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Familiar characters aid learning Education: Software for children features their favorite figures from books and television.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If the holidays meant the arrival of a new computer at your house, you're probably ready to hit the stores in search of some worthwhile software.

The array of products available is astounding, and it's tough to choose on the basis of a colorful box. If you took the computer plunge as a means to enrich your children's learning experience, the last thing you want to hear is "This is borrrring."

A good way to get started is to look for the familiar - characters your children know and enjoy from books or television. Many of the newest educational software packages for youngsters combine education and entertainment, making them appealing and useful.

We rounded up some of the latest character-based releases from leading educational software publishers and put them to the test. The following programs run on both Windows and Macintosh systems, but be sure to check specific requirements (processor, memory, sound capabilities and speed) to make sure there are no disappointments when you get home.

Dr. Seuss Preschool

Broderbund, Ages 2-4, $19.95

Theodore Geisel's legacy lives on in this early learning package, populated by many of the nonsensical creatures that help children learn to read.

Horton the Elephant finds a lost baby animal named Elma Sue, and he needs your help to reunite her with her mother. The journey takes you through the Jungle of Nool and into the Cool Pool, where you'll find familiar characters leading the activities.

This disk is a great first introduction to the computer for young children, especially those who are fans of Dr. Seuss. Concepts covered include rhyming, the alphabet, counting, sorting and matching.

The animation is top quality, as are the engaging situations that surround each game. They're entertaining even for adults, so you won't mind being called over to "Look at this!"

Pop the bear of Hop on Pop and his cubs need help picking rhyming words; King Yertle the Turtle wants you to stack a particular number of turtles, while Fox needs assistance sorting socks. Horton offers positive, gentle encouragement as he corrects errors and applauds correct answers.

Elmo's Reading

Creative Wonders, Ages 3-6, $34.95

The people who bring you Sesame Street (Children's Television Workshop) offer a cast of familiar Muppets and innovative games that will keep your little guys glued to the monitor. The pacing and humor are right on target.

In Disk 1, Baltimorean Kevin Clash's squeaky-voiced Elmo guides your child through six reading readiness activities. Your child will identify letters and create words to match the food waiter Grover orders in Cooking With Cookie. Once the word is spelled correctly, chef Cookie Monster pops a mix in the oven and, moments later, out comes the food item.

It's a hilarious give-and-take between Cookie and Grover; of course Cookie keeps eating the food (net you never thought you'd see him devouring tofu, huh?).

Other activities include Zoetry Poetry (rhyming in a beat cafe), Super Grover, Comic-Hero (word building), and Beam Me Up, Up, Up (letter recognition with the aliens from Sesame Street). Customized learning features adjust difficulty levels up and down, according to your child's progress.

Likewise, the "smart" characters offer help according to the needs displayed, for example, repeating instructions, sounding out a letter or word, correcting mistakes.

Disk 2 provides a reading adventure parody "Elmo Through the Looking Glass," which can be approached in the more passive "read to me" mode or the activity-laden "read and play" setting. Instead of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party, you'll attend Oscar's Grouchy Sundae Party where the rule is "act grouchy and have a rotten time."

Babe and Friends Animated Early Reader

SoundSource, Ages 4-7. $24.95

Babe, that cute little pig from Hoggetts' farm, is the latest star in the merchandising heavens. He appears here in animated form, along with many other animal characters from "Babe: Pig in the City." This group of friends forms the Helping Hands Club (Helping Paws and Hooves?) to gather food to feed hungry city animals. Of course, they need your help.

Kids are led through a simple storybook where they can read along with the narrator. Clickables on each screen offer extra animation or "dictionary pages." Babe and company ask for help completing tasks that reinforce basic skills: rhyming, letter sounds, letter recognition, and spelling.

Unfortunately, the storybook is too simple and uninteresting to merit return visits; it lacks the sense of urgency needed to attract children to complete the activities that follow.

Human characters are given stereotypical accents that are sometimes difficult to understand. The Italian grocer says, "Thatsa the right food!" The junkyard owner from down south introduces himself as what sounds like "Jimmy Junkie." The thrift shop proprietress speaks Brooklynese.

Some objects in the game, such as food icons in the grocery store, are too small, making it difficult for young children to click and drag them.

Arthur's Computer Adventure

Broderbund, Ages 3-7, $29.95

In this, the latest installment of the critically acclaimed "Living Books" series, kids join Arthur, D.W. and friends in a computer-related story. Arthur is obsessed with playing the computer game "Deep Dark Sea," even when his mother warns him not to touch her computer.

