All aboard for a magic bus ride

Review: Colin Hughes finds pleasure - and pain - in Microsoft's educational packages
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It ought to be obvious that the best educational packages for children will exploit the advantages of multimedia over its competition. In other words, they have to be better at whatever it is they are trying to do than books and people are.

So it is hard to explain why Microsoft, the world's biggest player, is inflicting such a canine breakfast as Dogs on the market when it is capable of more enduring packages such as Explorapaedia, The Magic School Bus Explores the Human Body, Fine Artist and Creative Writer.

Explorapaedia has many of the best features of the present generation of teach-and-play software, though nothing outstandingly innovative. Your child boards a spaceship whose window looks down on Earth; at the controls stands a helmeted amphibian called Thaddeus Pole, who vaporises like an alien in the Starship Enterprise transporter room and reappears, at your command, in all kinds of habitats, from the frozen Arctic to baking savannahs.

Click on the animals and plants that appear in the scene and you can trace a subject through pages of notes, pictures, graphics and video that are all read in clear children's voices (English voices, from areas as diverse as Cornwall and Wallsend, so far as I could tell).

My seven- and eight-year-old were fascinated and wanted to return again and again. At first they were drawn in by the faintly "Far Side-ish" execution of the video graphics - little tricks that, for example, enable you to click on the grizzly bear and topple a bee's nest down from the tree on to his head.

But the main thing that hooked them was the exploratory game, in which a bizarre fowl lays an egg in the spaceship. The egg poses five questions, the answers to which must be hunted down before you can return to the spaceship to claim your reward.

In playing the game, the children take in all kinds of interesting biological and geographical information - and some of it probably even sticks in their minds - while they are having fun. My one complaint is that it would have been relatively simple to devise the game so that the questions, instead of inviting the children to make random searches, actually followed a series of connected topics through the software's maze.

However, the Explorapaedia routes are simple to follow, without being simplistic in either aim or content: each page enables your child to click on pictures that offer information at greater depth, without leading them down blind alleys that must then be retraced step by tedious step.

That, as with so many earlier packages, is the first failing of Dogs. After you have succeeded in ignoring the background barking that breaks out every few seconds and accustomed yourself to the foolishness of clicking on buttons resembling crunchy biscuits, you then start to explore a page that offers several possible routes. Having taken one route, you are then offered more, which have - for the most part - no obvious connection with the place you started.

Ah, you think - what I need is a guide through this: perhaps a labrador? Guides there are: immensely irritating characters that prattle soppily and fail to follow any logical route through the resources. Perhaps the reason is that there is simply no rational way of finding out about dogs, because being interested in them at all is wholly irrational - but that is just vulgar prejudice. My daughter adores dogs and looked forward enormously to playing with this package: she was so rapidly underwhelmed, not to say bored, that I would advise anyone with a canine interest to turn their computer off and stroll, dog lead in hand, to the nearest bookshop: 30 quid buys a lot more books than software.

My personal favourite in this bundle of Microsoft releases is The Magic School Bus Explores the Human Body. This is part of a Magic School Bus series in which you take a class field trip, in this case into the body of a child. At the wheel you can converse with the children and teacher in the back of the bus to find out about the part of the body you are driving through, playing games along the way. It works well mainly because the sound and graphics are sufficiently appealing to encourage your child to keep on exploring.

Fine Artist and Creative Writer form a linked drawing and graphics with word processing and desktop publishing software for children - I would say of later primary age, even up to about 12 or 13. The first provides an extensive drawing and painting package, rich in tools and ideas, and backs them up with a little training course in how to improve your drawing eye. You will not get the best from it unless you have a colour printer - but even without one, children will have plenty of fun creating their own gallery of pictures in a friendly and well-explained environment.

Creative Writer teaches your child basic word-processing skills, as well as offering ideas for stories, triggers for poems, ways of making books out of anything from jokes to recipes, or writing a family news letter. Both packages provide a colourful and amusing way for children to find their way around, with easy-to-use assistance devices, and will work as well in the classroom as at home.

Windows and Mac: Dogs, Fine Artist, Creative Writer.

Windows only: Explorapaedia, The Magic School Bus Explores the Human Body. All pounds 29.99 from Microsoft.