With Christmas coming up, parents are beginning to loo seriously at educational software for their children, hoping their computers will become something more than $2,000 Nintendo machines.
Luckily, there's a bumper crop of Kid Stuff on the market this year -- programs that will entertain your children, encourage their creativity, and maybe even teach them a thing or two.
A word of warning, though: Most educational and entertainment programs today require heavy-duty hardware. If you're using an older IBM-compatible or Apple Macintosh, look carefully at the packages to make sure you have enough horsepower, memory and hard disk space to accommodate them.
If you're buying a computer for Christmas, make sure the hard disk is large enough. Some bargain-basement computers still come with 40-megabyte hard disks. With extensive graphics and sound files, many of the educational titles I've seen require 4 to 6 megabytes of disk space apiece, and major grown-up applications can easily swallow 10 or 15 more. An 80-megabyte hard disk is the minimum you'll need; a hard disk in the 100-megabyte range is probably better.
Also, if you have an IBM-compatible computer that doesn't support sound, consider buying a sound board. New programs have wonderful music, sound effects and voice capabilities, but they all need something more than the crude beep-beep sound generator in standard PC's (This isn't a problem with Macintoshes, which have built-in sound capability).
You'll find a variety of add-on sound boards on the market. The most widely supported is Creative Labs' Sound Blaster Pro, which is available for as little as $130. You'll also need a couple of speakers ($20 to $40), and better yet from the standpoint of mom and dad's sanity, a pair of headphones.
A less expensive alternative is the Disney Sound Source, a $49.95 box with built in speaker that attaches to your computer's parallel port. It's not as sophisticated or as widely supported as the Sound Blaster. But it's fine for adding sound to games, and an increasing number of publishers are including Sound Source drivers with their programs. Now on to the Kid Stuff.
Most kids love to make up stories and draw pictures to illustrate them. Kid Works 2 from Davidson & Associates makes this a real pleasure with a unique and magical blend of text, graphics and sound.
The heart of the program is the story creator, essentially a large-character word processor with a nifty twist. The word processor is linked to a library of 250 common words, and each word has a small picture, or icon, attached to it.
If you type, "I sat on a chair and ate a piece of cake," and then click your mouse button on a little picture icon on the screen, the words "chair" and "cake" will magically be replaced by tiny pictures of a chair and a cake. Click again, and you'll see normal text. It's a great way to create rebus puzzles, and great fun for the kids. Youngsters can also select pictures directly from an album, instead of typing the words, and create new picture-word combinations of their own.
If your youngster isn't sure about a word, the computer will speak it (if it has sound capability), or speak an entire sentence, which provides excellent reading reinforcement.
To illustrate their stories, youngsters can quickly switch to a basic, kid-oriented paint program, with easy-to-use brushes, fills, boxes, circles and other features.
Once a story is created and illustrated, kids can print it out. Or, they can use the story player, which uses the program's text-to-speech capability to read the story back to them. You can adjust pronunciation and add words to the speech dictionary.
For youngsters who would rather start from the visual end, Broderbund's Kid Pix is a delightfully daffy paint program with sound effects that will keep them laughing (if they don't send you to the asylum). In fact, it's intuitive enough so that kids who aren't old enough to read can use it with only a little help.
In addition to lines, rectangles, circles and small "rubber stamp images," the paint program features 20 brushes that produce blobs, scatters, stars, drips, pies, zigzags, trees and other patterns. And each brush has its own distinct sound effect -- a whoop, gurgle, boing, splash or whatever. Unlike Kid Works, Kid Pix will use the PC speaker to create sound effects, although they aren't as elaborate as those produced by sound boards.
I had as much fun as the kids experimenting with all the combinations, and my boys loved the screen clearing routines, including a Big Bang firecracker that explodes your drawing.
Erasing a picture manually adds a new dimension, because you can uncover "hidden" pictures that lie beneath whatever you've done. Who knows, there may be an octopus hiding under your drawing of mom.
Adding text to a picture is as easy as picking out a letter from a picture box. The program will also read the letter aloud -- in English or Spanish.
Kid Pix has been so successful that it has spawned a couple of spinoffs. The new Kid Pix Companion adds slide show capabilities, more hidden pictures, coloring book pictures and more colorful rubber stamp icons.
A new stand-alone release called Kid Cuts lets youngsters create puppets, masks, decorative shapes, greeting cards, paper dolls, puzzles, animal figures and other items that can be cut out and colored in.
Kid Works 2 and Kid Pix are available in most major software outlets. For information on Kid Works 2, contact Davidson & Associates, P.O. Box 2961, Torrance, Calif. For information on Kid Pix products, contact Broderbund Software, 500 Redwood Blvd., Novato, Calif. 94948.
(Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.)