WHEN OUR firstborn was 6 years old, I decided I could improve him with some exposure to educational software. So we fired up a cute little reading program and sat down together in front of the screen for a some digital father-son bonding.
The lad dutifully followed all the directions, sounded out the words, watched the little cartoons and punched the keys at all the right times. I was delighted. Wasn't this what computers were designed to do?
After 15 minutes of this electronic bliss, an exasperated Ike finally turned to me and said, "Daddy, I do this all day at school. Why do I have to do it at home, too?"
It was my first attack of parental computer guilt. I pulled out the reading disk, loaded a copy of Space Invaders and watched the boy happily blast waves of Klingons into eternity.
In the 11 years since, both Ike and his younger brother Ben have always demonstrated an intense aversion to any software with the word "educational" written on the box. And, despite this void in their lives, they've turned out to be pretty good students.
I tell this tale because, as the holidays approach, well-meaning parents across the country are prowling the aisles of computer stores, searching for educational software that will improve their kids. And it's a mind-boggling job, with a dozen new programs' updated releases appearing every week.
These titles are orders of magnitude better than the programs that bored my kids to distraction, but shopping for educational programs is still as much art as science. Sometimes the simplest programs will keep kids enthralled for weeks or months, while the fanciest multimedia packages will wind up on the scrap heap after a day or two.
Still, there are two common-sense rules for selecting educational software. First, make sure any program you buy matches your kids' interests and abilities. Second, make sure the program will run properly on your hardware.
Matching software to hardware would seem to be the easier job, but I'm still amazed at how many families unwrap a program on Christmas morning and wind up disappointed because it won't run on their machines.
Years ago, when educational software was targeted primarily at schools, this wasn't a problem because publishers worked hard to make their programs compatible with the older computers that populated most classrooms.
Today, with millions of state-of-the-art machines being sold in the home market every year, publishers can make a profit with software that requires more horsepower than many older systems can provide. As a result, a computer that's fine for your word processor may not have what it takes for the kids' stuff.
Before you buy any program, check out the system requirements carefully. You'll find this information printed somewhere on the package. Does your machine have enough memory and a fast enough processor and CD-ROM drive to make the program work? If not, pass it up. And be conservative, because software publishers often understate the resources their programs need.
If your computer is on the borderline, you may wind up with software that runs so slowly that your kids will chuck it.
Also be aware of the software's operating system requirements. Some new PC software requires Windows 95; if you're running Windows 3.1, you may not be able to use it. Many Macintosh programs demand a specific version of an operating system that has been revised more times than a bad Broadway musical. If a program requires System 7.05 and you have Version 7.04, you may be out of luck.
Once you know what your computer is capable of running, decide what your kids are capable of running. Many programs, particularly math and reading titles, are aimed at specific age groups, such as 6 to 8 year olds. While your children are undoubtedly above average (mine certainly are), remember that software publishers operate like toy companies.
The lower number of the age range they advertise often designates the youngest child who has ever shown an interest in the program.
Even precocious youngsters who read well above grade level may not yet have the coordination necessary for arcade-style titles designed for older children. If an educational game is too hard, your kids will drop it faster than you can say "$39.95 down the drain."
Before you go shopping, do a little research. Ask friends and other parents what programs their kids have enjoyed. A computer-friendly teacher or your school's computer coordinator may also have suggestions. Just remember that software designed for the classroom may be too tame to compete for kids' attention in a home environment dominated by TV and Nintendo.
Software reviews are also a good source of guidance. Check out back issues of magazines aimed at the consumer market, such as Home PC or Family PC. Not surprisingly, the World Wide Web is probably a great source of information. If you're not wired, find someone who is, or go to your local library -- many have free public terminals.
Most computer magazines have Web sites with back issues, and almost all software publishers offer detailed online catalogs. Some sites have demo versions of programs that you can download.
A good place to start is the Software Publishers Association, whose Web site has a page full of links to software reviews. Point your browser to http: //www.spa.org/project/ resource.htm.
Also check out SuperKids (http: //www.superkids.com) and the Children's Software Revue (http: //microweb.com/pepsite/ Revue/revue.html)
Meanwhile, maybe you can help me. If anybody knows of software that will teach a couple of teen-agers to clean up their rooms and not leave a trail of empty Coke cans and Cap'n Crunch crumbs all over the house, please let me know. The e-mail address for this and other computer-related subjects is mikelark.net.
Pub Date: 12/08/96