CD-Rom will be a one billion dollar market by the end of next year, according to leading American software publisher Br?derbund. CD-Rom looks like the future source of information and entertainment. So if parents and teachers are looking for technology to help young children, even toddlers, it might be this.
There are story books, painting books and activity programs by the nappy-full. You will find strong claims: "Develops reading readiness", "Develops concepts", or "Encourages learning skills". There is good software that may do all of that, but there is also stuff that's not sure what it's doing.
The computer story books have already won respect. We understand books and we want to encourage reading, so there's an obvious attraction. Pick a story, put the words on the screen and make them light up as the story is read to the children. They can take the story at their own pace and play with the pictures, clicking on things, seeing them come to life or break into song. They'll see squirrels pop out of tree trunks, fish jump out of goldfish bowls, garden fences play the scales and mice peep out of the skirting.
These aren't mere books, or even pop-up books, they're a genre. The people that own the genre, if that's possible, are US publishers Living Books. Their stories are interactive, funny and charming. The "gags" (as the things you click on are called) and groovy music appeal to children and parents. They may help those with reading difficulties, but even more important is that adults and children can be enthralled and want to read together.
The stories do not patronise and they touch upon familiar ideas. So in Harry and the Haunted House, the kids think the house is haunted, but it isn't really. In Little Monster at School, Little Monster finds a friend in Yally who isn't very good at school and behaves a little strangely. And in The Berenstain Bears Get In A Fight, two kids squabble and the parents try to deal with the problem.
An important aspect is that the package includes the printed book. The Berenstain Bears title also has a guide with parent-plus-child activities on solving conflicts, reading, science, art and measuring - a very rare find in shrink-wrapped software.
Users go so gooey over Living Books that the authors are asked to autograph the CD-Rom. But others are more cautious: Don't the children just want to play with the scenery? Aren't they more active than interactive? Aren't children confused that the words don't match the talk on the screen? People agree on a couple of points: that this is a young technology, still to be fully exploited and there are those American voices!
At least the last criticism is being dealt with, as this month The Tortoise and the Hare is released in "Oxford" English. Living Books has set up a European division to localise its titles in UK English, French and German. Other releases will appear over the coming months, with Just Grandma and Me next in line. After heaps of American software, hearing real English does prick up your ears. But when is the Scottish or Geordie version coming?
Living Books is meticulous, however. The localised editions can involve reworking the graphics just to synchronise the voices and avoid a dubbed movie effect. It has also improved the interaction in a new title called Dr Seuss' ABC which has more layered gags, so you can get different responses when you click.
Art or "kids creativity" titles are almost another genre. Once upon a time, painters started with a blank canvas but today if you can't draw for toffees, or even oatbran crunchy bars, you get a head start. There's the classic Kid Pix (PCMacAcorn Br?derbund), a blockbuster that has sold 600,000 copies by setting scribbling to comical noises and making it easier to get a result. Kid Pix Studio (PCMac Br?derbund) is noise and sweetness again, though now there's paint that's alive and puppets that move to music. Children can build slide-shows, with movies, pictures and sound transition effects good training, I guess, for future business presentations!
The Crayola Amazing Art Adventure (PC Micrografx see review page 29) adds features and gives spoken help which says what each button does, what each colour is and, for once, some of the colours mix like real paint - now you could learn something from that.
But when young children start working they meet a large, clumsy computer mouse. They quickly learn how it moves in a different plane, but you might still look for a stand-in. For example, Logitech's Kid's Mouse is almost tiny, and the Pilot Trackball doesn't wiggle and up is more like up - if you see what I mean.
Many activity programs are aimed at the home, providing help with numbers, letters, shapes and colours. Most packages, in trying to offer a better deal to parents, bundle in bits of this and that. But this creates a thin mix that may not work says children's software consultant, Anne Sparrowhawk. "It's a superficial skim over all sorts of things instead of doing one thing well, " she explains. "Programs fail in their learning objectives when they don't offer a rich enough range of experiences." In other words, if children can do an exercise, it's just reinforcing what they know. But if they can't, the program doesn't teach them. In which case, why not do other things, away from the computer?
It's not that we should avoid such software, it's that old, low-tech chestnut of matching learners to the tasks we give them. If parents know what their children can do, they may be able to choose appropriate software. Schools have an even harder task: to find software that caters for many children.
Ms Sparrowhawk feels parents are often ill-informed. "Parents shouldn't imagine that buying the software will guarantee an enhanced education," she insists. "It's not like video. Software asks for something back. But if parents and children use it together, the parents will learn what's best and the children will enjoy learning. And that can be an enriching experience for everybody."
