Cool school software
A grade-by-grade guide to children's programs that make learning fun.
September 4, 1998
by Roberta Furger
(IDG) -- It's September, and with it come the inevitable pangs of guilt: Another summer passed in which I didn't escort my kids on weekly trips to the library. Another summer during which we excelled at thinking about nothing more important than barbecues and sports scores.
I certainly don't regret the time spent munching hot dogs at the ballpark or swimming at the local pool, but it's time to get back to academics. We've stocked up on paper and pencils and bought new lunch boxes. This year, though, we did something else: We looked at the latest educational software titles. We played the games, struggled with the puzzles, and learned.
While none of these products will insure that your kindergartner will be reading before her classmates or that your high schooler will ace the SATs, educational software can supplement and reinforce skills learned in the classroom. It challenges and motivates advanced students and lets struggling students practice without worrying about snickering from their classmates.
Remember, though, parental involvement is critical. Here are our favorites among recent titles.
Kindergarten to Second Grade
These grade-specific titles introduce kids to concepts and encourage them to build skills with a combination of music, games and puzzles. Activities vary by grade level (time telling and pattern sorting for kindergarten; geography and two-digit addition for second grade). But the basic format is consistent across all the titles: Players maneuver through a schoolhouse and its surroundings, playing games and earning rewards as they go. Parents will appreciate the detailed reports showing how children are progressing. Although the educational content is sound, the games and activities weren't as captivating as those featured in some of the other titles we looked at.
This collection of thought-provoking activities will engage and challenge kindergartners. Children can explore on their own or through a question-and-answer mode, in which they solve problems and puzzles or complete activities as directed. In the Three-Letter Carnival, for example, players can choose to explore by clicking on pictures and learning how words are spelled, or they can practice what they've learned by matching rhyming words or words that begin with the same first letter. My young testers delighted in going back and forth between "modes" as they tried the many different activities. Although there are no rewards given, as in the other titles for this age group, the activities are so much fun no one noticed the lack of prizes.
The popular storybook character guides players through a series of learning games and activities, all set in Main Streetarea stores and businesses. In the jewelry store (la bijouterie), for example, players identify and then complete the patterns of beads used to string necklaces; they practice addition and subtraction by counting the number of candies on trays at the candy store. As they progress, kids earn bronze, silver and gold medals, which can be printed as stickers or on full sheets of paper. In many of the activities, children can choose among three languages: English, French, and Spanish--a great way to introduce even young children to foreign words and phrases.
In each of these games, players have a mission: Collect the supplies they'll need for a campfire, find missing stage supplies or solve a castle mystery. Kids progress through a series of skill-building games and activities--from matching and ordering tasks at the kindergarten level to progressively more difficult arcade games in the second-grade program. Once they've completed all the activities and gathered the hidden objects, players are rewarded with a video and song featuring Reader Rabbit and friends. Besides being chock-full of great educational material, these games and activities are a blast. The kids especially enjoyed the Runways, an arcade game in the second-grade title in which they matched gaming skills with their ability to recognize different geometric shapes.
In this engaging game, children move from tree house to tree house, playing games and engaging in art activities as they practice early math and reading skills, learn about patterns and shapes, explore the solar system and life sciences, and work on following directions. Players are rewarded with prizes for successfully completing activities. They keep the prizes in their very own tree houses, which they get to build, paint and decorate as they wish. Neat! Although the game may be a little too young for first graders, everyone in our family enjoyed it--even those of us well beyond grade school.
This package of two CD-ROMs covers everything from early math and reading to science and social studies for first- and second-graders. Although some of the games are ingenious (we particularly liked the Light Lab, in which players must redirect beams of light by manipulating mirrors, lenses, and diffusers), others are difficult to figure out and lack clear instructions. Parents will want to stay close at hand to provide assistance.
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