Someone's in the Kitchen with Blue and Horton's in McElligott's Pool
Dr. Seuss Preschool
When it comes to giving a preschooler a school-like experience, you can buy flashcards at the drugstore and a connect-the-dots coloring book at the supermarket. So why would you spend twenty dollars or more on a piece of computer software that does the same thing? Didn't kids learn how to read and write and use numbers just fine before the microchip came along?
Of course they did, but as technology becomes more central to our lives there's a belief that it needs to be everywhere. I'm neutral but sometimes skeptical about this; my son was born the week after we got our first computer and I've seen him become a digitally literate (sometimes digitally fixated) modern kid who's happy to beat all the problems in a computer game. But I also recall how much fun he had playing with an otherwise useless keyboard long before he knew what school was or could pronounce "floppy disk."
So my point: old curiosities come first, or don't expect a machine to open up the future when the door's already ajar. Such thoughts are relevant to the existence--in a crowded and oversupplied marketplace--of software for preschoolers, even toddlers. Software companies are going to proceed with their "product development" (or "early market-share introduction") anyway, so let's be congenial and see what they're offering for the "ages 2-4/3-6" audience. And since I'm being polite, I might as well admit that some of these games are actually well-made, fun, clever, colorful and . . . worth the purchase.
Debate it if you will--but sit down in front of one of the "Blue's Clues" CD-ROMs, and see what happens once Steve and Blue let you into their brightly colored, goofy little house. For the uninitiated, Steve is the only human figure on the "Blue's Clues" TV show, and Blue is a dog who makes cute noises but never actually speaks. Blue's house is loaded with talking salt-and-pepper shakers, talking felt-picture people, and a talking bar of soap complete with bubbles. Better yet, they just talk--they don't coo, or shout, or otherwise speak in any wacky way; they seem genuine.
This up-front sincerity has made "Blue's Clues" a successful TV series and it also characterizes Blue's Birthday Adventure and Blue's ABC Time Activities, two of the show's spin-off CD-ROMs. In ABCs the player joins Blue in vegetable sorting, bubble popping, maze solving, and a jungle photo safari. These are not just aimless tasks with cute settings; they ask the player to remember letter sounds, and perfect the alphabet sequence, and take note of rhymes. In Birthday Adventure there are comparable options for exploring musical sounds, birthday-cake ingredients, and making birthday cards.
These activities are not much different from what's to be found in other programs, or in old-fashioned coloring books too, but it's the sweet and unhurried spirit in which they're delivered that the Blue's programs excel. They recognize that successful software benefits from an engaging metaphor--a setting, tone, cast of characters ,or general principle. And the soft friendly voices, non-shiny colors, and sweet weirdness of this "place" is completely attractive. If you're still concerned about the Rhodes Scholarship in your kid's future, note that the games allow a parent to adjust the difficulty level.
Another preschool game that benefits from a "rich" metaphor is Dr. Seuss Preschool. The bright and always-rhyming world of Dr. Seuss is the setting here; the basic concept is to help Horton the Elephant visit sites in both the Jungle of Nool and McElligott's Pool. There are four different sites in each of the two destinations, and each of those site activities can be played at three different levels. It made me nervous to see the box advertising "over 250" learning activities, and to read how a parent can track the kid's progress through a built-in spreadsheet. But--though the characters and stories are taken from their original contexts, and though the activities are (again) quite similar to other old standbys, the playful spirit of Dr. Seuss and a sweetly animated and wonderfully accompanied (stereo music!) environment does make the whole thing attractive.
The idea that progress must be made--as opposed to "fun will be had"--is much more overt in Big Thinkers! Kindergarten, which draws not on TV or picture book favorites but a newly concocted pair of siblings, Ben and Becky Brightly. These are genial cartoon characters in a well-stocked house who can mutate and stretch themselves to keep things happening. Their game does offer plenty to do--with all the features of these other games--but it's too artificial, if such a term can apply to any "world" built out of electrons and digital instructions. Well-intentioned as it may be, Big Thinkers! does suggest that sometimes it's a good idea to turn the darn thing off and go outside.
Phil Anderson is a regular reviewer of movies, software, and technology for Minnesota Parent.
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