software for the early years (1996)

(Roger Frost TES 1996)
Anything that claims to develop essential maths and language skills is a magnet to parents and teachers. A software trade show, though with murderous games, showed a big crop of children’s CD-Rom titles. Never the mind the quantity, you could feel that each mix of songs, colour, and talking cartoon characters was so attractive they would sell. But what about those skills?
There were new Sesame Street titles, and new stories from Living Books – titles with enough plus points to make them powerfully magnetic. But ‘Jump Ahead’, aimed at toddlers to 9 year olds, was completely new. When you’re show shopping you can only go by the names. It’s no guarantee but you might look twice when PIN, the Parent’s Information Network that offers advice on computers, adds their stamp and credible publishers Random House and Knowledge Adventure are behind them.
On the surface, Jump Ahead seems like most children’s software. In ‘Pre-school’, one of half a dozen titles, they enter a school room and pick what they want to play with. They can paint by numbers, letters or shapes. They can learn letters and sounds using flash cards, or test their memory by trying to match pairs. Then there’s the animation, nursery rhymes and sing-along songs that complete the genre.
It helps to look at everything else to see what’s right here. When well meaning publishers produce something for young learners they know that letters, numbers and shapes are in the educational recipe. But they don’t seem to know about progression. Someone who does is Annie Sparrowhawk, an educational software consultant who worked with the government’s “CD-Rom in Primary Schools” initiative and has seen hundreds of children’s titles. She worked on Jump Ahead turning it into, hopefully, a series which will find a place in schools.
She explains how the skills other programs practice often has nothing to do with what they mean to teach. For example in an activity about colour, children had to pop balloons before they floated off the screen. Or in another title, shapes had to be picked off a conveyor belt that ran too fast for any mouse to keep up with, and it didn’t even teach about shapes.
If snags like these don’t spoil a package, they do create a bumpy ride for young learners. They might have to read a menu to do a simple alphabet exercise. Or they can’t remember what they’re supposed to do after being given too much help or they have to work through screen after screen before they get to do anything.
In contrast, a striking feature of Jump Ahead is that it adapts to the child. As they play and succeed at say, choosing letters they’ll be hiked up a level, and be given more to choose from. Or they’ll move from matching pictures to matching pictures and words. And if they want the challenges to come sooner, they can hike up themselves.
That there is a disc for each year group makes it interesting for school. So on one disc a child practises recognising letters, while on the next they meet letters sounds. A key classroom feature is that each child signs in with their name and their skill level is recalled. If they click on the ‘surprise parcel’ they’ll be given an activity that the program feels they’re ready for. Ms Sparrowhawk feels that having common themes developing from one pack to the next is more likely to lead to an educational understanding, claiming that “The whole package has an integrity where others have failed. There’s the confidence that the games will work with the child it’s designed for.”.
The Jump Ahead idea has had big success in the States with the titles reaching top ten software titles and holding five of its places. The UK versions not only feature an English – if plummy – voice, but they have gone beyond the call of duty in changing the games. So uppercase letters used over there change to the lower case used here, it now uses phonics as well as letter names, and pictures of American police helmets and trains change to familiar ones. While you will find that a school bus is still yellow, you will not notice that ‘hog’ has become ‘pig’, yarn becomes wool and corn changes to wheat. Zucchini (courgette) definitely has gone and songs changed to common fare like Incey-Wincey spider.
It’s a rare thing to find those sticky ‘progression’ ideas considered. Like any published ‘scheme’, Jump Ahead, is based on a good but never perfect model of how children develop. While it’s been ‘cleaned’, I think to the point of being humourless, it merits a second look as it’s only when we find appropriate software like this, that we can start to look at how good a skill builder it might be.

Jump Ahead is for multimedia PC and Macintosh and published by Random House. The range includes Toddlers, Pre-school, Starting School, Year 1, Year 2 and Discovery Tree. Price £20 and £30. UK teachers packs available. Random House on the internet at

A look at the idea that you might want to give early learners some CD-Rom software. CD-Rom will be a one billion dollar market by the end of next year 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 two-sies.
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, ‘play’ with the pictures, click on things, see 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 tac 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) which is new. 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 experiences 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”

early years CD-Roms: what is good, where can you get advice, how do you choose (TES 1977)

