Sometimes the only way for a parent to slip education into the offspring is to disguise it as fun and fog it past them. If you have a computer, it can help.
If you don't have a computer, buying one to run educational software suggests that you hope the kids will rise above their genes and be smart anyway. Computer ownership is no more necessary for a good education than library ownership.
A computer and a bunch of "educational" programs won't automatically help a kid get better grades. There's a lot of pretty good drill software on the market for basic facts, but very little that a concerned parent with a set of flash cards couldn't match. And no software I know of has a lap or delivers a hug. You should also consider that only superhumans will be able to resist buying a couple of games and, while many of them have some spinoff educational value, the games may cut into time that should be spent on schoolwork.
Buying a computer is an expensive, long-term decision like buying any other major appliance. It deserves careful consideration and a realistic approach to money. A $1,500 computer-printer rig will easily be the most expensive appliance in the house. Unless you have a clear idea of what other chores the machine will handle besides occasional homework and drill, the computer may be the least-used appliance.
That said, here's what I'd recommend you investigate for a home machine:
Computer: An MS-DOS (IBM) compatible with 640,000 characters of memory, a color monitor, two floppy drives or one floppy drive and a hard disk. Brand names include IBM, with its recently announced PS-1 and its now heavily discounted PC-AT models; Tandy, for anything in its 1000 series and its newly announced 1000RL, designed to be so simple even an adult can use it; Leading Edge and Hyundai with their AT-clones based on the Intel 80286 chip, typically sold in packages that bundle computer, monitor and some software.
Printer: If you can afford something that hovers around $1,000, a laser printer is the way to go. Otherwise, ink-jet and 24-pin dot matrix printers cost around half that and do a good job. Nine-pin dot matrix printers are the most economical and some of them produce acceptable quality--see print samples first--for less than $300.
Nifty but not essential: Multivoice sound capability (built in on Tandy machines). Upgraded resolution color monitors (in increasing order of price and resolution, it's CGA, EGA and VGA). Joy sticks and joy-stick ports (ports may be included on some machines) or a mouse and a mouse port. A modem for telecommunications services like CompuServe and Prodigy.
Software: First, try the software that comes bundled with your machine. On a homework and book-report level, almost all of it is more than adequate. If you must buy additional word-processing software and can scrape up the $250 mail-order price, WordPerfect 5.1 is complex, but its almost global capabilities are well worth mastering.
Walt Disney Computer Software has Ducktales: The Quest for Gold, aimed at 8-year-olds and up. It's fun and educational as well. The game's premise is that Disney cartoon character Scrooge McDuck is challenged by rival Flintheart Glomgold to see who can collect the most treasure and become Dime magazine's "Duck of the Year." Players race to various exotic parts of the globe to search for treasure.
The animation is exactly what you'd expect from Disney, and the sound is very good. But the best feature is the way it makes kids (and maybe even adults) think. For example, to acquire money, you can invest in the stock market. But first, you must review the price of the stock and then check it against a graph to see whether this is a good time to buy.
On the way, you learn what a share of stock is, how a stock market works and how people make money trading shares. That's at least a couple of social studies lessons slipped into the fun, not to mention the math skills involved in reading a graph.
The game is available at software stores for IBM and compatibles, Amiga and the Commodore 64. IBM and Amiga suggested retail is $44.95; Commodore 64 suggested retail is $29.95. IBM minimum system requirements are a color monitor and 512,000 characters of memory. A joy stick and two drives (or a hard drive) are recommended.
Even if you buy at discount, software can take a big bite out of the budget. That's why it's nice to see a New York company, Hi Tech Expressions, consistently bring out good software at exceptionally reasonable prices. Much of it is educational, and most of it is in the $14.95 price range for IBM PCs and compatibles, Apple and Commodore computers.
The Second Kids World Almanac Adventure: Dr. Data's Revenge is new this year. The premise is that a computer bug is changing the data in the world's data bank--and you can help change it back if you can spot fact from fiction in questions based on information in the almanac. It's fun and has a much better chance of passing along facts than telling a kid to go read a printed almanac.
Hi Tech has several fact-based games in its line, including Win, Lose or Draw, Trump Card Show and MTV's Remote Control, plus those based on educational television's "Sesame Street" characters and "Electric Company." Prices are $9.95 to $14.95.
All the software runs on IBM or compatibles, and most of it runs on Apple or Commodore.
For more information, Hi Tech Expressions, 584 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10012. Or telephone (212) 941-1224.