Home Help 8: Software To Help With Homework - Colour and sound to seduce the most reluctant young souls

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The Independent Culture
WITH CORE subjects exerting a big squeeze on the curriculum, art and music are something of an endangered species on the average school timetable. While there is no substitute for splashing about real paint or scratching out "Little Brown Jug" on a violin, computers can pick up some of the creative slack by offering different ways for children to express themselves - and hone their IT skills at the same time.

The beauty of art software, for instance, is that it allows small children to make pictures before they can even grasp a pencil. Take Pip's Picture Maker (Ten out of Ten, 3-12 years, pounds 4.99), a daft but satisfying mix of sticker art and paint package, with various themed backgrounds and hundreds of apt or wholly inappropriate "stickers" with which to populate and embellish them. Zach, aged three, used the Wild West disc, creating his own idiosyncratic version of life on the Western frontier, complete with campfire, cowboy and kangaroo. Also available in farm, park, seaside, pirate, haunted house and space versions.

If you prefer something more focused, Print Artist Junior (Sierra, 5- 12 years, pounds 14.99) has a multitude of different art projects, including paper aeroplanes, banners, cards, mobiles, masks, and puppets; modify the ready-made templates, or make your own. It's easy to use and great for those kids stuck on what to make Granny for Christmas, but as with most art packages, you really do need a colour printer to get your results down on paper.

Of the paint programs on the market, Art Attack (Europress, 4-14 years, pounds 29.99) has more appeal than many. Based on the popular children's programme, it has plenty of whizzy features to let kids make pictures and cartoons. Much beloved by all my boys, who recite "Hello and welcome to Art Attack" in a perfect imitation of the presenter Neil Buchanan's characteristic drawl. "I know everything about it," says Flan, aged six, its biggest fan. "It's much better than paper because you have all the colours in the world, like turquoise and purple and red."

But it seems that Disney can still work greater magic, because we all fell instantly under the spell of Magic Artist (all ages, pounds 29.99). It is packed with exceptionally diverting features; you can produce professional- looking pictures in seconds or just doodle away to your heart's content, accompanied by a host of sploshing and splurging sound effects. Choose from cartoon-style backgrounds and Disney characters, or go free style with features that let you spray the screen with ladybirds or splatter stars across a starry night. The family favourite was the incredibly realistic smudge feature, which lets you blend colours just as if they were real paint.

Top marks for entertainment, however, must go Orly's Draw-a-Story (Broderbund, 5-10 years, pounds 29.99), a paint program with a difference. It is instructed by an irrepressible Jamaican girl, Orly, and her Caribbean amphibian frog friend, Lancelot ("gribbit, man"), and the characters you draw come to life as the various stories unfold. It's guaranteed to rouse even the most reluctant artist.

Music is perhaps not so digitally accessible, but I was most taken with Musicolour (Europress, 5 years and over, pounds 29.99), which is remarkable, since I am about as musical as Des O'Connor. The software bridges that gap between serious and fun, making the world of tetrachords and accidentals comprehensible to the most melodically challenged. I particularly enjoyed the free composition option, which is cleverly devised so that whatever near-random sequence of notes I chose sounded wonderful.

Orchestra (Attica, 14 years and over, pounds 39.99) works on a grander scale, guiding you through the players, instruments and conventions of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with Sir Simon Rattle at the helm. You can build your own orchestra, find out about different instruments, and even watch a rendition of Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. There's rather too much of Rattle in various dramatic conductor poses, but along with the audio CD of the Britten piece, it's an entertaining and useful introduction to this cornerstone of classical music.

At the opposite end of the scale, Lemon Dog in Soundlands (Europress, 5-7 years, pounds 19.99) offers a light-hearted musical game to help Lemon Dog find and release the members of his band. Appealing, with wonderful graphics, but little in terms of serious musical instruction, it will keep the kids happy over the holidays - but don't expect them to turn into musical prodigies. "It's really cool cracking the musical codes," said eight-year-old Joshua, after two hours of foot-tapping play.

The winner in the light entertainment category, however, is Wannabe a Pop Star (Attica, 8-16 years, pounds 14.99). You can fulfil every teenage fantasy by hiring a band, mixing and recording your song, and then playing a live concert to a hysterically appreciative audience in a bid to get to number one. This is a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek ego trip with some realistic features; you can even print out your song. I probably shouldn't admit that I haven't enjoyed myself so much in a long time, although, sadly, my song wasn't a smash hit. Don't give up the day job, was the peremptory verdict.

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