There is an enormous home software market from which nursery schools can cull some gems. With a few exceptions, like the My World program (see right), most of today's software needs a top CD-Rom computer and that is expensive. But if Pounds 1,000 for a CD-Rom computer seems out of reach, take heart: you can get the same sort of thrills out of a Philips CD-interactive player costing just under Pounds 300.
This works with an ordinary television set and is so easy that infants can pop in a disc and use it with very little practice. This "plug and play" idea runs right through the software too, so children are prompted and helped with visuals and spoken commentary. You'll not find these qualities on an old BBC computer and if you can exploit that power, for example to create printed work, its price is bearable.
CD-i is very tempting, particularly as Philips currently offers a free half-term school trial of a CD-i machine. I suspect they know you'll not want to send it back.
Dr Seuss' ABC
Ages: 3 to 9
CD-Rom for PC and Mac. Approx Pounds 35. Living Books. Available from mail order suppliers such as TAG Developments, 19 High Street, Gravesend, Kent DA11 0BA. Freefone 0800 591262
A wild whizz through the alphabet based on Dr Seuss' books. All sorts of characters crop up to illustrate big and little letters, including Aunt Annie's alligator and Baby barber bubbles and a bumblebee. The children can click on the pictures and the barber plays bass with baby's hair and so on.
The action is triple-layered - meaning that different things happen with each click. It's either very clever or it's weird, and it is as American as Dr Seuss. While that really ought to be a warning, this is too sweet and absorbing to miss. The children can sing the alphabet song, with and without the help of the characters. They always do, it has me in stitches and I don't know why.
Floppy discs for PC Windows and Acorn RiscOS. From Pounds 39, support packs from Pounds 19. SEMERC, 1 Broadbent Road, Watersheddings, Oldham, OL1 4LB. Tel: 0161 627 4469
This is possibly the most widely-used schools program. It's like a sticker book where you arrange pictures on a page, except that you use a mouse. You can use it to tell a story, find hidden things and even make a pizza on screen. The starter pack has a Goldilocks story, a teddy bear to dress and a town to build with street furniture. Some difficult examples (in French and German) are thrown in too.
Still it's a treat that it now runs on a modest Windows PC, though it needs more grown-up intervention than on the Acorn computer. And as a sign of its success, 130 different support packs such as the alphabet, minibeasts and fairy tales are available.
The Crayon Factory
Ages: 4 to 9
Philips CD-i, Pounds 25. Details of the program and a CD-i free trial from Philips Media, School 2000, 188 Tottenham Court Road, London W1P 9LE. Tel: 0171 911 3060
Call it art or call it science, this is a colourful and informative cartoon about how crayons are made. The children see all the technology of the manufacturing process and they can go to each part of the factory and mix colours to make crayons and match objects, or do quality control on the crayon boxes as they roll along a conveyor.
They can even colour in cartoon scenes, using crayons they've made, and then watch the story run with the white bits they missed. The story, factory and games hang together well and it's hard to pull children away from it. There are also activities needing arcade-level dexterity which suit older children.
The Three Little PigsY Tri Mochyn Bach
Ages: 3 to 7
CD-Rom for PC and Acorn computers. Pounds 29.99. Tempest Publishing, Elm House, 17-19 Claygate Lane, Thames Ditton, KT7 0DL. Tel: 0181 398 5880
OK, you know the story and they know the story and in this, a read-to-me computer story and activity book, they can actually read it for themselves.
Children hear a sentence at a time and they move the story along by clicking on appropriate symbols. This is a modest production, uncluttered by frills, but all the more likeable and charming for it. The easiest activities use numbers up to three and words like first, second and third. Children may need help getting started.
Interestingly, this is one of the few titles around to include a Welsh version. If you're not into pork, look out for Red Riding Hood, expected soon.
The Berenstain Bears on their own
Ages: 4 to 9
Philips CD-i. One in a five-disc pack costing Pounds 95. From Philips Media, School 2000, 188 Tottenham Court Road, London W1P 9LE. Tel: 0171 911 3060
Not new, but good. A cartoon that tells how Brother and Sister bear cubs want to go to the fair and Mama (get the accent - deep south United States) will let them go if they can prove they can behave responsibly.
So primed, the cubs (or your children) have to tidy the bedroom, brush their teeth and use a telephone as well as doing school things like counting and matching letters and learning safety tips such as how to cross the road. They build a star chart which leads to the pay-off: they get to go to the fair.
As always, several of the activities will suit older children. This program oozes charisma and deserves the plaudits it's heaped with.