New software opens vistas for a child's 'edutainment'


September 27, 1993|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ

With parents pushing computers at their kids today as soon as they're old enough to click a mouse button, it's not surprising that some of the best educational software on the market is aimed at younger children.

Because this "edutainment" software, as it's known, leans heavily on animation and sound, it requires a bit of an investment in hardware, usually an 80386 computer with a big hard disk, a sound card and speakers. But here are three recent titles that can make the investment worthwhile:

* It's hard to find a preschooler who hasn't enjoyed Richard Scarry's delightfully busy books, and Busytown, from Paramount Interactive Software, is faithful to Scarry's spirit of energy and exploration.

Busytown lets your child interact with dozens of cheerfully animated Scarry characters, including Huckle Cat and Lowly Worm, as they tour 12 different playgrounds.

Each has a different theme and gives youngsters practice at manipulating objects, solving problems, matching shapes, counting, reading simple words, rhyming, running some far-out machinery or just having fun.

For example, in Bruno's Deli, youngsters have to match food orders (written and verbal), with pictures of items the customer wants. When they help Huckle build a house for the Stitches family, they must shingle the roof and match shapes to get the furniture and fixtures in the right place.

At the seesaw, numbered characters pile up on one another's shoulders as your child tries to balance the load. There's also a chance to drive a delivery truck, which means finding the right store and watching out for potholes (get stuck and a friendly cop pulls up with a safety lecture).

All of this adds up to hours of educational fun, aided by a superb musical score (including a dozen original songs) and beautifully characterized voices.

Like many of today's good educational programs, which are chock-full of music and graphic files, Busytown is BIG. You'll need an 80386 IBM-compatible computer with 640K of memory, a VGA color monitor, and 12 (count 'em) megabytes of hard-disk space for a full installation (half that for a less complex game).

* If Bailey's Book House from Edmark is less frenetic than Busytown, younger children (2 to 6) will appreciate its straightforward and entertaining approach to basic reading skills. The program is available for both IBM-compatible and Apple Macintosh computers.

Bailey the cat, curled up in his chair in the living room, invites children to participate in five activities that illustrate sounds of letters, simple sentences, spatial relationships, rhymes and storytelling.

The Talking Letter Machine lets kids tap on the typewriter keyboard (or click on letters with a mouse). When they choose one, a voice says the name of the letter, the letter flashes on the screen, and a funny animated sequence plays to illustrate it.

For example, the letter "T" displays a Tiger Tasting Tacos, while "Q" shows Quarreling Quails.

Like most of the activities, the Talking Letter Machine has two modes of operation. In one, kids explore by typing letters to see what happens. In the other, a giraffe asks kids to find a particular letter.

In Making Rhymes, youngsters complete a nursery rhyme with their choice of four different words. Each choice produces a clever animation, and the rhyme itself (Rub-a-dub-dub, three kids in a shrub) appears on the screen. Kids can click on any sentence to hear it spoken again.

In another activity, Edmo the clown and his dog Houdini teach the meaning and recognition of simple prepositions and relationships such as "in," "over" and "under" by making Houdini perform tricks around his doghouse.

The storytelling module gives youngsters a chance to put together their own illustrated tales about a variety of characters and print them out, while a greeting card module creates cards, invitations and the like with simple mouse clicks (this is pretty basic, certainly not a replacement for Print Shop).

Bailey's Book House doesn't overwhelm youngsters with pyrotechnics, but there are nice touches, such as the frequent use of children's voices, which gives the program a homey feel.

There's also an adult mode, accessible with a hot key, which switches to a screen that explains each activity and suggests others for the home and classroom.

If you like this program, you might also want to try Millie's Math House, which Edmark introduced last year and takes the same (( gentle approach to math skills. The company also has released an updated version of its KidDesk program, which gives youngsters an easy, pictorial menu of their software, keeps them out of your files and provides them with their own calendar, calculator, clock and electronic mail.

* One of the most creative players in interactive, educational multimedia is Knowledge Adventure Inc., and the company's new Kid's Zoo is an excellent effort that combines still photographs, full-motion video, speech and music to teach youngsters about zoology while concentrating on baby animals.

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