With the school year beginning, parents across the land are looking at their computers and wondering if their kids should be using them for something more productive than blasting Klingons into another dimension.
That means the search for "educational" software begins. To be honest, I've never had much luck with it. My kids would rather watch the weather channel for a couple of hours than put up with a lot of the programs I've tried out on them.
"Dad, I do this stuff all day in school. Why do I have to do it at home?" my older boy once asked me when I thought I'd found the perfect reading program. I relented and sent him back to Donkey Kong, or whatever he was into at the time. Luckily, he turned out to be a reader without digital help.
I've had the best luck with educational software that sugar-coats the pill. By this, I don't mean programs that throw a few graphic tricks into drill routines, but good, playable game software with strong intellectual and educational content.
A couple of new fall releases from Davidson & Associates of Torrance, Calif., one of the best educational software houses, deliver on that promise.
Like many entertainment programs today, they require more than a little horsepower -- an IBM compatible computer, preferably an AT-class machine, with a couple of megabytes of free hard disk space. You'll also want a mouse and an EGA or VGA monitor to get the most from the their superb graphics. And while you don't absolutely need it, you'll get a lot more from the program if you have an Ad Lib, Sound Blaster or similar audio card.
For younger children (4 to 9), Eco-Saurus pushes all the right buttons. It's not just entertaining, but so politically correct that it's almost disgusting.
The program puts you on Eco Island, where Zug the Megasaurus and his dinosaur friends live in a land of magic fountains, skateboard parks and talking mountains.
Unfortunately, the place is littered with trash, and the residents are rather foolishly wasting their water and power.
On top of all this, Zug's outer space buddy M-Kar crash-lands his rocket in Elasmosaurus Lake.
The dinosaurs need somebody to straighten out the mess, and you, as a fledgling Ecology Conservation Official, get the job.
With the aid of a simple map, you roam the island, picking up trash (depositing it in the proper recycling bin, of course) and figuring out how to save water and electricity.
When you collect enough, you'll be able to rebuild M-Kar's ship and give it enough power and water to make the trip back to the poor guy's home planet.
Exploring the island is fun. When you point at virtually any object and click the mouse button, something happens. Dinosaurs turn 360s on skateboards; underwater plants start talking, and statues come to life.
You'll need their help to collect enough recyclables, and they'll .. supply you with lots of painless information about the environment and recycling.
The graphics and animation are clever, and the entire adventure is fun. Younger children will probably need their parents' help, since there's a bit of reading involved, while older youngsters will be able to manage by themselves.
The program uses First Byte sound technology to produce speech even if you don't have a sound board, but the quality depends a lot on your computer's speaker and how quiet the power supply fan is.
For older youngsters, 10 and up, Headline Harry and the Great Paper Race is an entertaining adventure in reporting, U.S. geography, history, politics, sports, logic and the never-ending battle between responsible journalism and yellow sensationalism.
Headline Harry tears a page from Broderbund's phenomenally successful Carmen Sandiego series, but my older son (and his dad) found it more complex and challenging.
You're a reporter for the U.S. Daily Star, run by Headline Harry, a typically surly editor determined to make his newspaper the best in the nation.
Unfortunately, Marvin Muckraker and his gang of nefarious rumor mongers over at the sensational Diabolical Daily are winning the circulation war with headlines such as "Elvis Invades Grenada!"
Harry tells you there's a story out there somewhere in America, at some point over the past 40 years. You have to traverse the country (I only wish we had Harry's travel budget), picking up clues, interviewing sources, consulting references and otherwise putting things together.
You're racing both the clock and Marvin's Gang, who will do everything they can to beat you to the punch, including brainwashing the folks you're interviewing if they get there first.
There are red herrings aplenty, and your job is to sort out the real news from the fluff. When you collect all the key words, names, dates, places, events and other facts, you can file your story. If you get it first, the Star wins, circulation picks up and you get a promotion.
If you miss the deadline, the Diabolical Daily publishes its shamelessly mangled version and Harry is not happy. From experience, I can tell you it's not good to make a managing editor unhappy.
It's great fun and not easy. I've been engaged in the malpractice of journalism for 20 years, and I managed to get only one out of the first three assignments. My 11-year-old did much better, but I haven't been able to beat him at any game since he was 5.
Finally, if you're interested in teaching your kids (and yourself) about computers, pick up a copy of My First Software, from Workman Publishing of New York City.
This odd but engaging little package combines five simple programs for younger children (4 to 8) along with a book that explains the basics of computers through the efforts of Bialosky Bear, a character well known to preschoolers and their parents.
My First Software ($17.95) is available for both IBM-compatibles and Apple II computers.
Eco-Saurus puts your child in charge of helping the dinosaurs of Eco-Island clean up the place and conserve their water and power. For youngsters from 4 to 9, $49.95. Contact Davidson & Associates, 3135 Kashiwa St., Torrance, Calif. 90505.
Your youngster is an ace reporter for the U.S. Daily Star, chasing stories across the country through 40 years of U.S. History. For ages 10 and up, $49.95 for a 16-color version, $59.95 for a 256-color version. Contact Davidson & Associates, 3135 Kashiwa St., Torrance, Calif. 90505.
Five simple but entertaining programs for kids from 5 to 8 teach logic, reading and visual skills, while the accompanying book is a great introduction to computing for kids and adults. The price is $17.95. Contact Workman Publishing, 708 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10003.