When you're shopping for your child's holiday gift, consider something that he or she will enjoy and learn from: educational software for your home computer.
There are hundreds of home learning programs that are challenging and fun, but here are some titles especially favored by many local elementary school teachers.
These programs are found in software stores throughout the county and work on IBM, Apple and Macintosh systems. Most range in price from $35 to $50.
Even if you don't have a home computer, software is still worth considering as a gift because many public schools let students use computer labs after school, and the program disks fit easily in a child's notebook.
"Oregon Trail" takes your child on a "critical thinking" trip along the Oregon Trail, the route followed by thousands of westward migrants during the mid-19th Century.
In this simulation, the student must purchase food and supplies, make camp, battle Indians and disease, and adjust for climate. Incorrect answers can bring realistic problems such as death by typhoid or exposure.
"Oregon Trail" sharpens skills in reading, geography, social studies and critical thinking.
The "Carmen Sandiego" software series can also help your student practice several skills simultaneously. "Where in the U.S. is Carmen Sandiego?" for example, challenges the child to locate a fugitive by analyzing clues about certain places in the United States.
Aimed at kids aged 9 and older, "Carmen Sandiego" emphasizes skills in reading, geography, history, and the use of reference books such as atlases and almanacs.
Mathematics skills can also be polished through practice on some excellent and enjoyable home computer programs.
"Math and Me" offers your child practice in the basic facts of math, such as the names of numbers and their sequencing. Simple addition and other beginning skills are also found in this program, intended for children in kindergarten through about fourth grade.
"Math Blaster," designed for children from kindergarten through sixth grade, can actually make reviewing basic math skills exciting.
The program focuses on addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, and children love it because it is a Nintendo-style game in which they "blow up" if they choose incorrect answers.
You might also want to pick up "Algebra Blaster" when your little math blaster reaches junior high school.
"Number Munchers" is another software program that uses an arcade game format to make math fun. Using addition, subtraction, and other fundamentals, the player maneuvers a "number muncher" character around a game board within the computer screen and is told to "eat" certain numbers. It is aimed at children in grades three through six.
Computers can add an interactive and animated quality to reading that books just don't, and several reading practice programs are especially popular.
"Reader Rabbit" will challenge your child to improve his or her reading and spelling skills by playing a variety of word games, all supervised by the animated Reader Rabbit character. The program is most suitable for children in kindergarten through third grade.
"Reading and Me" is for children in kindergarten and first grade. It teaches the alphabet, beginning and ending sounds (phonics), and likenesses and differences among words.
Each "Reading and Me" lesson offers three levels of difficulty, which the child can adjust, and he or she may also choose which language skills to practice.
With computer software, even grammar can be entertaining. "Word Invasion" teaches the parts of speech in a manner that recalls the venerable arcade game "Space Invaders." This program targets second- through sixth-graders.
"Verb Viper" also makes practicing grammar a pleasure and stresses subject-verb agreement, probably the most common error in writing and speaking.