a lot of children’s software

Test your child software (age 6-11)
Do you really know how well your child is doing at school? Well it says that on the box and it would be crazy to not to care. What is inside it is a computer based test which will work out a child’s National Curriculum scores. It breaks the result down into attainment levels, takes the child’s age into account and then shows it on a helpful bar display. It can print a report and if they’ve tried the test before, give a measure of their progress.
There’s a disc for each subject and each key stage, six titles using multiple choice questions each illustrated quite well. The box also says that the tests have been ‘tested and approved by teachers and educational advisers’ and it would be unfair to say that a few questions were badly worded and ambiguous because that’s something we all do when we write tests: for example under English, you are asked which hand-written word was correct and three out of four look fine.
For the tests on younger children, you will have to read out the question, maybe rephrase it and then read through each of the four answers. With about sixty questions, you have to take breaks or endure a long, unpleasant experience. It needs a teacher’s skill to be patient, encourage and avoid causing distress.
And the result? A score sheet which the box suggests will allow a parent to take action. But I wonder what that is? When their child gets a poor result, which is not the same as a teacher delivering a school report, I worry that some parents will despair. A few I know will tell their kids that they’re ‘thick’. So in the wrong hands, the software is dangerous and were it a medicine it would only be available on prescription.
I’m sure that some people using this will not realise how imperfect multiple choice testing is. Testing myself, I occasionally didn’t understand the question and failed at fair testing in science which I thought I was good at. And then my mouse finger wanted a go, and it clicked at random to find it was working towards level 2, and had the maths skills of a four year old.
Something good could come of this if it helped parents to understand why there has been, let’s say unhappiness about National Curriculum testing. Parents might also become more aware of what their child is taught and what they’re assessed on. There are better ways to find that out anyway.
Most humans will probably fail on the opening screen which warns that “The optimum screen-mode is 640×480. Continue?”. But that’s being whimsical, it would be more serious to say this is as wise as teach yourself brain surgery.
Details: Six CD-Rom titles: Science, English and Maths at key stage 1 and 2. For multimedia Windows PC. Price £14.99 each including VAT and postage. Published by: 10 out of 10 Educational Systems.

Noah’s Ark (age 4-10)
Storybook on CD-Rom for Windows PC and Macintosh Price £19.99 Details: Anglia Multimedia www.anglia.co.uk
Noah’s Ark is a retelling of a classic story. It’s a computer storybook, illustrated by an animated cartoon and read aloud. Unusually, there’s an easy and a harder version to chose from, and even more unusually it comes from Oz, so you can expect a neighbourly “g’day” as it runs and a laid back approach. I hung on till the end, waiting to hear why the ‘big flood’ was necessary, or what happened to everyone else. But it never said!
The children can go through the story again in various ways: in one they can move characters around, in another they click and comical things happen and in another – nice idea this – they can write their version of the story on each picture. Maybe even fill in that nitty-gritty detail. That children can also do jig-saws, click and read the names of things in the pictures, match up shapes and words, or print out the screen to colour in, makes for a program which just about earns a place in school.
This is quite attractive, gently amusing but they are pushing it to say it suits kids of this age range. Older ones might find the word matching game a challenge but feel the setting is childish. Younger ones might not know what a ‘?’ button is to get the help, all spoken, that’s on offer. There are a few snags like this, but all are largely tolerable if this is given a preview before using it. The result is a colourful way of delivering a tale with some built in follow-up work.

