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Test drive: Software for babies
Rare is the parent who does not want to give his child every advantage in life, a mission that usually starts before the child is even born.
So when our daughter, Miranda, arrived 16 months ago, my wife and I were prepared: We had videotapes of "stimulating sights and sounds" designed to sow the seeds of Einsteinian intellectual prowess. We had numerous, brightly colored plastic gadgets that blinked, beeped and played music.
And of course, technophile that I am, I had arranged to acquire an old Macintosh computer from my sister. Yes! My child would get a leg up on her peers by having computer training from the earliest age possible.
She wasn't yet two months old the first time I held her on my lap in front of the computer. Almost immediately she grabbed for the mouse, as if she knew what to do. Daddy's little girl, indeed.
It wasn't until Mandy was about 9 months old that we bought some "baby software" and sat her down for some serious computing. I've had no trouble finding software for babies and toddlers (and happily most of it comes on "hybrid" CD-ROMS that include both Mac and Windows versions). It seems that I'm not the only parent scheming to turn my little rug-rat into a prodigy for the Digital Age.
Our sessions have developed a familiar pattern. At first, Mandy will be quite interested in whatever program we launch. Most start off with animation, music, or a talking cartoon character such as Big Bird or Mickey Mouse. Mandy likes that. But then she starts acting, well, like a baby.
Squirming in my lap, she'll start banging indiscriminately on the keyboard. This isn't always bad, as many baby-oriented programs will respond to just about any keystroke. However, when Mandy starts to kick the keyboard, use the mouse as a teething ring and derive boundless delight from turning the monitor on and off, the sessions turn ugly.
Not that Mandy dislikes the computer - she'll often toddle over to the computer desk and pound on the chair clamoring for her beloved "Melmo!" (her rendition of "Elmo," Sesame Street's giggly red Muppet). In goes the Elmo Preschool CD-ROM. Ten minutes later, she's writhing off my lap to seek adventure elsewhere.
Few programs have managed to hold Mandy's attention for more than a few minutes. One exception has been Fisher Price's Baby Smartronics Computer Learning System ($32, Mac and PC), which supplies a customized keyboard with very large, colorful keys that sits atop your PC keyboard.
The accompanying CD-ROM software accommodates three "skill" levels, which means your child doesn't outgrow it as quickly as most other baby programs. On Level One, whenever the baby hits a key - any key - something interesting happens on the screen. By Level Three, the child is required to hit a particular key to trigger an event.
The main flaw with this system is that the baby keyboard must be placed precisely on the PC keyboard. And if your keyboard rests in a keyboard tray, the Smartronics keyboard might not fit.
The other program in which Mandy has shown interest is Disney's Winnie the Pooh Baby. Even then, she only liked one of the five play modules, in which Eeyore the donkey paints a picture with the baby's help. Whenever the child hits a key, Eeyore paints.
In addition to trying to gauge which programs will capture their child's interest, parents eager to buy their babies software must pay close attention to the system requirements. While top-of-the-line hardware is rarely called for, computers more than 3 years old could have problems.
Needless to say, using your PC to give your baby a head start on life is not as simple as you might think. At 16 months of age, my daughter has taught me that software for babies, no matter how well-designed, has its limitations.
In fact, Mandy's favorite high-tech toys aren't computer-related at all. They tend to be singing telephones or school buses covered with buttons that play music and recite letters of the alphabet. Any object with a button that makes a noise is A-1 with her.
But as the mountain of all types of toys in her playpen grows ever taller, I've noticed there's one that Mandy plays with every day, one that brings her more pleasure than any of the others.
It's a plain old, air-filled plastic pink ball that I bought in a supermarket last summer for 99 cents.
What a concept.