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The Independent Culture
On the assumption that new media should be evaluated by new people, I recruited Benjo, aged 7, and Ena, his three-year-old sister, to play with an assortment of CD-Roms aimed at younger children. The deal was that they got to keep the ones they liked, while the ulterior parental motive was to improve their command of English - they are from Bosnia - and their computer skills.

This proved chastening for me, since Benjo is not only fluently bilingual, but demonstrated a level of software sophistication very similar to my own. Kid Pix Studio (Broderbund, pounds 29.99) is based on the sort of painting and drawing arrangements familiar to any adult who has used programs such as ClarisWorks or Adobe Photoshop. You can go about it two ways: read the manual, or click on various icons and see what they do. Benjo and I favour the latter strategy, and get pretty much the same results.

Perhaps the children needed time to settle in, but Kid Pix didn't quite get the party going. That happened when we loaded up Math Blaster Junior (ABLAC, pounds 34.99), an ultra-American disk in circus idiom, all hurrahs and slapstick, with an arithmetical subplot. A typical episode involves hitting purple space aliens over the head with a hammer. Whatever the ultimate educational benefits of this disk, it's certainly possible to play with it for a long time without actually doing any sums.

Ena, who is radiantly shy, warmed to The Great Green Mouse Disaster (Macmillan Interactive Publishing, pounds 29.99). The scenario is charmingly disjointed. Green mice, members of an orchestra, have scattered through a hotel. The task is to catch each mouse, then to find its proper musical instrument so that it can play in the band. The rodents are vexed by incorrect choices. If you select the piano for the mouse trombonist, for example, it bangs its head against the keyboard.

This scheme proved to be a happy way of providing entertainment for children of different ages. Although Ena couldn't keep up with the scampering mice, she was able to enjoy choosing the instruments. There's also plenty for adults in this disk: the sophisticated graphic style shows the kind of droll detail that passes over children's heads, but gives grown-ups amusement and fleeting reminders of their own world.

Its real value for parents, however, is the extent to which it allows them to share information with their children; and that goes for the genre as a whole. Reading a storybook to a young child is rarely a linear process. A parent will stop and discuss individual features - "Look, see the piggy? What noise does a pig make? Oink!" The peculiar genius of CD-Rom storybooks is to reinforce this tendency by rigging such features so that they move or make noises when clicked. Benjo and Ena's mother soon started to make use of this facility as the children explored Baba Yaga and the Magic Geese (ABLAC, pounds 34.99).

Benjo and Ena themselves seemed most impressed by the musical broomsticks, which Benjo was moved to imitate. Unlike the adults present, they were untouched by the cultural ironies of a Russian folk-tale, rendered in a garish American idiom, on a CD-Rom from the United States with a credit- list largely composed of Russian names, being viewed by Bosnians in England. As I listened to the naming of things, in both English and the children's mother tongue, it occurred to me that CD-Roms could be magnificent vehicles not only for telling children stories, but for teaching them about the languages in which the tales were originally told.