The Journey of Thomas Blue Eagle (age 9-12)
Now and then you see a film or hear a record that is so fresh that you want to go back to it. This CD-Rom is like that.
It’s about the great buffalo hunting tribes and the school days of Thomas Blue Eagle, the son of a chief. You enter the family tepee and explore the things around you: there’s a book which tell the boy’s mystical story, there are things to draw with and photographs and newspapers to see. Wherever you go you’re immersed in atmosphere and a freshness which is rare in this medium. This CD-Rom has heap big style.
So when you click on the ledger-book – the boy’s schoolbook – six tales unfold with pages illustrated in naive, childish drawings. Music and sounds play as you watch stories where enemy braves attack the boy’s tribe, take lives as well as a medicine pouch. Or another where Thomas gets stabbed trying to get the pouch back and smokes a peace pipe with his former enemy. The magic of these stories – such as one where the boy is separated from his family and flown home by the eagles – comes over well as the pictures animate in a charming, primitive way which is bang spot-on.
You can join the boy’s father when he visits the US government school. Here Blue Eagle was re-named ‘Thomas’ and learned the white man’s ways. You can click on the gym and watch a slide show where you find out about the games – like baseball and lacrosse – that they played, or click on the school house to hear that they learned all but their own language. The father’s unhappiness with this socialisation is evident and understandable: the children have their long hair cut, are made to parade and to wear uniform. Stepping back for a second, it’s not unlike when I was at school but the father’s feelings about his son’s education is obviously worth discussion.
A bag – the ‘parfleche’ bag, holds some unusual story-making tools. Here you can assemble your story by picking from the sentences on the screen. No reading skill is needed, Thomas speaks the words you choose and then illustrates them on the screen. You then choose more sentences until finally you can colour in the pictures – but nothing as crass as a paint program – here you get native colours and native brushes to use. If your pen dwells on the parchment the ink darkens on the spot. It’s just a passing point but it’s neat and sweet.
Nearby is the ‘Hide Painter’, another painting tool but this time you paint with picture elements like buffaloes, horses and people. There are lots of these to assemble, move around, and make big or small on the screen. There are burning houses and war-dancing braves – and surprisingly if you click on them they come to life, complete with sounds. It’s another spooky feature as is the ‘Winter Count’ ceremonial robe whose symbols tell the tribe’s history alongside newspapers headlines of the time.
Finding all this is not easy without the accompanying booklet. Children will be happy to experiment and find their way through: they’ll discover that a ‘feather’ means exit, ‘fire’ means help and ‘sun’ means clear the page. But there are limits to intuition – so without the book, they’ll miss important ‘double-click’ and ‘press shift and click’ tricks which animate the characters.
And just as those young braves got a culture shock at school, you’ll find yourself thrown into this culture with vocabulary like packhorse stone, parfleche bag, and ledgerbook. It’s clever I guess, but too clever to be helpful.
That aside, even the youngest can handle this title as it is very visual. The booklet lists appropriate ideas – like using this as a way to learn about indigenous peoples, or how their history is recorded. There’s also classroom mileage for art, language and a discussion of the blur between fact and fantasy. As is usual, you will have to do the work here.
What you’ll not have to do is get an expert to install this on a Windows 95 computer as it’s an ‘auto-play’ CD-Rom that kicks itself into action – for once a small promise that computers will one day stop talking with forked tongue. For PC CD-Rom. Price: £29.95 Granada.

The Random House Kid’s Encyclopaedia (age 9-11)
Review below. CD-Rom software for PC. Price £44.95 from Guildsoft.

Aviation Adventure (age 10-13)
Review below. CD-Rom software for PC. Price £44.95 from Guildsoft.

Microsoft’s Magic School Bus Explores The Ocean (age 6-10)
It’s a treat to find a computer game where children can learn from and enjoy. By doing that well, and intelligently here’s a title to add that very short list you can recommend to parents.
In ‘Magic School Bus Explores the Ocean’, ‘Miss’ takes her tiny class of five to the seaside. They go in their magic bus and put you in control. You might take them to the kelp forest, the coral reef or even the deep ocean where those electric fish hang out. The bus is magic you see. It’s also magic to watch the wildlife swimming by, click on things and hear the class tell you about dolphins, orca whales and so on.
Back inside the bus, instruments tell you the sea temperature, its depth, and where on earth you are. A picture gallery squeaks the noises sea creatures make while a fax machine provides divers points of interest. Best of all, experiments where you match creatures to their ocean zone, find the best way to grow kelp or choose the most streamlined fish are an education.
It’s so good but all this takes hours. At home you’d say this was value for money but at school you’d wonder where the day went, and when all of your class of forty will get their turn. And this isn’t something you can search to find a fact – you need to play and soak them in as you go. But, if you’re using the book, or the TV series that spawned this, then maybe there’s just a little school mileage in this. Details: CD-Rom for Windows PC. Price around £25 on mail order

