I always seem to be complaining about the poor variety and quality of educational software in this column, but now I’ve found a series of early learning programs which I can be totally enthusiastic about. The Learning Box programs written by Five Ways and published by Arrow, is an outstanding series which encourages young children to develop basic letter and number skills.

Five Ways have put a great deal of thought and effort into the programs, and have realised that educational packages should include not just the computer tape, but also other materials such as books, together with clear guidance on their use. Each of the programs in the Learning Box series follows the same format: the attractive plastic case contains the tape (which has the program on one side, and a story or rhymes to listen to on the other); a beautifully illustrated story-book to accompany the audio tape; a parents’ book containing step by step instructions for all the learning activities; and an overlay which simplifies the keyboard for even the youngest child.

The programs themselves all feature a carefully structured range of activities designed in a clear sequence so that children can work from the easy to the more difficult. This logical structure of subject matter is extremely important for effective meaningful learning. The inclusion of detailed guidance for parents ensures that the foundations on which a new learning activity rests can be introduced before the concept is presented using the computer.

For very young children, learning material must be bright and attractive, and the colourful screen graphics of The Learning Box series are quite excellent. Sound is also used to very good effect, and it can be turned off if required. Other extremely useful touches include the facility for exiting from an activity at any point and return to the menu, as well as a pause facility. The control keys for all of these options (caps shift/break and the appropriate number key) have been carefully selected to make it virtually impossible for the child to carry out any of these actions accidentally.

It really is hard to find any criticisms of these programs — the only real snag that arose concerns the overlay which doesn’t fit the Spectrum Plus and could possibly have been a bit more robust. The main thing, though, is that in terms of their educational value and the enjoyment they offer, the programs are streets ahead of most other early learning software. Daniel (as you know, he’s my five year old tester) loved the series, even demanding to see them again as soon as he woke up in the morning — though at that early hour, his father could perhaps be forgiven for being less than enthusiastic!