As the father of two boys who prefer to spend their computer time with baseball simulations or galactic war games, I've spent an inordinate amount of time looking at educational software over the last year.
I have some good news and bad news.
The good news is that educational software is better than ever, with superb graphics, plenty of entertainment value and solid educational content.
The bad news is that the good news may not matter.
As my older boy, Ike, once said to me when I sat him down in front of what I thought was a terrific early reading program, "Daddy, I do this all day in school. Why do I have to do it at home?"
It's a question that haunts educational software developers.
Last week I sat down with the president of a highly regarded educational software house and told him his math game for older youngsters had great arcade play.
"That's the whole problem," he lamented. "The kids love it. But when we go into the schools with it, the teachers say it's too distracting. We do half our business with schools. They want one thing, and the home market wants another."
To understand how this works, consider the professor who lightens up a heavy lecture with a well-timed joke or two. By professorial standards, he's a regular Jay Leno. But put the same guy up on the stage at the local Comedy Club and they'll send him packing back to the classroom faster than you can say simpliciter dictum.
When kids are in school, which essentially is a serious place, anything that turns the business of learning into a game is a welcome change of pace and may accelerate the educational process.
But when they're at home, usually after a long day at school, educational software has to compete for their attention with toys, Nintendo games and reruns of Celebrity Double Dare.
You can't chain a kid to a computer, and if an educational game doesn't hold his attention, he'll find something else to do.
Meanwhile, publishers are starting to concentrate on a potentially more fruitful area -- software tools that teach kids the same kind of computer and life skills they'll need as adults.
In many ways, these programs are far more valuable than educational games. They give youngsters practice with real keyboard and computer skills, encourage creativity, and help them them with school assignments. We'll discuss a few of the best here and concentrate on the games next time out.
By far the most impressive tool I've seen for kids this year is The Writing Center, from The Learning Company.
This is a simple but powerful word processor for the Apple Macintosh (an IBM version is due out next year) designed to let students create reports, newsletters, outlines and other documents and illustrate them with more than 200 colorful clip art images.
The Writing Center takes full advantage of the Mac's intuitive graphical interface. It does away with the complicated stuff that clutters up adult word processors and keeps the things that students really want, including a 100,000 word spelling checker.
I tried this one out on a 14-year-old friend, who immediately gave up on Mom's copy of Microsoft Word. In fact, Mom admits that she uses The Writing Center a lot, too.
For IBM and Apple II users, The Learning Company's Children's Writing and Publishing Center is a bit less sophisticated but still an entertaining and easy to use desktop publishing program for youngsters.
It comes with special formats for reports and newsletters (limited to four pages), including dual columns, graphics and a variety of fonts. My kids really liked it.
For sheer delightful invention, it's hard to beat Davidson and Associates' new Kid Works for IBM-compatibles.
This is a talking word processor and illustration program for 4 to 10 year olds designed to let children create stories, illustrate them, and then print them or play them back visually and audibly.
The program generates speech using the computer's own speaker or any Ad Lib or Sound Blaster compatible music card. Unless you have a music card, the quality of the speech depends pretty much on the quality of your speaker and how noisy your computer's fan is. But it's usually understandable.
Kid Works contains a variety of tools, including a large-character word processor that can magically turn words into pictures. For example, if your child types, "The girl rode her bike up the mountain and saw a rabbit," a keystroke will automatically turn "bike," "mountain" and "rabbit" into tiny drawings called icons, or turn them back into words again.
There are more than 200 icons in the program's vocabulary, and youngsters can create their own icons, assign them to words and even teach the computer how to pronounce them correctly. An elementary paint module also lets children create larger illustrations. This is a superb program for early readers and writers.
Along the same lines, Once Upon a Time from CompuTeach gives young children the opportunity to create illustrated "books" using clip art, basic drawing tools and a mini-word processor.
While Kid Works puts the emphasis on writing, Once Upon a Time is basically an illustrator that creates picture pages with text at the bottom, much the way early reading books are designed.
Which approach is better depends on your child, but they're both fun for kids to use in the classroom and at home. Once Upon a Time is available for IBM and Apple II computers.
For budding artists with a Macintosh, Kid Pix is a paint program whose author, a University of Oregon professor with a six-year-old, realizes that kids don't see things exactly the same way adults do.
Kid Pix includes a variety of drawing, animation and sound effects, including 20 oddball brush shapes, 100 pieces of clip art and even hidden pictures that don't show up until you erase the part of the screen where they're hiding.
"It's great because you don't even have to open the manual," said one colleague whose son loves the program. That alone may be enough to recommend it. Look for an IBM-compatible version this winter.
Finally, if you're interested in teaching your kids the most important computer skill of all -- typing -- try Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing from Software Toolworks.
This program has been around for a while, but its clever graphical approach, which includes an auto racing game and animated "magic fingers" that appear on a keyboard display to show proper finger placement, still makes it one of the best for youngsters.
Mavis Beacon is available for IBM-compatibles (including DOS and Microsoft Windows versions) and Apple II computers.