Toddlers Get Cozy With A Pc

Software producers aren't claiming that if you introduce your kids to computers while they're in diapers, you can turn them into Silicon Valley geniuses. But they do say that the programs released this year will stimulate babies' curiosity and imagination.

In general, programs for the youngest kids introduce shapes and colors. Those for toddlers develop mouse skills and teach numbers and vocabulary. BabyWOW!, from BowWow House, and JumpStart Baby, from Knowledge Adventure, claim to be for kids as young as niNe months. Baby-ROM, from Byron Preiss Multimedia, is aimed At kids six months old. Knowledge Adventure's Play With The Teletubbies, a spin-off from the PBS and BBC series, and Learning Co.'s Reader Rabbit's Toddler, raise the age bar to 12- and 18-month-olds. Other titles list 2 to 4 years as a suitable age range.

BabyWOW! ($35, www. features several simple games. "What Is It?" has photographs of a lion, crayons, or other images covered by boxes. Each time a child hits any key, a box flips over to reveal more of the picture, until the entire image is seen. In another exercise, the screen changes colors when a kid hits a key.

JumpStart Baby has a variety of exercises, from hide-and-seek to connecting the stars. In "Let's Make Music," a teddy bear leads other characters in nursery rhymes. In "Puzzle Time," children help piece together puzzles, then watch the object come to life. Critics claim the program isn't interactive enough: At times, kids can't affect what happens on the screen till Teddy stops speaking.

Many parents wonder how young is too young for kids and computers to meet. "We know that by exposing children very early to books, they begin to look at pictures, see symbols, and understand language," says psychologist Corinne Rupert, who was a consultant on JumpStart Baby. "That same process can be applied to computer learning." But Warren Buckleitner, editor of Children's Software Revue (www. childrenssoftware. com), which is written by educators, thinks small children can get as much, if not more, out of Play-Doh or the family cat. Moreover, parents risk turning kids off to PCs if they expose them to concepts they're not ready for. "Some of this software makes it seem like it will stimulate your child, teach a different language, or somehow give an academic advantage," says Buckleitner. "That's a bunch of hooey."

CLOSENESS. At whatever age your kid begins to use a computer, keep your expectations in check. Little ones aren't likely to master a mouse by age 2. Nor will they spend more than a few minutes at a time playing at the screen. And you certainly should not make software a substitute for books, blocks, or crayons. Still, programs can bring parents and kids closer together. Michele Curry, a Web manager at Barnard College in New York, holds her six-month-old son, Lucas, on her lap while he's banging away on the keyboard watching BabyWOW!--hence the name "lapware" to describe the programs. "It's nice for kids to feel more comfortable around the machines," she says. Even if that means putting your $2,000 PC at the mercy of small hands.

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