click with mother – software 1996

by Roger Frost  TES 1996

CD-Rom will be a one billion dollar market by the end of 1997 say leading software publishers Broderbund. With predictions this grand, and with a market already so huge, if parents and teachers are looking for a technology to help young children, even toddlers, it might be this.

You don’t have to look very hard to find story books, painting books and activity programs, by the nappy full. You will find strong claims: “Develops reading readiness”, “Develops concepts”, or ‘Encourages learning skills’. Yes, there IS good software out there, and it may do that, but there is also stuff that’s not sure what it’s doing. And some really belongs with the number twosies.

But the computer story books have already won plenty respect. We know about books, we understand them and we want to encourage reading, so there’s an obvious attraction. Pick a story, put the words on the screen and make them light up as the story is read to the children. They can take the story in sips and ‘play’ with the pictures, clicking on things, seeing things come to life or break into song.

They’ll see squirrels pop out of tree trunks, fish jump out of goldfish bowls, garden fences play the scales, and mice peep out of the skirting. These aren’t mere books, or pop-up books, they’re a genre.

The people that own the genre, if you can own one are US publishers ‘Living Books’. Their stories are interactive, funny and charming. The ‘gags’ (as the things you click on are called) and groovy music appeals to children as well as the hippie in a parent. They may be a new tack for those who are failing in reading, but what may be prime, is that adults and children can be enthralled and want to read together.

The stories do not patronise and they touch upon ideas familiar to children. So in Harry and the Haunted House, the kids think the house is haunted, but it isn’t really. In ‘Little Monster at School’, Little Monster finds a friend in Yally who isn’t that good at school, and behaves a little strangely. And in The Berenstain Bears Get in a Fight, two sweet kids squabble and the parents try to deal with the problem.

Technically, it’s interesting that the ‘books’ play music on a CD player, but it’s important that the package includes the printed book that children can ‘read’ too. More than this, the Berenstain Bears title also has a guide with parent plus child activities on solving conflicts, reading, science, art and measuring. And this is a very rare find in shrink-wrapped software.

People go so gooey over Living Books that the authors are asked to autograph the CD-Rom. But others give a cautious welcome: don’t the children just want to play with the scenery? Aren’t they more active than interactive? Aren’t children confused that the words don’t match the talk on the screen?

People do agree on a couple of points, that this is a young technology, still to be fully exploited and that there’s those American voices…

After heaps of American software, hearing English does prick up your ears. But when is the Scottish or Geordie version coming, you may well ask!

Living Books is meticulous, however. For example, the ‘localised’ editions can involve reworking the graphics, just to get the voices in-sync and avoid a ‘dubbed’ movie effect. They have also improved the interaction in a new title called Dr Seuss’ ABC – here the ‘gags’ are more ‘layered’, so that you can click maybe three times and get different responses.

Art or ‘kids creativity’ titles are almost another genre. Once upon a time, painters started with a blank canvas – but today if you can’t draw for toffees, or even oatbran-crunchy bars, you get a head-start. There’s the classic Kid Pix (PC/Mac Broderbund), a blockbuster that has sold 600,000 copies by setting scribbling to comical noises and making it easier to get a result. Kid Pix Studio (PC/Mac Broderbund) is noise and sweetness again though now there’s paint that’s alive and puppets that move to music. Children can build slide-shows, with movies, pictures and sound transition effects – good training, I guess, for future business presentations! This is good though, as is Crayola Amazing Art Adventure (PC Micrografx). It builds on what has gone before not just by adding features but by giving spoken help. A voice tells what each button does, what each colour is and for once, some of the colours mix like real paint – now you could learn something from that.

But when young children start working they meet a large clumsy mouse. They do quickly learn how it moves in a different plane, but you might still look for a stand-in. For example, Logitech’s Kid’s Mouse is almost tiny, while the ‘Pilot Trackball doesn’t wiggle when they press a button, and up is more like up – if you see what I mean.

A final slot is reserved for a huge range of activity programs aimed at the home. They aim to help with number, letters, shapes, colours and so on. Most packages, in trying to offer a better deal to parents, bundle a bit of this with a bit of that. But this creates a thin mix, and that may not work says children’s software consultant, Anne Sparrowhawk, “It’s a superficial skim over all sorts of things instead of doing one thing well. Programs fail in their learning objectives when they don’t offer a rich enough range of experiences”.

In other words, if the child can do an exercise, it’s just reinforcing what they know. But if they cannot – the program doesn’t offer a rich enough set of experience to teach them to anyway. In which case, why not do other things, away from the computer?

So that’s that, all flushed away? Well no, it’s not that we should avoid such software. It’s an old, low-tech chestnut of matching learners to the tasks we give them. If parents know what their children can do, they may be able to choose software that’s appropriate for them. Schools have an even harder task, which is to find software that caters for not one child but many.

Anne Sparrowhawk feels that parents are often buying blind. “Parents shouldn’t imagine that buying the software will guarantee an enhanced education. It’s not like video, software asks for something back. But if parents and children use it together, the parents will learn what’s best and the children will enjoy learning with them. And that can be an enriching experience for everybody”

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