And they can be tricky to install. A third of the programs I played either caused my 486 PC to crash or required time-consuming tweaking before they would work. Before getting your kids excited about a program, get it up and running first. They'll become captivated from the start--and learn something as well.

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