* In The Rabbits at Home (PC WindowsMac, Reed) pre-school children can spend a day with a family of English rabbits, tour their house and do activities on counting, the alphabet and telling the time. It promotes "family values" -certainly everyone is a model of politeness and always switches off the lights. Lots to do including browsing the five books included. Much liked.
* The Three Little Pigs (PCAcorn Tempest) is a British-produced story book which also comes in Welsh. The story has a few little tweaks and as a fairly modest production it has few distractions from reading.
* Art Centre (PCMac, Electronic Arts) is for the less hyperactive 3 to 6-year- olds and is more sober than some. There's a colouring book, a paint box, scenery to drop stickers on and people to put clothes on. It has a nice block art section where they drop squares and circles on to pre-drawn pictures. Children can get satisfying results if they have good mouse skills.
* Sesame Street Letters (MsDos, Electronic Arts) has pre-reading puzzles on shapes, letters and rhymes. Children have to match "what begins-with" sounds with objects. The characters give clues and the screen sparkles furiously when the mouse passes over a "hot spot". There are stories, songs and the famous Sesame Street letter videos. This will suit ages 3-6, but at home rather than school.
* Dorling Kindersley's PB Bear's Birthday Party (PCMac Dorling Kindersley) is an attractive story book for the 3 to 5 year olds, with colour, numbers and other activities. It's soon to be showing on Acorn RISC PCs.
* The Playroom (PC WindowsMac, Br?derbund) is a mixture of songs and activities on words, numbers and telling the time. One or two snags here with upper-case computer keyboards, but otherwise not a bad home title for ages 3-6.
* In Dr Seuss' ABC, (PC WindowsMac, Living Books) A is for accordion, and each letter of the alphabet gets the full treatment with crazy characters and music. If you know of Dr Seuss, a cultural icon in America, you'll know A is also for anarchic, but it's fun.
* The Tortoise and the Hare, Just Grandma and Me, Harry and the Haunted House (PCMac, Living Books) will appear in UK English editions between now and the new year.
* The Berenstain Bears Get in a Fight (PCMac, Living Books) will appear in March.
* Wonderland (PC, Mindscape) is for pre-school children who have to match animals and everyday objects to the sounds they make. However, the trite plot and unfortunate choice of fairy-tale characters (king, nice queen and nasty witch) will spoil this for many.
* Tuneland (PC, 7th Level) has enjoyable, wall-to-wall nursery rhymes and cartoons to suit the very young. They point and you click, but maybe keep that for home.
* Smudge the Scientist (Floppy PCAcorn from Storm) gets a spaniel doing simple experiments: floating, growing plants, decay and magnets - all relevant to the infant science curriculum. Not bad, but not premier league or good value for the home.
* Numerous titles are reviewed in CD-Rom in Education Primary Titles Review 1995 Pounds 8 from the National Council for Educational Technology Tel: 01203 416994. Also on the Internet at http:ncet.csv.warwick.ac.ukwwwprojectsCD-Romevaluationsindex.html.
* Do shop around. For example, one software publisher sells a software product to dealers at Pounds 5 and it then retails at Pounds 25. It would be nice to find a dealer passing some of that on to education.
* Languages For Leisure Tutorial Programmes:Global French, Global German, Global Italian, Global Spanish, Pounds 29.99 for beginner, intermediate and advanced programs or Pounds 59.99 for all three. From Mindscape, Priority House, Charles Avenue, Maltings Park, Burgess Hill, West Sussex RH15 9PQ. Tel: 0144 239600.
* Vektor:Expressions, Pounds 69 plus VAT, from Vektor, The Oaks, Preston Road, Chorley PR7 1PL.Tel: 01257 232222.
* Interactive Learning Productions: Directions 2000 (French), Pounds 99. 99 plus VAT, from Yorkshire International Thomson Multimedia, TV Centre, Leeds LS3 1JS. Tel: 0113 246 1328.
* Syracuse Language Systems:Multimedia Language System I speak French (4yrs upwards; 9 to adult; and Germanalso available).Tel:00 33 72 65 50 00 * Fairfield Language Technologies:The Rosetta Stone (available in French, German, Spanish, Russian and American English), Pounds 99 plus VAT for the Powerpac aimed at families with young children, Pounds 299 per language for more advanced pack which takes students from beginners to university level. From Prestige Network, Universal House, 9 Eddington Road, Bracknell RG12 8GF. Tel: 01344 303800. Fax: 01344 303801.
* The Learning Company:French Vocabulary Builder, US$45, from Hyperglot, 6493 Kaiser Drive, Fremont CA 94555, USA. Fax 001615 588 6569.
* Br?derbund:Living Books (multi-language stories include Arthur's Birthday and Harryand the Haunted House), Pounds 35 pluspp. From Br?derbund Software, PO Box 63, Hartlepool, Cleveland TS25 2YP. Tel 01429 273029.