Catch them early

Pre-school PC. pound;649 plus VAT, including software selection. Optional bundle pound;99 plus VAT. Time Computers Tel: 01282 770044

Pam Turnbull looks at a package designed to get young childrenstarted on computers

I've lost count of the number of times I've been asked, "when is the right time to put a child on a computer?" There is no right or wrong answer; it all depends on the child and when you feel they are ready. Nowadays you can buy "lapware" for children aged six months and over. Sit them on your lap and let them bash away at the keyboard.

Many parents buy a computer when their children are in the juniors, but they expect to see computers in a nursery classroom. However, pre-school software doesn't yet match the quality of programs for primary, so judicious hunting is required. Time Computers' Pre-School PC and software selection promises to do some of the legwork for you. So let's take a closer look at it.

First, the excellent full-sized keyboard with keypad has cursive lower-case letters, plus a space bar and "enter" written on the appropriate keys. The set-up is pretty straightforward, as it is colour-coded and unfussy, while the small child-sized mouse is another nice touch. Unfortunately, the monitor's controls for sound, screen position, moire reduction and other features are far too handy and tempting for little fingers and would benefit from being placed out of reach.

But the real test of the package is the software and there is a lot of it, including some real gems, such as Tizzy's Toybox, ublished by Sherston and All About Number, published by SEMERC.

The full selection is presented in the format of a menu where software has usefully been categorised by curriculum area: PSERE, Language and Literacy, Numeracy, and other categories, such as creative, physical (including CDPlayer and Touch Games 2) and My World. There are some well known names, ranging from Europress to GSP, Iona to The Learning Company, but what leaps out is the KUW (knowledge and understanding of the wider world) section holding Tonka Workshop, Playskool Easy-Bake Kitchen and Playskool Store.

What attracts teachers and children alike are the big "play centres", which you clip over the keyboard. A little fiddly at first, but with a minimum of explanation, children soon become dab hands at hammering, breaking eggs and scanning bar-codes as they build, make cakes and work in various supermarket departments.

The software is colourful, varied and attractive, asking children to apply and extend everyday knowledge and skills. The play centres might seem a little gimmicky, but they work and make the computer accessible to those with poor mouse or control skills.

On the other hand, while some of the programs are educationally solid, they are slightly dated. It is a pity Time Computers could not include some of the excellent pre-school programs from Dorling Kindersley and the BBC.

There are no talking stories, although TLC and Sherston have these in their catalogues. This leaves the system with gaps that you will have to plug yourself.

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