Magic Bus Explores the Solar System (age 6-10)
CD-Rom software for multimedia PC computers. Price around £25 Microsoft
There are those primary school years when children get that obsessive hobby ‘disorder’. They just want to know everything about football, astronomy, aeroplanes and so on. It’s so poorly understood that even the experts call it “that thing they get”.
But now there is a heap of software, on CD-Rom discs, to feed the kids’ craving – so that if anything is understood, it’s that here is a market.
In Magic Bus Explores the Solar System, a class go on a field trip to the moon and planets. They hop on the school bus which ‘morphs’ into a space ship and yahoo (and I quote) they’re off.
‘Miss’ has got lost. So they play a game, landing on planets, jumping over craters and onto rocket pads to pick up clues. They might find that she’s on a planet where it rains sulphuric acid and they can go from planet to planet, picking clues as to which planet that might be. They sort-of learn things on the way, but this is way too playful.
They can also do science experiments and this is almost educational: in one they count candles on their birthday cake as planets orbit the sun, in another they put a bus into an orbit by adjusting its rocket power and trajectory and in another they test the sizes of planets, and try to pour just the right number of planets into enormous Jupiter.
You’ll not find many programs this good-looking but Magic Bus scores Home 1 to School 0 with the penalty point for being too much fun.

Another title, ‘Kids Encyclopaedia‘ deals with the planets and a thousand other things too. Yes, it’s an encyclopaedia, but there are novel ways of using it. You can click on a time line or click on a topic or click to go on a mini-guided tour of the information.
You can even click on a place on a globe. Go to London and you’ll see a photo and have an article read to you. And being American, it tells you about the ‘Thames River’ and the ‘fog’ we have.
You can clip entries into a personal notebook though you can’t do anymore than read it later. As we’ve said before, kids need to work on information. There are the usual ‘hot’ words to click-on and read about. Or, you can enter your own word and get a list of matching entries: an important feature of an electronic encyclopaedia. Sadly, this isn’t thorough enough to find everything, and while that might not matter for the 6-12 year old target group, what does matter is that some will stumble on the language. To its credit, it is easier to read than the Microsoft Encarta occasionally found in primary schools. But then what isn’t.
And the entire presentation is garish and fabulous. You will meet the ‘Vid-kids’, precocious things who show you round and tell jokes. They’re garish too. There are games here you could learn from – like matching animals, planets and famous buildings to clues. Or the virtual museum called Zoomscape – which you can really move around. You can’t DO much but its the germ of a great idea.
There’s plenty here to tickle many youngster’s fancy. They’ll graze on the information and be stimulated. But if they’re looking for a specific juicy fact, they shouldn’t expect too much of this – even if it is called an encyclopaedia.

Aviation Adventure is an aircraft encyclopaedia – a database cleverly controlled from a cockpit with sliders and button to sort the craft by year, speed and wingspan.
From hot air balloons to war planes, a couple of hundred craft are covered in all detail. You can read about aviation milestones and watch hilarious, historic failed attempts to fly. Some planes you can zoom in on and look inside. A favourite could be the paper plane factory where you can learn about the science of flight and how to make a dozen designs. It even prints a pattern for you. And they work.
For all its variety ‘Aviation’ only just touches the curriculum. Mostly it flies way over it, though I’d happily prescribe it for the hobbyist.
While these programs will not do well at school, they at least satisfy one of my obsessions: they are all imaginative and amazingly easy to set up and use. I wish I could say this for today’s school software.

Crayola Amazing Art Adventure (age 3 to 6) and Crayola Art Studio (age 6-12)
Amazing Art Adventure is a remarkable pre-schoolers painting program. It’s more like a toy box where children pick up something and use it, rather than a program with menus and options. The word is ‘metaphor’ – crayons rub, felt-tips squeak, paint gurgles and there’s a picture gallery to hide you from that file name, dialogue box and MSDOS nonsense.
So instead of a boxy tool box, there are ‘Crayola’ crayons, a felt-tip and brush. Instead of a palette of colour squares, there’s a line of crayons. And instead of a help button, there’s pop-up talking help which appears BEFORE you click on anything.
You’ll hear things like, “Add crazy lines to your picture”, or “Brown” or it will spell out letters as you type. And that’s just excellent when you use a program for the first time, though you might click the feature off before it starts to annoy.
When you choose a crayon, it physically moves into place, as if ready for action. You might scribble yellow over a cyan line, and the overlap shows green which is an unusual, even great feature.
And then there are animated stickers and magic effects that drop jungle animals and all sorts of silly surprises on the page. You can colour a sticker, or colour some text after you’ve typed it, and yet you can come back to it later and move it – whereas in many programs once you’ve drawn something it’s stuck down forever.
You can start with a blank page, or with the colouring books, dot-to-dot puzzles, and food place-mats instead. Or play odd-one out, or find the hidden picture. Usually all these games and features each have a different way of working. But that’s less so here. A clever consistency runs right through this program, which makes it easy to recommend for home and the early school years.
Crayola Art Studio is precisely more of the same. There are more colours, as well as sliders to control the size of your brush, or adjust the ‘water’ in your paint. You can also stretch and rotate text and stickers, copy and paste them, and there are yet more activity books, like fashion designer, badge maker and certificate maker. The adult’s hot key does let you hide some of the cartoonery, but the American hardwired-fun will remain for some to tolerate and some not. Still, when the felt-tips starting squeaking you can at least turn down the volume. Typical price £29.99 each. For PC from most software suppliers.

