The best computer programs for preschoolers who can't read must feature bright and entertaining graphics, clear sound, and simple instructions. If your pre-reader has any chance of using them on her own, software programs should require no reading or minimal reading. Instructions should be rendered graphically or through spoken words that your child will be able to understand easily. The graphics and sound should not be just incidental, related only to non-essential parts of the program. Rather, they should be integrated into the activities to enhance the content and make it more engaging.
A good preschooler's program must also be "user friendly," requiring just the mouse or at most one or two keystrokes for your child to execute commands. Activities should be easy to get into and just as easy to get out of. Most good children's programs use a "menu" format. The program begins by presenting a list—or even better, a set of pictures (icons)—that allows your child to choose among a variety of activities. A click of the mouse on the appropriate icon begins the activity. Similarly, when your child wants to quit—or switch to another activity in the same software package—she should be able to do so with little more than a click or two of the mouse. Otherwise, your child may end up feeling trapped in a particular activity.
The best computer programs for preschoolers also provide nothing but positive feedback. Try to avoid programs that display sad faces or toss off "humorous insults" when your child gets something wrong. These messages discourage your child and may even eat away at her self-esteem. The best programs respond to your child's errors by providing more clues that point to the right answer and saying, "Try again!" Good programs for preschoolers also ward off frustration by limiting the number of tries your child can make before the program itself supplies the right answer—and hopefully an age-appropriate explanation of why it's the right answer.
Most of all, software for preschoolers should be fun. Play is, after all, still your child's primary means of learning. And your child won't get anything out of a children's computer program if she doesn't enjoy using it.
Computer software enters and leaves the market quickly. Yet the best children's programs have staying power. So chances are, none of the following programs will be obsolete by the time you read this. Any list of the best programs for preschoolers includes:
For young preschoolers (and toddlers):
- Alphabet Blocks (letter skills)
- My Paint (art skills)
- SnapDragon (sorting skills)
For all preschoolers:
- Allie's Playhouse (multiple skills): available only on CD-ROM
- The Backyard (multiple skills)
- Bailey's Book House (reading skills)
- Math Rabbit (math skills)
- Millie's Math House (math skills)
- The Playroom (multiple skills)
- Word Tales (letter and reading skills): available only on CD-ROM
For advanced preschoolers:
- KidPix 2 (creative art skills)
- MetroGnomes' Music (music skills)
- Scooter's Magic Castle (multiple skills)
- Yearn 2 Learn: Peanuts (multiple skills)
Many computer magazines now print regular reviews of software for children. These reviews can steer you toward the latest, greatest children's software packages.
Of course, new and exciting programs for preschoolers are introduced every month. So ask your software dealer, other parents of preschoolers, and your preschool teacher for their recommendations.
No matter how good the software, remember that your computer is just one way—and not the only way—for your preschooler to learn numbers, the alphabet, and other skills. You can help your child get the most out of the computer by following up on concepts learned through software during the rest of your day together.
Letting your child move his own piece in a board game will give him practice in counting out spaces. Or prompt your child to use his peas, macaroni, or other foods on his plate to practice addition or subtraction. You can help in letter recognition by pointing out various letters and sounds when you read to your child. The computer should complement or reinforce the concepts and skills learned through these day-to-day interactions. But nothing should take their place.