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Beware of the mouse;Early years

Computers can help pre-schoolers learn - but tread warily, says Nicola Jones as she rounds up CD-Roms for the very young

Joe is having a good time. He's learning the alphabet by stamping brightly-coloured letters across a computer screen. They wiggle and dance provocatively. The computer shouts an enthusiastic "A" and Joe shouts back, giggling.

But parents and teachers should see computers as one resource among many - whether it is at home or in the nursery classroom."Computers can be enjoyable and valuable, but these activities need to be part of broader experience for young children," says Jacqui Disney, of the Parents Information Network (PIN).

The network says that while a computer with good software is an aid to learning, it is not an answer in itself- adults need to share playing and learning time. Although it is tempting to take over the mouse from a child, it is important to let him or her take the lead. This gives an adult the opportunity to ask questions about what is happening and get an understanding about how the child learns.

PIN wrote the parents' guides which accompany the toddlers and pre-school CD-Rom for the Jump Ahead series of software produced by Random House. The pre-school CD-Rom, researched and developed under the direction of pre-school teachers, helps children's understanding of letters, numbers, shapes and colours. Recognising that the computer is only one way of supporting children's learning, the guide also includes a range of games and activities which can be played away from the computer, such as counting out cutlery and looking for shapes in the home.

The recent explosion of software for early learning makes it difficult to know which to choose. Pick programs which are flexible and where the level of difficulty can be increased as the child gains in confidence. Kid Pix 2 (TAGDevelopments) is a graphics program which can't be beaten for fun and ease of use. There are numbers and letters to play with, and plenty of sounds to explore. Later on, children will become more ambitious with the graphics tools and will learn how to make simple animations and mini-slide shows.

Semerc has a good range of early learning software. Facepaint creates hundreds of faces using pictures or words and with the Resound! sound recorder, also from Semerc, you can make the faces talk. A microphone is an inexpensive resource for most computers and is an excellent way of supporting early reading, listening and talking.

Talking word processors are also a motivation for children to type in simple words. They love typing in their names and hearing them read back. Don Johnston now produces a talking word processor called Write Outloud, so that you can listen to a letter, word or sentence as it is typed.

Children can be confused between the upper case letters on the keyboard and the lower case letters taught first in school writing. The important thing is to type something very short and simple. More than anything, they need to grasp that what they're doing with the keyboard or the mouse is affecting the screen and is within their control.

To help children get more familiar with the keyboard, Davidson has produced Kid Keys, which reinforces basic keyboard skills for young children. The program, available from TAG, starts at a very basic level ("Find the K") and a friendly monster guides the children along the way.

Apart from the excellent Random House talking-book series, there is software galore to support early language development. It varies in quality, however and it is best to avoid the drill-and-practice approach, which children tire of easily and which tends to make learning a chore rather than a pleasure.

A to Zap, by Sunburst (TAG) is an excellent import from the US which has been adapted into a British version by UK teachers. The program helps children to build words and is full of humour, with plenty of opportunity for interaction. Tizzy's Toybox, a recent release by Sherston Software, uses animation, speech and music to aid early basic skills.

Living Books (Br?derbund) help children to explore narrative, although it is important they are shared - much as a conventional story book.

Some famous pop-up books have also been produced on CD-Rom - such as A Haunted House by Jan Pienkowski (Random House) which is irreverent and full of spooky surprises. The Fish who could Wish, by Robbie Coltrane and Gorky Paul (Random House) has also been produced on CD-Rom and has many surprises in the detailed interactive illustrations.

Semerc has developed pre-reading packs, one of which supports the awareness of mathematical concepts. My World covers basic skills including sorting, matching and size. Black Cat produces a range of software for pre-school and key stage 1 children. Counting Pictures allows them to build a tower of cheerful pictures, which can then be turned into a bar chart.

Overlay keyboards and switches can can help children with motor difficulties. They also allow parents and teachers to customise the keyboard to suit individual needs, while switches are useful for the very young or for children who find it difficult to hold a mouse. Touch-screens are also useful, but perhaps too expensive for most home users.

Children love stickers and while there can't be a substitute for peeling off a plastic sticker and putting it where you shouldn't, it is fun creating your own world with the electronic version. Colourforms FunSet, available from TAG, is akin to an electronic Fuzzy Felt, with thousands of objects and special sound-effects.

Unfortunately, when Joe used it, it gave him ideas and my computer screen is now dominated by a large plastic sticker of Postman Pat.

Braderbund. 01784 431 000.

Black Cat Educational software. 01874 636835.

TAG Developments . 01474 357350.

Don Johnston Special Needs Ltd. 01925 241642.

Semerc. 0161 627 4469

Random House UK. 0171 840 8783

Sherston Software . 01666 840433

PIN. 0181 280 8707

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