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Friendlier facade

Max's Toolbox can transform Microsoft Office into much more child-friendly, versions, writes Pam Turnbull

Have you heard the training versus education argument? It is almost as old as the nature versus nurture debate. Children will need to use "industry-standard" software when they start work, so why not train them to use such programs from the start? But such products are not always very child-friendly.

If you are determined to use, say, Microsoft Office in schools, take a look at Max's Toolbox - a huge macro that sits on top of Word, Excel and PowerPoint to create an environment that is gentler on children (and adults). Once installed, click on MaxWrite and you get a new set of icons - larger, clearer and much easier to access. These are the standard icons but simplified for children's needs. You get a font-size button that allows you to increase or decrease the size by using a slider bar. A similar system is used for zoom. WordArt and symbols are beautifully presented. You can also add shapes, borders, headers and footers, tables, a great range of bulletpoints as well as a fantastic selection of high-quality clipart.

My small testers liked being able to colour individual words or letters randomly, while I liked the default font size and the range of templates - from cards to letters to homework projects. Keyboard shortcuts still work and spell-checking comes as standard.

An added extra is MaxPaint. This is a simple painting package which gives you access to clipart for colouring or fully finished images. You can play with shapes, colours, pens, crayons, resizing and flipping before adding your creation to your MaxWrite or MaxShow page by clicking on the green tick. If you don't like the images provided or your own, the program allows you to access any images from your computer.

Rather than use Excel, there is MaxCount. As with MaxWrite there is a good collection of templates on offer, allowing you to play with formulae and graphs. There is a good selection of these - from doughnuts to bar graphs - and I particularly like the way it explodes pie charts. Icons are simplified but still recognisable to Excel users. Cells are larger as standard - all the functions are still there but without being overpowering, providing you with sum, minimum, maximum, median and average, but no pull-down menus or accountant-speak.

Not to be outdone there is MaxShow. I was dubious about the need for this as PowerPoint is very straightforward. But I reckoned without the parrot. I came upon Peedy in MaxWrite, in which you could ask for text to be read and he flew on to the screen and read out what I had written while a speech bubble spelt out each word.

In MaxShow, after creating your own pages from templates, chosen the fonts, images, movies, sound effects decided on the transition animations and rearranged your slides to suit, you can run your show or get Peedy to do it for you with style and humour. If you don't use him for a while, he'll eat a cracker or put on his shades.

For the school network, there is the capacity to configure log-ons for groups or individuals and you can opt to add or delete features. And all these features are very easy to set up and use.

If you use Microsoft Office, get Max's Toolbox. The adults preferred it as much as the children and it passes the software test - it allows you to do what you want to do quickly and easily, and without getting in the way.

Pam Turnbull is ICT co-ordinator at The Heys primary school, Tameside

Max's Toolbox

Requirements: PC, Microsoft Office 2000, XP or 2003

Ages: 3+

Price: pound;35 (1-4 users)

Civica Education Team

Tel: 020 7760 2802

Max's Toolbox

Fitness for purpose *****

Ease of use *****

Quality *****

Value for money *****

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