Each story page of the "book" is chock full of funny, entertaining clickables: bunny slippers you can "multiply" all over the screen, recurring mice characters who phone in the pizza order "Extra cheese, hold the pizza," and a lamp with attitude that warns against further clicks. Also hidden are 13 minigames and puzzles, such as a "remote control" rescue helicopter.

Separate learning activities include a treasure hunt (reading), make-believe at D.W.'s store (counting and math), and "Frankenfish" (creativity and ocean facts).

This well-written story with a moral (based on the book "Arthur's Computer Disaster," by Marc Brown) will amuse children and parents alike. Activities offer just the right blend of humor and purpose so as not to turn off children who are wary of educational software.

Rugrats Adventure Game

Broderbund, Ages 6-10, $29.95

I can almost hear Angelica screaming, "You dumb parents! You'll buy anything your kids ask for that looks educational!" This software counts on the draw of Nickelodeon's popular Rugrats franchise to draw you in, but it's got all the educational value of, well, a cartoon.

This poky "adventure" has Tommy, Chuckie, Phil and Lil toddling through the Pickles' house in search of tools they'll need to rescue a Reptar doll from the trash.

What makes this game frustrating is that you must collect items in a particular order, so that more often than not, discovering a tool means hearing a voice say, "We don't need this right now. We can come back for it later."

You can't play the more entertaining activities like Cabinet Climb, Teeth Stackin', and Trash Smash until you get to them in the course of the adventure. It would take an unusually diligent child to conquer the adventure and get the most out of the game.

Adding to the problem is the game's slow response to clicks and the fact that the cursor disappears when the babies are talking or perambulating. The game employs a baby's eye vantage point, which makes for a stomach-churning "fishbowl" effect.

A final warning: Don't look to the Rugrats to teach your kids grammar. I got ta go now.

Madeline Classroom Companion 1st and 2nd Grade Reading

Creative Wonders, Ages 6-9, $34.95

Don't be surprised to hear your little girl affecting a French accent after playing these charming activities. Madeline's cheery, enthusiastic narration is peppered with words of encouragement en Francais.

Among the eight games on Disk 1 are Three in a Row (completing words), Fun With Cards (matching), Where's Pepito? (reading comprehension and problem solving) and Make a Silly Speech (combining sentence fragments).

Each time you complete a game, you are rewarded with a piece of a star (bronze, silver or gold, depending on the difficulty level). Disk 2 offers similar games using more advanced concepts, including alphabetizing, letter blends, synonyms and antonyms.

A unique feature of the package is an interactive dictionary which appears throughout the games -click on a word in English for a picture, brief definition, and the French and Spanish translations. Players can try out foreign vocabulary words by labeling pictures in Madeline's scrapbook and paintings in Madame Truffaut's art gallery.

Children will enjoy using the simple print shop feature to make Madeline greeting cards for friends. An electronic diary promotes creative writing, nudging those with writer's block by providing optional "sentence starters."

The Baby-Sitters Club 4th Grade Learning Adventures

Creative Wonders, Ages 8-10, $34.95

The Baby-Sitters Club is to elementary school girls what Goosebumps is to grade school boys: an enormously popular series of eminently readable chapter books. Author Ann M. Martin has created quite a franchise based on these young role models, this package being one of the latest efforts.

As it turns out, you may want to skip the software and spend the money on a haul of BSC books instead. In the first of two disks, Kristy, Abby, Stacey and Jessi want to show off their favorite fourth grade subjects. Unfortunately, the games involved are too cute and, well, dumb.

Kristy's Map Maker is nothing more than a jigsaw puzzle. It's too easy to ignore that the puzzle is actually a map.

Abby's Wacky Word Kicks (a take-off on MadLibs) involves "kicking" a soccer ball to choose specified parts of speech that will complete a "funny" story. If you've ever played MadLibs, you know that the person controlling the book got the most laughs from seeing the often-ridiculous choices "fit" into the story. Because you can't read the story until it's complete, the game falls flat.

More successful is Disk 2: BSC Brain Blitz, a trivia game that offers an opportunity for up to four players to get involved. Girls (boys having fled the room at mere mention of BSC) earn points and "charms" for correctly answering multiple choice questions. A round of 20-second puzzlers (matching sounds, squirting bugs, racing to make ice cream cones) offers diversion in between quizzing. Social interaction outside the computer is what makes this disk entertaining, so players should be sure to enlist a friend or two.

Pub Date: 12/28/98

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