Playroom puts computers in the hands of preschoolers

Personal computers

October 08, 1990|By Michael Himowitz | Michael Himowitz,Evening Sun Staff

I DON'T normally write about educational software because I don't find much to write about.

Most educational programs are ultimately boring, not ver educational, or both. This is particularly true of software for preschoolers.

At their heart, computers require at least a minimal amount o literacy, and it's particularly hard to write good software for children too young to read.

But now and then I run across a program that restores my faith i the creativity of the profession. Playroom, from Broderbund Software, is a delightful offering from a company that knows kids and really seems to like them.

If you've ever watched a young child wander around a playroom poking in one corner or another, picking up a toy, playing with it and then switching to something else, you'll appreciate Playroom's kid-friendliness.

The program opens with a picture of a child's bedroom, with al the usual accouterments -- a toy chest, a clock, a radio, a bookshelf, a goldfish bowl, a chest of drawers, a mouse hole, a desk with a computer and the normal assortment of stuffed animals. There's also a character named Pepper Mouse peeping in the window.

That's it. No menu, no instructions. Using the keyboard, joystic or mouse, just point at an object in the room and click. Something neat happens.

Point at the ABC book and you'll find yourself in a fairy tal scene, with a block alphabet at the top. Point at a letter and a little picture appears, "A" for archer, "B" for bat, "C" for crystal ball, "D" for dragon, and so on.

You can drag the little pictures anywhere on the screen t construct your own story, and when you're through, you can print the picture. If you get bored with that, another click displays a street scene with a whole new cast of objects and characters.

In the corner there's always a little doorway. Point at it and yo go back to the playroom to find something else amusing.

The mouse hole takes you to a counting game with thre different levels (depending on how high the child can count). It's a combination of hopscotch and Chutes and Ladders that requires strategy as well as number recognition.

The desktop computer takes you to a screen that develops basi character recognition. The child can type letters and see them displayed, or he can hit the space bar and wake Pepper Mouse, who's dozing the the corner. Pepper displays a group of three-letter words. If the youngster types the word correctly, the word comes to life (typing "jet" displays a jet looping across the screen).

The clock cuts away to a time-telling game that shows Pepper i some activity appropriate for the time of day. The time is always displayed on a standard clock face, digitally, and in written form -- typical of the thoughtfulness that went into the program's design.

A "mixed up toy" displays a game that requires you to matc heads, bodies and feet of a variety of toys, while a spinner game on the bookshelf takes you to another counting game with marvelous animation.

Even the objects in the room that don't have specific activitie do something when you point at them. A parrot on a stand chirps brightly. The goldfish jumps out of his bowl. Point at the dresser drawer and a balloon pops out, waiting for you to pop it with the cursor.

A picture on the wall displays a common but important word such as "Yes," "No," "Exit" or "Poison," along with a picture illustrating the phrase. When you click on the picture, a digitized voice speaks the word. You don't need a special sound adapter, and the voice was remarkably clear, even on the atrocious speaker that came with my IBM-compatible.

The graphics throughout the program are bright and beautiful and the animation is clever throughout.

The instruction manual is designed for parents. It's brief bu clear, and it contains pictures, cut-out puppets and suggestions for other non-computer activities to help children learn.

In short, it's hard to find fault with Playroom. The educationa content is sound, and there's so much variety that the kids will enjoy it till they're old enough to read and move onto something new.

The list price of Playroom is $39.95 for Apple II computers $44.95 for IBM-compatibles and $49.95 for folks in the high-rent Macintosh district. It's well worth the price. For information, contact Broderbund Software, 17 St. Paul Drive, San Rafael, Calif. 94903.

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