Carol Ellison slipped a compact disc into the computer drive and brought up a Smithsonian map of the territorial United States. As photos of covered wagons, buffalo, wolves and rattlesnakes flashed and faded over the map, a narrator's voice began over the rollicking music: "Ours is a large nation, a young nation of restless people looking west to build better lives for themselves. . . ."
Ellison, senior education editor for HomePC magazine, was demonstrating the explosion in educational software, and giving tips for parents just beginning to face what can be a daunting marketplace.
"It's a very hot market because parents are willing to spend money. They have the sense that it's a competitive world out there, and they're afraid their kids are going to be left out," Ellison said. "This is especially true where computers are concerned because the parents themselves feel like they've been left behind. That makes them very vulnerable."
The program on her computer screen was "Oregon Trail II," one of her favorites. "It's part of a series that casts kids in the roles of pioneers heading west on a wagon train. It's very well researched and very true to that era," she said.
Ellison had included it in her selections because its multiple levels of interactive video, soundtrack, digitized speech and 3-D images represent what's happening for the home consumer in the world of educational software, she said.
From the early "drill and kill" programs, which were basically simplistic flash cards and a score, the software has gotten much more sophisticated. Floppy disks are being replaced by multimedia CD-ROMs offering hundreds of click-and-explore options, three-dimensional art and richly scored music. "The computer today is not just an electronic metaphor of a notebook, it actually is providing a unique learning tool," Ellison said.
For instance, kids traveling on "Oregon Trail II" will not only learn history, she said, but will sharpen their problem-solving skills as they barter for clothing, ride white-water rapids and interview historical characters for advice on how to survive.
"What good software does is treat kids to an experience," said Ellison, who aims to help parents pick their way through the software boom, which will see more than 2,000 CD-ROM children's titles introduced this year. According to the Software Publishers Assn., sales of home education and entertainment software will total $522 million this year, compared with only $99 million in 1991.
That's a lot of shopping for parents, whose first visit to a software store or computer fair can be a dizzying experience of titles fighting for attention:
Math Blaster, Reading Search, Super Solvers, I-Learn series, Amazing Writing Machine, Imagination Express, Earth Explorer, World Discovery, Recess in Greece, Science Sleuth, AlphaBonk Farm, Dr. Seuss' ABC, JumpStart First Grade, Magic Schoolbus series, Operation Neptune, How Many Bugs in a Box, Mixed Up Mother Goose Deluxe. . . .
HomePC magazine, published in Manhasset, Long Island in New York, has its own children's lab where software is tested before the editors review it in the magazine.
Getting wired with the new home hardware also takes a large financial chunk, considering that the new multimedia machines are priced from $1,000 to $1,500 and software ranges from $19.95 to $60. With sales tags like that at stake, experts like Ellison are increasingly in demand.
"What's tough is that the technology is changing so fast," said Diana Huss Green, editor of Parents Choice in Newton, Mass., a nonprofit consumer guide to children's books, toys, video and software. "The compact discs are really superb, and two years ago we didn't even have them."
Despite the wealth of new titles, she emphasized that parents don't have to run out and buy the latest software. " 'Reader Rabbit,' for instance, is a knockout and you can get it without CD-ROM. He's adorable, and the graphics are good." And parents who can't afford a computer at home (about one-third of American homes now have PCs) should know that computers are available for public use in schools and libraries, she added.
In surveying the tide of new children's titles, Green has noticed a "good, solid amount of really fine stuff" at the top, then the selections go plummeting down with companies trying to get in the act. "If you have one hit program there will be three imitators rushed to the store shelves within a year," she said. "They are not tested, they have glitches and are a nightmare to work with."
Ellison advises parents to test-drive the software. Don't be afraid to sit down and try it out in the store, before plunking down your money, she said. "And get to know the major companies, such as Broderbund, the Learning Company, Davidson, Edmark and MECC," she added.
Despite the new sophistication of both the computers and the software, Ellison warns parents to be realistic. The computer is not a magic pill.
"You don't just plop a kid in front of a computer and expect them to absorb things like a sponge. What you have here is a tool--a wonderful tool--but it is only as useful as the child and the family make it."
Warren Buckleitner of Ypsilanti, Mich., launched the Children's Software Revue, a nonprofit newsletter for parents and teachers, two years ago because, as an educator, he realized that the "No. 1 hurdle was finding software."
His advice to parents is to do a little homework before they go shopping. That way they won't be buying on impulse or letting the kids chose software because the box has a great picture of a dinosaur. It's also important, he said, to know your hardware requirements.
And, all the experts agree, be aware that most kids won't use software that isn't fun. "Parents are buying this equipment with the idea it should educate the kids, whereas the kids are looking for a fun game," Ellison said. "This can produce tensions at home. It has to be something a child wants to do."
Although the line between entertainment and education can be fuzzy, Ellison's rule of thumb is: "If you find licensed characters from movies, you can assume they are high on the entertainment side."
For more information on software homework, the following publications are suggested: Children's Software Revue, (800) 993-9499; HomePC magazine, (800) 829-0119; Club Kidsoft (software catalogue), (800) 354-6150; the Edutainment Catalog, (800) 338-3844.
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Need an educational software starter kit? Children's software experts Carol Ellison, Diana Huss Green and Warren Buckleitner picked their favorites, including these:
Preschool/kindergarten (readiness learning):
* The Reader Rabbit series (Learning Company). Classic interactive program leads kids all the way from phonics to short stories.
* "My First Encyclopedia" (Knowledge Adventure). Little ones can click on anything and get a video kid guide who explains what's what: Click on the boy eating an apple, for instance, and enter a fantasy kitchen for lessons in safety and nutrition.
* "Richard Scarry's How Things Work in Busytown" (Viacom New Media). Guided by Lowly Worm, children visit a farm, road construction site, bakery and other locations to learn the importance of community cooperation.
* "Putt-Putt Saves the Zoo" (Humongous Entertainment). Children learn problem-solving, memory and strategy as they try to find six missing animals.
* The House series (Edmark); includes "Millie's Math House," "Bailey's Book House" and "Sammy's Science House." Each program introduces basic skills using funny characters to help identify shapes and sounds of letters, numbers and natural things.
Intermediate Grades (ages 6 to 10)
* "The Amazing Writing Machine" (Broderbund). A creative writing lab encourages youngsters to try everything from diaries and letters to short stories and poetry.
* Math Blaster series (Davidson). Combines basics (addition, subtraction, fractions) with emphasis on using math to solve real-life problems.
* "Microsoft Explorapedia: The World of People" (Microsoft). Children explore human life, activities and machines as they follow Tad the Frog through 18 scenes.
For Kids Over 10
* "Oregon Trail II" (MECC). Decisions never end as players travel by wagon train through historically accurate American West.
* "Homework Helper" (Infonautics). This isn't a software program but an online research service that's easy to use and allows you to phrase your questions in real English.
* The Sim series (Maxis); includes "Sim City," "Sim Tower" and "Sim Health." These simulation games put kids in charge of cities, buildings, the environment and even the health-care system, allowing them to deal with the complexities of governance.