Choosing Children's Software

From book: Young Children & Computers, A Parent's Survival Guide (published in February, 1998)

By the editors of Children's Software Revue

Tell a child that there are a billion stars in the sky, and she’ll believe you. Tell her the paint on that park bench is wet, and she’ll have to touch it to find out. The best software is designed by people who know how children think.

Choices abound when it comes to children’s software. There are simulations, open-ended creativity tools, structured activities, puzzles, tutorials and reference titles; made by over 700 publishers. With all these options, the job of selecting software can seem overwhelming. We’ve reviewed over 3,500 educational software programs and currently receive approximately 70 new releases each month. All programs are reviewed by one or more staff reviewers and sent to families and/or schools for their feedback. If appropriate, the program is rated on a five point scale ("1" being a dud,"5" outstanding) using the checklist below. We carefully examine the claims made by each software product, and then attempt to gauge the program’s ease of use, educational value, whether or not it is fun and engaging (if this is the program’s purpose), how well it will adapt to individual tastes and abilities, and how long it is likely to hold a child’s interest.

The average consumer doesn't usually have the opportunity to look at software before purchase. To make an informed decision, it makes sense to check in with independent review sources. Following are the criteria we use in evaluating each program:

I. Ease of Use (Can my child use it with minimal help?)
___Skills needed to operate the program are in range of the child
___Children can use the program independently after the first use
___Accessing key menus is straightforward
___Reading ability is not prerequisite to using the program
___Graphics make sense to the intended user
___Printing routines are simple
___It is easy to get in or out of any activity at any point
___Getting to the first menu is quick and easy
___Controls are responsive to the touch
___Written materials are helpful
___Instructions can be reviewed on the screen, if necessary
___Children know if they make a mistake
___Icons are large and easy to select with a moving cursor
___Installation procedure is straightforward and easy to do

II. Childproof (Is it designed with "child-reality" in mind?)
___Survives the "pound on the keyboard" test
___Offers a quick, clear, obvious response to a child’s action
___The child has control over the rate of display
___The child has control over exiting at any time
___The child has control over the order of the display
___Title screen sequence is brief or can be bypassed
___When a child holds a key down, only one input is sent to the computer
___Files not intended for children are safe
___Children know when they’ve made a mistake
___This program would operate smoothly in a home or classroom setting

III. Educational (What can my child learn from this program?)
___Offers a good presentation of one or more content areas
___Graphics do not detract from the program’s educational intentions
___Feedback employs meaningful graphic and sound capabilities
___Speech is used
___The presentation is novel with each use
___Good challenge range (this program will grow with the child)
___Feedback reinforces content (embedded reinforcements are used)
___Program elements match direct experiences
___Content is free from gender bias
___Content is free from ethnic bias
___A child’s ideas can be incorporated into the program
___The program comes with strategies to extend the learning
___There is a sufficient amount of content

IV. Entertaining (Is this program fun to use?)
___The program is enjoyable to use
___Graphics are meaningful and enjoyed by children
___This program is appealing to a wide audience
___Children return to this program time after time
___Random generation techniques are employed in the design
___Speech and sounds are meaningful to children
___Challenge is fluid, or a child can select own level
___The program is responsive to a child’s actions
___The theme of the program is meaningful to children

V. Design Features (How "smart" is this program?)
___The program has speech capacity
___Has printing capacity
___Keeps records of child’s work
___"Branches" automatically: challenge level is fluid
___A child’s ideas can be incorporated into the program
___Sound can be toggled or adjusted
___Feedback is customized in some way to the individual child
___Program keeps a history of the child’s use over a period of time
___Teacher/parent options are easy to find and use

VI. Value (How much does it cost vs. what it does? Is it worth it?)
Considering the factors rated above, and the average retail price of software, rate this program’s relative value.

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