Dr Seuss’ ABC (age 4-7)
A wild whiz through the alphabet based on Dr Seuss books. All sorts of characters crop up to illustrate big and little letters including Aunt Annie s alligator and Baby barber bubbles and a bumblebee. The children can click on the pictures and the barber plays bass with baby s hair and so on. The action is triple-layered too – meaning that different things happen with each click. It’s either very clever or it’s weird and it is as American as Dr Seuss is their cultural icon. While that really ought to be a warning, this is too sweet, and too absorbing to miss. The children can sing the alphabet song, with and without the help of the characters. They always do, it has me in stitches and I don t know why. A Living Books title available from mail order suppliers. Details: CD-ROm for PC and Mac. Price around £35.

The Crayon Factory (CD-I for ages 4 to 9)
Call it art or call it science , this is a colourful and cartoon about how they make crayons. The children see all the technology and they can go to each part of the factory and mix colours to make crayons, mix colours to match objects or do quality control on the crayon boxes as they roll along a conveyor. They can even colour in cartoon scenes, using crayons they’ve made, and then watch the story run with the white bits they missed.
It’s really quite clever in the way the story, the factory and the games hang together and it’s hard to pull the children away from it. There are some activities for older children needing arcade-level dexterity. Details: Price £25 Philip’s School 2000. Tel: 020 7911 3060

Just Grandma and Me (age 3-7); The Tortoise and the Hare (age 3-8); Kid Pix Studio (age 5-10)
I’ve always thought my computer was an American. The label says it’s Irish but as the software talks in American, it might as well be.
Living Books are among a few US software companies sensitive to what people over here call ‘that American accent’. They’re working through their catalogue of read aloud storybook CD-Roms, where early readers click on the words to hear them, and translating them into Oxford English, French and German.
The latest release is ‘Just Grandma and Me’, now told with just a whisper of EastEnd English, never mind Oxford. It’s a sweet and young story where ‘me’, a misshapen little ‘critter’ goes to the beach with Grandma, eats ice cream and tickles her toes before heading home for bed.
The paper book is included too – important for something aiming to encourage reading. And while the book leaves all to the imagination, the computer version leaves little when umbrellas on the beach turn into rockets and a star-fish does a dance. There’s so much charm that parents, and teachers will enjoy it too.
On the same disc, you’ll find ‘Grand-Mere et Moi’, and ‘Nur Oma und Ich’ not only worth hearing to find out how much French and German you’ve forgotten but to wonder if there’s a useful languages angle. It’s interesting that several teams of experts worked on these, just to ‘dub’ them so that lip movements matched the new dialogue.
The differences between the new ‘Grandma’ and the US original are few. But in ‘The tortoise and the hare’, one of Aesops fables, the hare gets a personality change to become more of a ‘Hey, old chap’ type. They’re worth comparing, especially where the hare calls the tortoise a ‘slow coach’. In the US copy, they say ‘slowpoke’ which is alarmingly funny.

Kid Pix Studio, a suite of drawing ‘tools’, from Broderbund, Living Books’ parent company gets similar treatment. This is state of the art, free expression. There’s paint that sparkles and puppets that dance to music as children press the keyboard. Nothing happens very quietly, but you can turn down the sound as pupils make characters run comically around the screen or assemble a slide show of their work.
They can paint using lines and circles, but that’s passe because they’ve got striped paint, colourful stamps, and messy effects like covering their picture with cobwebs or blowing a wind over it. For those that need a little stimulus there are picture starters where they’re told, “I’m a humungous fungus, and I glow in the dark. Draw me”.
The original US version is available for Apple machines, and as with Grandma, it’s little different: that accent has gone, and that letter ‘z’ is pronounced ‘zed’.
It’s a nice surprise when the computer starts talking English, even a little startling. There’s never been a good excuse to avoid these pretty good titles, unless you’re waiting for them to arrive in Welsh, Scottish or Scouse.
Apple / Windows CD-ROm. Prices around £30. Available through mail order suppliers.

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