by Jane Huth
CD-Roms make learning fun
Educational software ought to be an oxymoron, but fortunately most educational software is so much fun, kids don't know or care that it's good for them. They learn logic while blasting into space, match consonant blends while racing around a track, solve math problems while crossing a crocodile infested swamp.
Here are some programs I like that make reading, math and other academic skills entertaining. Educational software is no substitute for good teachers and involved parents, but it helps reinforce what kids learn in school. In my day, acquiring math and language skills was mostly tedious work. But now, thanks to some great software, it's lots of fun.
JUMPSTART ADVANCED: PRESCHOOL, KINDERGARTEN, 1ST GRADE, 2ND GRADE, $29.99 each, www.jumpstart.com, (800) 545-7677; ages 2-8. My son's first CD-ROM was JumpStart Preschool, which seems like an antique compared with the sophistication of the latest incarnation of the always excellent JumpStart learning programs. The Advanced series features fast action, bouncy characters and challenging games that combine learning academic skills with just plain fun. In the preschool version, children select a baby animal-tadpole, kitten, puppy or bunny-then play simple games to collect pet rewards, such as a sponge for giving their pet a bath, or bugs to eat (in the case of the tadpole). Children learn how to identify capital and small letters or learn the names of instruments and the sounds they make. After earning rewards, children play with their pets or watch movies in the playroom. A 2-year-old would enjoy playing with this program sitting on the lap of an adult, but my 4-year-old grew bored with it after playing a few times.
The kindergarten and first-grade versions both feature races, a device that keeps kids motivated. The kindergarten CD-ROM is a fast-paced racecar game in which kids read stories, create pictures and play music to win carrots so they can go to the racetrack where they earn "power-boosters" for their cars. Then players race their customized cars alone or against another player in one of five tracks. In the first-grade version, players visit seven different areas where they create music and art for the race track, count money to buy decorations for the track (four cents for a street sign), learn fractions by dividing pizzas, build a bridge by sorting words into nouns, verbs and adjectives, and other equally challenging games. Both my 4 and 6-year-old prefer the first-grade program, where the games are more difficult but very clever and fun.
In the second-grade version, there's trouble in JumpStartville, where the villainous Dr. O has painted mustaches on the figures on Mt. JumpMore. Players, in the guise of secret agents, travel around the globe to collect parts for a gadget that will clean the gunk off the statues. At each site, kids can click on places or animals (such as Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa or Koala bears in Australia) to learn a few facts about the area. Kids find the gadget parts by ordering pictures, collecting words with the correct consonant blends, making music or crossing a treacherous river to match the correct capitalization in a sentence.
All of these are clever programs that kids will love. However, I was a bit annoyed by the gimmicky "All Star" feature that claims to match the program's help function with a child's individual learning style. Before starting each program, players select one of seven characters with a particular style, such as visual, verbal, athletic or scientific. Each time a player needs help, their "All Star" character pops up and explains the game or problem using their chosen learning style. I chose a different help character each time I played the program, but I barely noticed the differences in help style, and I doubt kids will either.
READER RABBIT: LEARN TO READ WITH PHONICS, 1ST & 2ND GRADE, $24.99, www.learningcompany.com, (510) 972-2101; ages 5-8. Reader Rabbit, despite his pedestrian name, is a favorite in our house. I have trouble prying my kids away from the computer when they are playing with Reader Rabbit software because they find the adventures of Reader, Sam the Lion and Paige the Flying Book so entertaining. This CD-ROM follows a preschool and kindergarten version of the same title, but it's even more inspired. Reader and his pals find a mysterious golden ship parked in Wordville. To start the ship, they must find books lost from its library. The lively story keeps kids engaged while they fly from place to place, matching letter sounds, building words, then using their new vocabulary words to read books, magazines, newspapers and comic books. The characters they meet along the way are amusing, and there's always a challenge to keep kids engaged, all of which makes the skill building exercises fun. There's also a bonus CD-ROM that includes activities and games from other Reader Rabbit software, as well as songs kids can play on a regular CD player or a computer.
DISNEY PIXAR LEARNING: 2ND & 3RD GRADE, $19.99, www.disneyinteractive.com, (818) 553-5000, ages 6-9. Blast off for a fun learning adventure with this CD-ROM, which features Toy Story characters Buzz Lightyear and Mira Nova out to save the galaxy from the evil Emperor Zurg. Along the way, they rescue objects such as smelly sneakers floating through space, play action games and avoid crashing into planets, asteroids and other space stuff. To keep the spaceship going, players must "pump gas" on the lower level by solving word, math, logic and reading problems. Help is kept to a minimum, which I found frustrating, but that's probably the idea, since you must think to keep the ship running. (I kept making fuel, then losing it because I didn't charge it properly, or something.) There's also a first-grade version under the same name, which is actually the 2-year-old Buzz Lightyear first-grade repackaged with the addition of a few more activities and more printable games, puzzles and coloring pages. The first-grade version is a good program with lots of reading and math activities, but it doesn't have the adventure story element that makes the new second- and third-grade CD-ROM exciting. The games are fun, the graphics terrific, and the learning activities challenging. Kids will like this educational and entertaining program, and their parents will want to play with it too.
Jane Huth is a freelance writer living in the north suburbs with her husband, one preschooler and one kindergartner.
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