People are saying that the learning zone for CD-Rom is in the early years. With children and technology growing as fast as they do, evidence is hard to pin down – but the notion that multimedia develops reading and listening skills is reason enough to survey today’s CD-Rom software.
The material they are talking about leads children through all sorts of learning tasks using spoken cues. It is engaging stuff, often culled from the huge shopping basket of titles aimed at the home. But what is good, where can you get advice, and how do you choose are questions that come to mind.
It’s just too easy to eschew titles that seem playful, take for example, Sierra’s Adiboo which aims to help with counting and reading. Their title aimed at 4-5 years has them counting vegetables, sequencing events and matching colours, letters and words. The 30 activities – all rich in cartoonery, songs and speech – are on three levels of difficulty. As a starter for matching letters, they have to move a robot’s limbs to match those of another. If that’s easy, and the children don’t hike themselves up a level with more things to match, the machine offers to do it for them. And as the children play, the computer monitors them, bringing in new activities and giving you a progress record for each child. This is rare cleverness in software.
In Elmo’s Pre-school, the squeaky Sesame Street character provides masses of encouragement for children doing simple number and letter activities. They’ll play for an hour here, following instructions that they’ll get nowhere without. Madeline’s European Adventure is more convoluted: to solve a puzzle and start exploring Europe, they must sell flowers to buy a ticket, get a photo to collect a passport to go exploring and so on. While the aims are different, both offer exceptional help, with few sticking points like textual menus. This is strangely rare too.
It’s the computer story books that quickly find favour in school. The new UK English version of ‘Arthur’s Birthday’, reads the tale to the child as see words highlighted on screen. Or they can read the story themselves, and click on the tricky words as they go. What this and the others have in common is that young children stick with them and make progress. They do rather more, but we’re usually left to find where they match the curriculum for ourselves and with only a software catalogue to hand, our progress with this can be stymied.

Sierra Adiboo for 4-5 years and 6-7 years.
Elmo’s Pre-school for 3-5 years.
Madeline’s European Adventure for 3-5 years.
Arthur’s Birthday for 3-7 years.
All the above are £30 for PC/Mac Cd-rom on mail order.

Sesame Street: Letters (Age 3-6, PC/Apple)
Sesame Street: Numbers (Age 3-6, PC/Apple)
Sesame Street: Let’s make a Word (Age 3-6, PC)
Sesame Street: Art Workshop (Age 3-6, PC)

Madeline and the magnificent puppet show (Age 5-8, PC & Mac).
‘Sesame Street’ is excellent. It’s unfashionable to like things too much, I know, but the legendary, pre-school TV programme is a treat. Now, those funny, furry characters – approaching twenty-five years of age – are moving into Cd-rom. For early learners that means something more interactive and for teachers or parents, something with promise.
Computers, aren’t they hard? Not here, just listen to it. “Hi, move your mouse and click on something that sparkles”, says Elmo. So you move around the street in ‘Numbers‘, click on the cartoon-style castle and The Count (geddit) tells you what to do. He wants you to match numbers and symbols to find his bats. Counting, that’s the hard bit.
As children click away they’ll find eight activities, all loosely based on number work. They classify things by choosing those which are yellow, can swim and belong to Ernie. They look for a box of bird seed in Big Bird’s nest as she gives out clues like ‘you’re near’, ‘you’re very near’ and so on.
This voice over is total encouragement, but it is sooo American. So you find the seed and Bird Bird says, “You win, you win, you found my bird seed. You sure listened to my clues alright.” I have no problems with this, though a friend – a true Brummy – tells me that she can’t stand those accents. Accents aside, the help here is good. Anyone can get stuck, but for a computer program, this is above average.
The ‘Letters‘ title takes a similar approach. Again it’s a set of activities loosely based around the title – this time it’s rhyming, shapes, and ‘matching letters with sounds’. If these are matched to the child’s level they make for worthwhile practice. And, as in all home learning titles, there are plenty of things to click on and animate, some stories to hear (The Three Pigs – for counting to three), a radio with sing-along songs and a television which shows classic, Street clips.
‘Words’ asks children to choose letters to spell words, sound out letters, find things that rhyme, or find things that say, belong to a house. The setting – or what you’d normally call a menu – is a game show where they choose Muppet experts, I won’t drop names, to guide them round a farm a restaurant or a building site. It offers almost endless variety: you can even match words in Spanish. This is often hard although older kids might be too ‘street-wise’ to want to play.
As today’s brand-name merchandising dictates, you’ve got to have a drawing program in your range and ‘Art Workshop’ fills this niche. Scepticism aside this one is so easy – there are scenes to drop stickers on, birthday cards to make, characters to dress up, and finger puppets to colour in and cut-out. There’s free-form drawing and scribbling too, but even without these, three or four year olds can get good results and still feel creative. Currently, I’d wager that this is one of the best drawing programs for this age group.
And so finally to Madeline, another children’s culture creature. The idea is simple: the children have to collect the things this Parisian girl needs to put on a puppet show. The solution is more convoluted. As the adventure game genre dictates they have to collect five balloons, get the bread, give it to the printer man, get the invitations, go to the loft. Fortunately, there are plenty of clues.
All this problem solving takes time. Children will relate to the character, soppy thing she is. But even though there’s a word game to play in English, French or Spanish, it’s doesn’t quite relate to the classroom. I’d save this as a good choice for parents.
Overall it’s rare to find a set of titles of such quality – the activities are sound enough too. The choice is between letting kids ‘free play’ with them or fitting the exercises into a teaching plan. It’s double bubble, amazing even, that on a Windows 95 computer, even the children can install and run them. Are they fun? Well is Oscar grouchy?

