Not all "edutainment" deserves a passing grade

Kids love videogames. Parents want to give their kids an academic leg up. And lo, the ”edutainment” industry was born. While the so-called CD-ROM revolution never panned out for grown-ups, discs that promise to teach under the guise of fun have multiplied like Beanie Babies. Games meant to improve grades now number in the thousands, targeting children as young as 9 months. Typical is Transparent Language’s KidSpeak 10-in-1 Language Learning, which hard-sells to parents by claiming kids ”simply look forward to ‘playing’ with their animated friends every day, while you know they are learning.” But do you? In the end, how much educational value does edutainment provide?

The report card is decidedly mixed. For instance, one study presented to the American Educational Research Association in 1996 showed that jazzy ”interactive storybooks” like Harry and the Haunted House from Broderbund’s much-admired Living Books series promote less reading comprehension in kids than moderately interactive, more fact-oriented CD-ROMs like Discis Books’ Thomas’ Snowsuit. Some edutainment titles may do even less. While the new JumpStart Baby courts the pre-toddler crowd by ”offering important developmental skills,” ”your cat will do just as well” as your 9- to 24-month-old baby on the overly advanced, age-inappropriate exercises, says Warren Buckleitner, editor of The Children’s Software Revue. (A spokesperson for Knowledge Adventure responds that JumpStart Baby ”is lapware intended to be used as a tool for stimulating and enriching the communication and social interaction between the child and parents. This is not designed to replace toys or books.”)

Parents doing their homework on educational CD-ROMs should look for ”a healthy balance” between drill-oriented exercises and playful exploration, says Barbara Willer, public affairs director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. One company to which Willer and other education professionals give straight As is Edmark, whose original software developer and general manager, Donna Stanger, taught school for 20 years, then won a federal grant to research the question ”What could the computer do to help kids gain better critical thinking?” Stanger found that software can ingeniously accommodate the stimuli (experimentation or direction, visual or aural cues) children need to stay interested. The results are frisky titles like Thinkin’ Science Series: Zap!, where users save a rock concert by fixing light, sound, and electrical glitches.

Other helpful resources exist to separate the smart from the silly. Buckleitner’s Revue is a Consumer Reports-style magazine that grades educational software based on child-development standards and extensive kid testing; its website (www. contains 3,485 searchable reviews — an invaluable tool for parents. ”It’s like snake-oil salesmen of the Old West,” Buckleitner cautions. ”Some programs practically claim, ‘This will make your child a genius.”’ Therein lies edutainment’s dirtiest little secret: Kids aren’t the target audience for many of these CD-ROMs. Mom and Dad are.