Baby's First Point-and-Click

SAN FRANCISCO (03/31/2000) - There's no shortage of software for kids, and the latest trend seems to be games geared to the gurgling set. DK, publisher of popular children's educational books, has joined the fray with its My First CD-ROM Toddler and Preschool titles.

The programs offer plenty to engross most children for hours, but parents may want to think twice before placing toddlers in front of a keyboard. You may want to introduce your children to PCs at a young age, but how young is too young?

Slated for 1 1/2- to 3-year-olds, My First CD-ROM Toddler focuses on word and picture recognition. Children can play independently or with help. The Preschool disk, for 3- to 5-year-olds, has activities on number and letter recognition, early math, and small motor control as children practice maneuvering the mouse.

Each disk has six activities, narrated by a helpful (if cloying) Jack-in-the-Box character named Zack. Zack guides children through activities with simple explanations, interspersed with occasional repetitive short rhymes and jingles that might make parents want to duct-tape his virtual door shut.

(But any child who's sat uncomplaining through a Barney episode probably won't mind him.) Both titles include a parents' section that describes the skills each activity is designed to teach and suggests related activities on and off the PC. Parents can choose among three levels of play and can track their child's progress. The Toddler disk also lets parents set the space bar instead of the mouse for kids more inclined to cut teeth on the mouse than click it.

Plenty of Time for PCs

Both titles have simple directions, positive feedback, and enough variety to keep very young players engaged for hours. But the biggest question about these and other toddler-touted titles is: Should children as young as 18 months be encouraged to play computer games at all?

"Absolutely not," says Eileen Barnett, director of instructional computing at Lesley College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "Children 2 and under should be manipulating blocks, playing in the park, and exploring the world. At that age, they'll get just as much out of playing with the [software] box as sitting in front of the monitor."

Real-world parental participation is more important than virtual activities, Barnett adds. "As children mature and develop eye-hand control, parents should look for games that promote discovery, creativity, and problem solving--and play along with them," she says.

In fact, it may be tough to get kids to turn off the PC and go back to the real world. My 3-year-old took to the games in My First CD-ROM Toddler enthusiastically. She might have skipped dinnertime, bathtime, and bedtime had I let her play unchecked. I want to encourage her eagerness to learn, but I'm cautious about any activity that engrosses her so utterly that she forgets basic needs like eating and sleeping.

DK's My First CD-ROM series can be a fine early learning tool for youngsters.

Note that even the programs suggest learning activities away from the PC. Take the hint, and enjoy the games with your kids--between dinner and story hour.

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