Sesame Street prices: around £21 + VAT. Details from

PB Bear’s Birthday Party (Age 3 to 5)
This is another pretty good Dorling Kindersley Cd-rom so you needn’t read on. PB Bear’s Birthday Party is a story ‘book’ for the very young, or for early readers or whichever comes last.
It’s a story book, where like many computer story books, children see the words lighten and grow larger, in time with the storyteller. The idea is that they will form a link between the text and the speech. Mini-pictures of the bear, his friends and other nouns punctuate the text. So when a child clicks on one, it sort-of comes to life and does a party-piece as the underlying word is spoken. Unusually you can swap the English storyteller and have PB Bear’s friends do the reading – and they’ll do it amusingly, in dialects of hen, lamb and dog (a Scottish chap).
Each page has the near perfect, sparkling, photographic quality which is the DK trademark. And there are games, ten in all, covering ideas like size, colour and shape. The children have to guess what’s in the parcel, or who has three sandwiches, or which dressing gown matches Bear’s pyjamas.
It is charming, but the story is indeed for the very young and not for street-wise, computer-wise kids: PB bear wakes and washes, parcels and straw-headed friends arrive. They assemble a train, go for a picnic and come back.
Turn that idea round and you have easy-going, restrained, non-distracting, safe classroom material. For PC / Apple. Price £39

The Three Little Pigs / Y Tri Mochyn Bach (age 3-7)
OK, you know the story and they know the story and in this, a read-to-me computer story and activity book, they can read it for themselves. They hear it a sentence at a time and they move it along by clicking. A modest production, this is uncluttered by frills but all the more likeable and charming for it.
The easiest activities use the numbers up to three and words like first, second and third – on many they will need help getting started. Interestingly, this is one of the few titles around to include a Welsh version. If you’re not into pork look out for Red Riding Hood. Details: Cd-rom for PC and Acorn computers. Price £29.99 From Tempest Publishing, Elm House,17-19 Claygate Lane,Thames Ditton, KT7 0DL. Telephone: 020 8398 5880

The Rabbits at Home (age 2-5)
In The Rabbits at Home (PC Windows / Mac, Reed) you spend a day with a family of English rabbits. Pre-school children can tour their house and do activities on counting, the alphabet and telling the time. It ‘promotes family values’ and certainly everyone here is a model of politeness and always switches off the lights. Lots to do including browse the five books included. Much liked.

Art Centre (age 3-6)
Art Centre (PC /Mac CD, Electronic Arts) is for the less hyperactive 3 to 6 year olds and it’s more sober than some. There’s a colouring book, a paint box, scenery to drop stickers on and people to put clothes on. It has a nice block art section where they drop squares and circles onto pre-drawn pictures. Children can get satisfying results if they have good mouse skills.

The Playroom (age 3-6)
The Playroom (PC/Mac CD, Broderbund) is mixture of songs and activities on words, numbers and telling the time. One or two snags here with upper-case computer keyboards, but otherwise not a bad home title for ages 3-6.

Wonderland (age 4-6)
Wonderland (PC CD Mindscape) is for pre-school children. They have to match animals, and everyday objects to the sounds they make. However, the trite plot and unfortunate choice of fairy-tale characters – king, nice queen and nasty witch – will spoil this for many.

Tuneland (age 1-4)
Tuneland (PC, 7th Level) has enjoyable, wall to wall nursery rhymes and cartoons to suit the very young. They point and you click, but maybe keep do that at home.

Smudge the Scientist (age 5-7)
Smudge the Scientist (Floppy PC/Acorn from Storm) gets a spaniel doing simple experiments – on floating, growing plants, decay, magnets and all relevant to the infant science curriculum. Not bad, but not premier league or good value for the home.

The Berenstain Bears on their own (CD-I for ages 4-9)
Not a new title, but good title. A cartoon tells the story that Brother and Sister bear cubs want to go to the fair and Mama (get the accent – deep south US) will let them go if they can prove that they are responsible. So primed, the cubs – or your children have to tidy the bedroom, brush their teeth and use a telephone as well as school things like counting and matching letters. And they build up a star chart which leads to the pay-off: they get to go to the fair. As they click their way through they also pick up sensible safety tips – about being careful when sitting in a shopping trolley or using the playground slide. As always, several of the activities will suit older children but this oozes charisma and deserves the plaudits it’s heaped with. Details: one in a five disc pack costing £95 From Philips School 2000. Tel: 020 7911 3060.

Reader Rabbit Toddler, Pre-school and Kindergarten (£25, The Learning Company)
For ages 18 months to six years. Cartoon characters talk children through activities with shapes, patterns and sequencing on to early maths and reading. Special features include UK voices, exercises on four levels and in the Toddler edition, absolutely click-free mouse operation.

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