Familiar characters aid learning Education: Software for children features their favorite figures from books and television.


If the holidays meant the arrival of a new computer at your house, you're probably ready to hit the stores in search of some worthwhile software.

The array of products available is astounding, and it's tough to choose on the basis of a colorful box. If you took the computer plunge as a means to enrich your children's learning experience, the last thing you want to hear is "This is borrrring."

A good way to get started is to look for the familiar - characters your children know and enjoy from books or television. Many of the newest educational software packages for youngsters combine education and entertainment, making them appealing and useful.

We rounded up some of the latest character-based releases from leading educational software publishers and put them to the test. The following programs run on both Windows and Macintosh systems, but be sure to check specific requirements (processor, memory, sound capabilities and speed) to make sure there are no disappointments when you get home.

Dr. Seuss Preschool

Broderbund, Ages 2-4, $19.95

Theodore Geisel's legacy lives on in this early learning package, populated by many of the nonsensical creatures that help children learn to read.

Horton the Elephant finds a lost baby animal named Elma Sue, and he needs your help to reunite her with her mother. The journey takes you through the Jungle of Nool and into the Cool Pool, where you'll find familiar characters leading the activities.

This disk is a great first introduction to the computer for young children, especially those who are fans of Dr. Seuss. Concepts covered include rhyming, the alphabet, counting, sorting and matching.

The animation is top quality, as are the engaging situations that surround each game. They're entertaining even for adults, so you won't mind being called over to "Look at this!"

Pop the bear of Hop on Pop and his cubs need help picking rhyming words; King Yertle the Turtle wants you to stack a particular number of turtles, while Fox needs assistance sorting socks. Horton offers positive, gentle encouragement as he corrects errors and applauds correct answers.

Elmo's Reading

Creative Wonders, Ages 3-6, $34.95

The people who bring you Sesame Street (Children's Television Workshop) offer a cast of familiar Muppets and innovative games that will keep your little guys glued to the monitor. The pacing and humor are right on target.

In Disk 1, Baltimorean Kevin Clash's squeaky-voiced Elmo guides your child through six reading readiness activities. Your child will identify letters and create words to match the food waiter Grover orders in Cooking With Cookie. Once the word is spelled correctly, chef Cookie Monster pops a mix in the oven and, moments later, out comes the food item.

It's a hilarious give-and-take between Cookie and Grover; of course Cookie keeps eating the food (net you never thought you'd see him devouring tofu, huh?).

Other activities include Zoetry Poetry (rhyming in a beat cafe), Super Grover, Comic-Hero (word building), and Beam Me Up, Up, Up (letter recognition with the aliens from Sesame Street). Customized learning features adjust difficulty levels up and down, according to your child's progress.

Likewise, the "smart" characters offer help according to the needs displayed, for example, repeating instructions, sounding out a letter or word, correcting mistakes.

Disk 2 provides a reading adventure parody "Elmo Through the Looking Glass," which can be approached in the more passive "read to me" mode or the activity-laden "read and play" setting. Instead of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party, you'll attend Oscar's Grouchy Sundae Party where the rule is "act grouchy and have a rotten time."

Babe and Friends Animated Early Reader

SoundSource, Ages 4-7. $24.95

Babe, that cute little pig from Hoggetts' farm, is the latest star in the merchandising heavens. He appears here in animated form, along with many other animal characters from "Babe: Pig in the City." This group of friends forms the Helping Hands Club (Helping Paws and Hooves?) to gather food to feed hungry city animals. Of course, they need your help.

Kids are led through a simple storybook where they can read along with the narrator. Clickables on each screen offer extra animation or "dictionary pages." Babe and company ask for help completing tasks that reinforce basic skills: rhyming, letter sounds, letter recognition, and spelling.

Unfortunately, the storybook is too simple and uninteresting to merit return visits; it lacks the sense of urgency needed to attract children to complete the activities that follow.

Human characters are given stereotypical accents that are sometimes difficult to understand. The Italian grocer says, "Thatsa the right food!" The junkyard owner from down south introduces himself as what sounds like "Jimmy Junkie." The thrift shop proprietress speaks Brooklynese.

Some objects in the game, such as food icons in the grocery store, are too small, making it difficult for young children to click and drag them.

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