One of the most frequent questions I get is, "Where can I find good software for my children?" Or grandchildren, as is often the case when grandma and grandpa give the family a personal computer as a present.
There are plenty of fine programs on the shelves for children of all ages, and many of them don't involve kicking, punching or shooting anyone on screen. Some are strictly entertainment. Some are overtly educational, and many fall into a genre known )) as "edutainment," meaning that they're mostly fun but wind up teaching the kids something.
The problem is that kids are all different, and with children's titles selling for $20 to $50 a pop, experimenting with different programs to find one that your youngsters like and you approve of can be an expensive proposition.
But if your computer has a CD-ROM drive and sound capabilities, you and your youngsters can shop for software at the keyboard -- and try out dozens of titles from major publishers -- with a subscription to Club Kidsoft.
For $29.95 a year, your kids will get four issues that include a CD-ROM full of tryout software (in Windows or Macintosh flavors) and a slick, colorful magazine full of games, activities, and information about children's programs. A disk-only subscription is $19.95, while the magazine alone is $9.95.
If you like a program, you can call Club Kidsoft's 800 number and order it by mail, or in many cases, exchange credit card information for a code number that "unlocks" a full version of the program stored on the CD. From the CD, the program is transferred to your hard disk. Instant gratification.
The second issue of Club Kidsoft, released this month, contains 26 demo versions of programs for DOS computers and 30 unlockable software titles. The Macintosh disk contains 30 demo programs and 42 unlockable titles.
In addition, each compact disk contains a couple of simple games for the youngsters, a video featuring a couple of young DJ's (actually more of an "infomercial" for computer makers and software publishers) and four audio tracks of music, sound effects and kids' jive talk that you can play on an audio CD player.
There's also an on-disk catalog, searchable by title, category and age group, with screen shots of each program, a full description and information adults may need about recommended age ranges and hardware requirements.
While it opens the door to dozens of programs your kids may enjoy, a subscription to Club Kidsoft can also pay for itself by alerting you to titles that appeal to you but do nothing for your youngsters.
If you find a title you like, I recommend that you resist the "get it now" temptation and order the entire software package by mail. The copy protection scheme the company uses makes the installation from the CD good only for your particular computer. Should your hard disk ever crash, or should you trade in your system for a new one, you'll have to call up the company and get another unlocking code. If you buy the full software package (which often includes a written manual) you'll have the original floppy disks should something ever go wrong.
For information, contact Club Kidsoft, 718 University Ave., Suite 112, Los Gatos, Calif. 95030, or call 800-354-6150.
Speaking of kids, when you were really little, did you have a favorite record or tape that you played over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over until it drove your parents absolutely crazy?
I did. It was Bozo the Clown, a five-platter 78 rpm collection as I remember, thereby showing my advanced age. A generation later, my kids had a tape of Disney songs that the whole family listened to at least 300 times on car trips, thereby convincing me to buy each of the boys his own Walkman.
For preschoolers of the multimedia age, it may well be "Tuneland -- Starring Howie Mandel," an interactive musical cartoon on CD-ROM that runs under Microsoft Windows. Tuneland will delight children and entertain parents with 40 beautifully produced children's songs and dozens of animated jokes and gags.
Narrated by comedian Howie Mandel, Tuneland gives youngsters a choice of seven rural scenes -- a barnyard, a pond, a barn, grandma's house, a train station, a mountain and a pasture, each populated by a variety of magical animals, people and objects.
Running it is simplicity itself, which makes Tuneland great for pre-readers. Just use the mouse to point at an object, click the button, and watch and listen as something wonderful happens.
Click on the grandfather's clock in the farmhouse and a mouse in top hat and tails does a big band version of "Hickory Dickory Dock." Dancing turtles do the limbo to a calypso version "Here We Go Looby Loo." A prancing pig plays 'Oh," Susannah" on the banjo.
The animations are smooth, clever and well-executed, but the real treasure on this CD is the music. Unlike many programs which use low-quality sound samples to make their characters speak or sing, Tuneland uses actual CD tracks, which gives the music a real presence (there's even a jukebox feature that lets you play the songs without running the whole program).
The talented composers, singers and studio musicians who put these songs together deserve a medal. The arrangements, which range from rock to reggae to folk to classical, will hook the youngsters and entertain adults with their verve and originality.
I wish a few of the songs were longer (most are only a verse or two), but then I have to remind myself that the program is designed for youngsters with short attention spans. If you have a young child and a CD-ROM drive, buy it.
For information, contact 7th Level Inc, P.O. Box 832190, Richardson, Texas 75083.
L Michael J. Himowitz is a staff writer for The Baltimore Sun.