Education: Home Help - Click on Pingu and watch your children learn

In the first of a series about educational software for the home, Emma Haughton looks at what is available for pre-school children
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The Independent Online
WHILE TV and video games are only grudgingly given house space by parents, and "serious" books sit unread on children's bookshelves, computers are in a unique position of pleasing everyone. So much of today's software comes with glowing educational credentials, and yet, magically, has a magnetic appeal for children. And, as many software publishers have recognised, it's never too early to get them on board; hence a growing range of titles for the early years.

Without doubt, today's multimedia software is compelling stuff, even at this level. The sophisticated graphics and animation grab tiny tots' attention, while the accompanying sound gets around the need to read. In theory, this means you can abandon your toddler in front of the screen with an easy conscience; in practice, although they'll probably navigate themselves around quite happily, they'll get more out of any CD-ROM with an adult at hand.

The drawback is that early years' software tends to move at their pace, not yours; for even the most patient parent, it can be maddeningly slow.

Nursery School (Europress, 2-5, three CD-ROMs, pounds 19.99 each) falls victim to this. The introductory sequence, from which there appears to be no escape, takes several minutes - fine for very young kids or the first time around, but enough to reduce you to tears on repeat visits. Nor can you bypass the game explanations, entailing an irritating wait for more experienced or able children. "I wish it would go quicker," said Flan, five, although Zach, three, was more content to sit them out. That said, there is plenty to enjoy in areas like number, shape, colour, nursery rhymes and much more, and the "sticky" mouse facility means that younger children don't have to click as well as point to objects - a skill it can take some time to master.

The Fisher Price titles (Davidson, 11/2-6, two discs, pounds 19.99 each) are faster-paced, covering core skills like letters and counting in some refreshing ways. Play Family has much to amuse adults as well as children - particularly the barking alphabet - although the characters look a bit gruesome. Toyland was a great hit with Zach: "I can do them!" he shrieked excitedly as he showed off his prowess in the animated workshop, where the realism of the drill, screw and hammer had me wrestling for the mouse.

Flan was particularly taken with Bananas in Pyjamas (Dorling Kindersley, ages 2-6, pounds 19.99). With its catchy theme tune and stunning graphics it has plenty to offer kids of all ages, although the emphasis is more on fun than learning. With only four games, it won't keep them busy for long, but the "cleaning up the beach" activity is curiously addictive and stands much repetition.

Whatever you feel about Teletubbies and all the spin-offs, the CD-ROM (BBC, 2+ years, pounds 24.99) is impressive. As zany and innovative as the TV series, you must explore this virtual Teletubbyland by trial and error.

"Many of the lessons are not recognisable or quantifiable because very young children don't always learn in ways that adults understand or recognise," says the explanatory blurb. Too true, but without the usual "menu", tracking down the activities and 11 video sequences using just a sparkling pink cursor is initially a confusing and rather frustrating experience. However, once children get the hang of it - and they quickly do - they can create their own Tubby episode. "It's just like the telly," said Zach, "but more good." Not for those obsessed with learning outcomes, but great for fans of these overblown children's favourites, and as avant-garde as it gets.

The less adventurous are on safer ground with Pingu (BBC, 3-6 years pounds 24.99), a straightforward but super selection of games and puzzles. Kids can make Pingu dance and flip on his head to a foot-tapping beat, record their own tunes on the keyboard, or engage in some traditional letter, number or colour work. Noddy (BBC, 3-6 years, pounds 29.99) is slightly more sophisticated but the activities, like listening to an interactive story, driving Noddy's car around Toytown, or creating your own Noddy cartoon, are no less engaging. Another TV spin-off, Tots TV (Sherston, 3-6 years, pounds 14.95), concentrates on letter shapes and sounds, but has the advantage of some basic French.

With educational software proving such a lucrative market, publishers are keen to tie parents in from the first tooth with series like Knowledge Adventure's excellent Jump Ahead series (pounds 14.99 each). The early years titles are bright and easy to use, with plenty of jaunty tunes, although the first disc - Jump Ahead Toddlers - which introduces letters and numbers for one-and-a-half to three-year-olds, is perhaps a tad ambitious for all but the most precocious. Jump Ahead PreSchool and Nursery are less inclined to hothouse, and have the flexibility of different ability settings.

You'd think that these three are sufficient for the early years, but Knowledge Adventure, not one to miss a marketing opportunity, has just released Jump Ahead Baby, aimed at nine to 18-month-olds. Parents will have fun picking rusk out of the keyboard.