by Kevin Ryan
With two kids and a penchant for buying software, I have wasted a lot of money in the last couple of years. I am writing this in the hope that you can avoid some of the worst experiences of buying Multimedia Software for Preschoolers.
I adjusted Quicken after a year of inputting receipts and found that I had spent $4,500 in computer-related goods, and I didn't even buy a new computer! Part of that was on an inordinate amount of software for kids. It helped that I was a featured speaker for a teachers' conference on children's multimedia. I had an "excuse" other than being an oya-baka.
Julia is five, and is just starting to read hiragana and romaji. I use the software to help the balance between her yochien and English. She has used many programs to get to this point, but I think the most important factor was that she spent time with English. Many of the programs I will review today are pretty weak pedagogically, but most were interesting enough to keep her coming back.
Before we get to the software, I would like to point out that any software will be pretty ineffective if you sit the kid down in front of the computer and walk off. You need to watch, help, and keep the kid "on task". Keep your hands off the mouse, though. It's her game.
The Cream of the Crop
You know a piece of software is good if you and your kid fight over it. Kid Pix Studio is one of these. It's open-ended, and not much good for language learning, but is a great set of tools to let your creativity run free. Kid Pix vaulted Broderbund software ahead of the pack about five years ago. This new version has an improved version of the kid-style paint program with many new kinds of "brushes" and effects you can warp your bad drawing with. But on this $40 CD-ROM, you get five other activities that can blow your mind. There is a slide-show, animated presentations, video with animation overlay and manipulation of animated characters with playback features. Outstanding.
Reader Rabbit's Interactive Reading Journey by The Learning Company takes the kids through letters of the alphabet (in a very interesting order) while exposing them to phonetic elements they will need in reading. Each stop along the way has a half-dozen activities that culminate in a "game" that, when "won" allows the traveller to pass on to the next letter. Solid pedagogy behind this game. Keeps my daughter coming back, too. Invaluable combination.
If your kid is studying English at school, chances are that they are using the Oxford "Let's Go" series. DynED has recently adapted the series to CD-ROM with unusual success. It has managed to keep the spirit of the book (and follow the content very closely) while adding features only possible on CD-ROM. DynED managed to loosen up their standard stiff interface for the kids and make it fun to play. My daughter still thinks it is a game. Not so for parents, who have to fork over ¥12,000 for a CD that covers half of each level (yes, it's ¥12,000 for the other half, too).
Middle of the Road
Broderbund's Living Books series started with the hit Just Grandma and Me, which now comes bundled with about any computer you buy in Japan. It is good at exposing kids to a neat environment, but the reading practice often gets lost in the click-and-make-funny-things-happen activities. The trick is to make a game out of finding the words in the text (click on the word, you hear it, and it flashes). Also on the same level are all the other Living Books: Arthur's Teacher Troubles is better, Ruff's Bone and Little Monster at School not so good.
Bailey's Book House is expensive ($40) for the five basic activities you get. They ported this software from the floppy version with very few changes, and it shows. Edmark always gets high marks in the Educational Technology journals for their series (Bailey's Book/Millie's Math/Sammy's Science) Houses. I don't know why. Maybe because they run pretty effectively on older machines.
Mieko, A Story of Japanese Culture by Digital Productions is very well put together. Using a children's story about a girl in San Francisco, it explores all kinds of Japanese things like gardening and origami. Much better than Voyager's (old) CD on Japan. (Check out Voyager for their excellent titles for older people.) The problem with Mieko is that my daughter loses interest quickly because the interface is too hard to navigate (and perhaps because she gets the same stuff in yochien).
A Silly Noisy House by Voyager enjoyed a brief stint of acclaim in the Ed Tech magazines, but faded quickly. It has a lot of neat places to click, but most of them have little to do with learning. Best feature is the collection of children's songs and the matching game. Cute, if you want to waste some time.
Wouldn't you know that Disney's first foray into Interactive CD with The Lion King would be a flop. Beautiful graphics, but after once through the story, you say, "That's all?" Yep. That's all. The three or four "games" put me to sleep. If you have an ATI video card, it also does weird things on some of the screens. (Customer Support: "Get a new driver from ATI.") They are now flogging a another one with newer features. Watch out, they pay for a lot of advertisement.
Fisher Price's ABCs is put out by Davidson, who must have sold out to get a quick buck. This is not like their normal stuff. Three activities that you could do better on paper (except for the inane rhymes for each of the letters that are really annoying). The kids spend more time amassing money to put in the jukebox where the learning activities reside than actually learning. Definitely not worth the cash, at whatever price they are fishing for.
My Talking Dictionary is a click-and-hear interface that includes so much text that using it is inappropriate until an age where the vocabulary has already been acquired, making it pretty much useless.
Passing on information from Time magazine (Feb. 19, 1996, p.49) quoting Entertainment Weekly, the article pans Schoolhouse Rock: Grammar Rock (Creative Wonders) and Dr. Seuss's ABCs (Broderbund's Living Books) for not being much more than their old versions (book or TV program), but liked Disney's Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree and especially Madeleine and the Magnificent Puppet Show.
Me, I've already spent too much so I have invested in a couple of magazines to review multimedia software. These are well worth the subscription price. I don't buy nearly as much as I used to and am using it more. A review of these magazines I will save for another article.
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