Home Help 3. Maths: Sums to outwit the Pizza troll and other wheezes

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The Independent Online
MATHS IS a subject that's badly in need of a makeover. It's virtually obligatory for kids to hate it, with most greeting long division with about as much gusto as a large dose of castor oil. But we all know it does 'em good, so breakfast around the land resounds with small voices chanting times tables like litanies and practising mental arithmetic over their cornflakes.

Yet assessment tests show that many children are still struggling to meet basic standards, prompting the Government to draft in the numeracy hour like the cavalry. Perhaps it would be better off bringing in more computers, for if anything can bring mathematics out of the doldrums, good software can. Maths, being handily parcelled up into discrete sections, lends itself particularly well to computer games, and a good game is like the sugar that helps the medicine go down - children get so caught up in the action that they hardly notice the sums.

There are countless titles on the market, particularly for primary level. Beginners might start with Treasure Maths Storm (Learning Company, 5-9, pounds 19.99) which wraps up time, money and other problems in a simple Alpine fantasy land, catching elves and earning rewards as you move up the levels. In the more sophisticated sister title, Outnumbered (7-10, pounds 19.99), kids must attempt to rid the Shady Glen TV station of the dastardly Master of Mischief by solving more complex sums.

The glitzy Maths Quest with Aladdin (Disney, 6-9, pounds 29.99) offers another order of graphics altogether. Flan, six, was impressed with how closely the sophisticated animation mirrors the film, and enjoyed the fairy-tale adventure overseen by Robin Williams's fast-talking blue genie. It provides plenty of impetus to problem-solving, and covers a fair bit of ground to boot.

Maths games for older children generally feature more complicated plots and more challenging maths problems. Carmen Sandiego, Maths Detective (Broderbund, 8-14, pounds 29.99) signs kids up as special agents to save the world's famous landmarks in a tantalising detective adventure with plenty of activities across areas such as mental arithmetic, estimation and logic. "It was really exciting," said Joshua, eight, "I always like the games where you have to explore to complete the mission."

Planet Number (Ablac, 7-14, pounds 29.99), featuring Liverpool John Moores University design credentials and a repetitive drum 'n' bass soundtrack that could dement any sane adult, had rather a difficult environment to navigate, although the maths problems themselves were imaginative.

Joshua was more comfortable with Operation Neptune (Learning Company, 9-14, pounds 19.99), with its eco-warrior theme of saving the world's oceans from rising toxicity by solving maths puzzles with a marine theme.

Full marks for originality, however, go to The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis (Broderbund, 8+, pounds 29.99). Calling on logic and set skills to get a tribe of what look like oversized blueberries home to Zoombiniton, it takes a lot of brain power successfully to outwit the Pizza troll or cross the Allergic cliffs. It's a wry and witty title that is devilishly addictive and fiendishly challenging, even for adults. "Gerroff, Mum," growled Joshua, eight, as I did my best to grab the mouse. "Go away. It's my go now, not yours."

While adventure formats undoubtedly maintain kids' attention, there is always something of a trade-off in terms of the amount of maths they really get down to. For younger children in particular, a simpler approach may reap more learning benefits. Flan particularly enjoyed Maths Blaster (Davidson, 4-6, pounds 14.99) and Mega Maths Blaster (Knowledge Adventure Value, 7-12, pounds 9.99) with their easy-to-locate activities and clear progression of skills and exercises. The asteroid firing-range on the older disc, which rewards results with ammunition, was an instant hit. "I didn't mind doing the sums," said Flan, "cos it gives you more bullets and you can blow things up." It was one of those rare occasions where something they enjoy is actually doing them good.

The more extensive Interactive Maths Journey (Learning Company, 5-9, pounds 39.99) is the numerical partner of some excellent reading software. Unfortunately its sequenced approach, where you must complete each area before moving on to the next, doesn't work so well here - topics such as shape, measurement and fractions don't necessarily follow on from one another. However, it's entertaining and very straightforward for younger children to use.

One of the few titles which actually teaches GCSE mathematics, rather than simply testing on it, GCSE Maths (Aircom, pounds 19.99) compensates in content for what it lacks in whizzy graphics. With clear, concise teaching across the basic syllabus, and mock examinations to make sure it has all sunk in, it's a valuable educational tool for any 14-to-16-year-old.

Dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists with younger children can content themselves with the Europress Genius range (pounds 9.99), 10 titles covering everything from "Adding and Taking Away" (4-6) to much more "Serious Sums" (9-11). Virtually gimmick-free, these nevertheless have some of the clearest explanations and demonstrations of basic number operations, as well as graded tests. They may not be a top request to Santa, but will definitely appeal to parents, with their back-to-basics approach and an acceptable price.