When you're very young, mathematics can be a daunting prospect. It's somehow more palatable portrayed on a computer screen as a game of environmentally correct Math Blaster, or an old card game in Roxie's Math Fish.
Those are two of the programs Dotti Swanson uses in her classes at Carden School of Camarillo, where she teaches computer lessons to seven-student classes from kindergarten to eighth grade.
"You'd be amazed at how quickly they pick it up," she said, adding that the small private school has seven computers. Kindergartners aren't too young to get into cyberspace. In fact, they're often the most voracious learners, Swanson said.
She starts them off with typing skills, and they're tested once a month thereafter. Then it's the basics of the keyboard, and they launch right into surfing the Internet and programming a disk.
The software is all designed around basic educational concepts. And they make the classes fun--in Math Blaster, students zap trash out of the atmosphere; in Roxie's Math Fish, they play a version of Go Fish to memorize numbers.
Many schools, public and private, are reporting some success with using educational software to help kids grasp basic subjects. Swanson said parents are encouraged to continue the computer education at home, and she issues lists of recommended software, which is sold at discounted rates.
For parents looking for software without the benefit of a class and recommendations, there are many choices.
In the field of educational software, a $500-million industry, hundreds of companies nationwide offer as many as 9,000 titles at prices ranging from $30 to $40 apiece.
Any parent who decides to wade through the selections should begin by asking himself or herself these questions:
Do I want to cover a grade level (a hot area with many choices from reputable companies), introduce new subjects, teach concepts or reinforce math and phonics with skill and drill?
Does my child prefer a competitive game style of learning, a whimsical approach or a classroom style?
Does my child's comfort level increase with familiar characters such as Elmo and Madeline (Creative Wonders), Arthur and Dr. Seuss (Broderbund), Winnie the Pooh (Disney) or the Magic School Bus (Microsoft)?
At Babbage's Software in Thousand Oaks, four shelves are stacked with brightly packaged educational sofware. The shop's assistant manager, Nik Landauer suggests parents stick with software that comes from established companies rather than going for a glitzy new product.
"The best thing a parent could do is go with a good name: Broderbund or the Learning Company," Landauer said. "They make the best educational sofware--period. Stick with the name brands."
That approach worked well for Heidi Sheldon of Irvine.
Sheldon knew her 4-year-old, Siena, was bright, but she couldn't seem to teach her the concepts of addition and subtraction.
Then she bought Peter Rabbit's Math Garden by Mindscape ($35). And what she couldn't explain, Mrs. Tittlemouse could. The friendly, furry Beatrix Potter character had five creepy crawlers in her house, swept away two and asked Siena how many were left.
Suddenly, Siena smiled as she clicked on the 3.
"I saw a light bulb go on when she used this program," Sheldon said. "And all I had to do was just sit there and say, 'This is great.' "
It's the scenario parents dream about when purchasing educational software for children. But Sheldon points out that she had wasted a lot of money on programs that bored her daughter before she bought Peter Rabbit from Bright-Ideas, a Massachusetts-based company that helps parents match programs to a child's learning style.
Parents can avoid that by doing a bit of research. Some parents check to see what their child's school is using and buy the same or choose supplemental programs.
Also, it's a good idea to see what's available free. Kidsoft puts out demos of more than 100 educational games on its Web site (http://www.kidsoft.com). Newsweek's Parent's Guide to Children's Software site is http://www.newsweekparentsguide.com.
Computer stores usually have samplers that children can test-drive. Software companies often have Web sites that describe their products.
If it still seems too much, BrightIdeas ( 4BIDEAS or http://www.brightideas.com) might help. The company works as a personal shopper, whittling down the choices to a list of about 125. They evaluate a child's learning style--linguistic, mathematical-logical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical--and match a program to it.
Julie Evans, BrightIdeas' Mission Viejo-based national director of sales, understands the difficulties parents have with picking software. She began consulting for the company three years ago when she was trying to figure out what software to buy for her own children, now 5, 9 and 11.
"We consider our niche to be helping parents make the best decisions for their children's software," Evans said. "We make it easy for people."