Computers: Teaching children to teach themselves: The latest generation of 'edutainment' programs can keep children as engrossed as their favourite shoot 'em up. Janet Swift looks at indoor attractions for half-term

The February half-term makes parents shiver. How will they survive a week when it is too wet, windy and chilly for children to be persuaded to let off steam outdoors?

In a spirit of selfless research, I asked my two boys, Sam, 10, and Tom, eight, along with a younger friend, Nicky, almost four, to test out some 'edutainment' software. I was impressed at just how long their interest was sustained.

Sam and Tom have seen plenty of computer software before but were used to them being assigned to the two categories of games, equated with fun, and 'educational', equated with practice of sums or spellings and seen as a chore. I asked them to play Mario is Missing without showing them the box - which has a prominent banner with the message: 'This game has been designed to help young people achieve key targets within stages of the National Curriculum.'

So they approached it like a game and played it with a dedication usually reserved for their favourite shoot 'em ups. Better still as they continued to play, it produced two unusual effects. Instead of squabbling over the computer, they showed a remarkable degree of co- operation, discussing what to do and reading out the information screens together.

The other surprise was that they did absorb the information and later recognised locations 'explored' in the program. 'That's Red Square, I've just left there,' must seem like an odd comment to make about the Nine O-Clock News to anybody who is not familiar with Mario is Missing, so I will explain.

Although the final objective of Mario is Missing is to rescue Mario, it is the intermediate steps that are the real stuff of the program. These involve being transported to a number of foreign cities where Luigi, Mario's brother, has to recover a wide variety of stolen artefacts - all real world treasures - and return them to their proper locations.

The player has to use a street map, ask questions of passers-by and, most important of all, demonstrate appropriate knowledge about the sites associated with the objects that can be acquired by reading the screens of information. I have to admit that given this description, I was pretty sceptical that this was going to be any different from all the other 'learning' software we had tried out. But days later when Sam asked for the add-on disk to enable him to visit more cities convinced me this was special. It may be the mixture of exploration and deduction or the exotic locations - Peking, Moscow, Venice. The quality of the graphics, animation and background music also contribute to the overall fascination. The companion program, Mario's Time Machine, takes a similar approach to history. In this scenario Luigi has to return objects to famous people in history while learning about their lives and times.

'It will be so much easier when they can read for themselves,' is a constant refrain when keeping young children occupied. Well, the advent of multimedia programs has changed all that. The computer can now read to your children, while doing a really good job of showing them the words being read, repeating phrases on request and linking words to objects. The phase of having an endless appetite for the same story is one all children go through and a program like Slater and Charlie Go Camping, from Sierra, is excellent at just that stage.

Four-year old Nicky was happy to go through the story over and over, in the same way as she would ask for a book to be repeated. The difference was that she was content to do it on her own. Much of its appeal lies in its hidden animations. Children soon discover that when you click on a character or object it comes to life in sometimes unexpected ways. This program requires a sound card - otherwise you only hear background music and not the words - and a sense of humour to appreciate the animations, which delighted all three children.

Scops have brought out a series of programs for PC-compatibles that produce convincing speech through the internal speaker and so avoid the extra cost of a sound card. Ozzie's Creativity Centre and Mind Games are aimed at five to 10-year- olds while Wordland is for four to sevens. These programs aim to develop skills - thinking and memory in the case of the first two and reading in the other - while providing fun. Our testers found something to enjoy in each of them.

Although Creativity Centre and Mind Games are well crafted programs, I thought they lacked the sophistication that Sam and Tom were used to from games software aimed at an older audience. In the event they played for hours with mazes, jumbled picture puzzles and memory games.

Scops have also brought out Upside Town, an adventure for under- 8s which shares many of the same elements - though you need a sound card - and it needs no reading or keyboard skills. Everything can be done by listening to Peter, the main character, and pointing with the mouse. The software is also trying to counter the all-pervasive transatlantic influence on children by providing them with software that uses 'Queen's English'.

Adventures in Fairyland is the pinnacle of this achievement. It is available both on CD-rom - which means you can ask it to repeat a word by selecting it on the screen - and on disk, but a sound card is essential. It presents five traditional tales with colouring and puzzle games and again the computer kept our four-year old's attention for longer than traditional media.

Mario is also successful at entertaining while educating younger children. The learning activities included in Mario's Playschool and Mario Teaches Sums involve recognising shapes, colours and numbers, all of which parents traditionally do with their children.

These programs provide an environment that is patient and encouraging. The child is always rewarded for being right and never blamed for being wrong. It was no surprise that these programs provided hours of fun for Nicky - and hours of peace and quiet for her Mum.

PC EDUTAINMENT SOFTWARE

Mario is Missing; Mario's Time Machine; Mario's Playschool; Mario Teaches Sums: all at pounds 39.99 (including VAT); Mindscape International, Priority House, Charles Avenue, Maltings Park, Burgess Hill, West Sussex, RH15 9PQ; 0444 246333.

Slater and Charlie Go Camping: pounds 34.99; Sierra, 4 Brewery Court, The Old Brewery, Theale, Reading RG7 5AJ; 0734 303171.

Adventures in Fairyland: CD-rom, pounds 39.99; disk, pounds 34.95; Upside Town: pounds 34.95; Rainbow Rascal: pounds 24.95; Ozzie's Creativity Centre: pounds 29.95; Reading Adventures in Wordland: pounds 24.95; Mind Games: pounds 24.95; Scops Software, Unit 2, Abbey Business Park, Monks Walk, Farnham, Surrey, GU9 8HT; 0252 722223.

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