Rosetta McLeod, aided by Daniel Fenn, aged 4

Many people have an educational motive in mind when they set out to purchase a micro computer. To justify the monetary outlay, they may have had to convince themselves that the purchase is not a frivolous one, that the computer will not be used merely for playing games, but will be put to worthwhile use. If you are a parent, you may have been ‘conned’ by your child into buying a micro ‘to help with schoolwork’ — indeed most of my pupils admitted to me (but perhaps would not admit to their parents!) that this was the case, but that the reality of the situation was that they used their computers solely for the playing of simulations, arcade or adventure games.

Now, however, more and more publishers are producing software aimed at the education market, the majority of programs being specifically intended for use in the home rather than in schools — though an increasing number of schools are now making use of them. These educational programs fall into several categories:

1 programs which encourage parents to work with the very young child who is ready to learn the letters of the alphabet, basic reading skills, number work. etc;

2 tutorial-type programs which pick up an educational concept that the older child is familiar with, and attempt to reinforce it by providing a variety of examples to be worked through, usually at graded levels of difficulty;

3 teach yourself programs — eg how to sail —, aimed at anyone, child or adult, who wants to learn a specific skill;

4 adventure games, like the Hill-MacGibbon Games to Stretch the Mind, aimed at a younger audience. These are primarily leisure games, though they may have a secondary educational role, particularly if the child is helped by an adult who, through discussion, can guide the child towards working out the eventual solution.

What all these programs do is to cash in on the child’s fascination with the computer. The sheer novelty value of using the machine usually results in increased motivation and the development of a greater concentration span. The programs often exploit the popular arcade game’s format, so making work which is normally mundane and repetitive appear more interesting. Attractive presentation alone, appeals to children very strongly.

How, then, should we assess the educational games on offer? What criteria can we use when judging them? Obviously, any game which purports to have a worthwhile educational aim should have that aim clearly explained, and ideally, educationalists should have been involved in its preparation. Software which demands a simple YES/NO response from children should he avoided, as it doesn’t really teach anything. The instructions, both in an accompanying booklet and on the screen, must be clear and easy to follow. Games ought to have several levels in order to cater for children of varying abilities, and should include suggestions for follow-up activities. All too many games, however, are presented as entities in themselves with no suggestions as to how the knowledge acquired can be extended or applied to other situations.

The following reviews cover games listed in the first category given earlier — those aimed at the very young child. Parents are often unsure as to how much they should be teaching a child who hasn’t started school. It is important that the program package should give some reassurance or advice — preferably driving home the point that children mature at vastly different rates and reminding parents that a game described as being suitable for 4-6 year olds may well be beyond the abilities of some 4 year olds, who are simply not ready for it.

Bearing in mind that the child is the consumer when it comes to educational software, I felt obliged to work with a partner — and engaged the services of Daniel Fenn (aged 4) to help me with the following reviews.