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Choosing Software for Children

By — Educational Resource Information Center (U.S. Department of Education)
Updated on Jul 26, 2007

The growing number of children who use computers in school or at home has spurred interest in software for children which challenges their abilities and extends their understanding. Teachers and parents are asking what software is "good" and where to find it.

Software Use

A first step in choosing children's software is to consider its purpose. Is it intended to entertain or to teach? To provide art or music experiences? To develop writing skills or programming skills?

A second step is to determine how well the program succeeds in its goals. In any case, the effectiveness of any software will be influenced by the age and experience of the child using it.

Software Characteristics and Program Features

Good quality children's software can often be recognized by the presence of certain characteristics or program features. The questions below suggest what to look for in programs for children.

  • Does the software contribute to children's comprehension of the world around them? Does it both foster and satisfy curiosity?
  • Is the program content appropriate and interesting for children?
  • Does the software require a high degree of interaction from the children, calling for thoughtful responses and providing options which require children to make choices
  • Are clear directions for running the program provided, and does the program consistently respond as expected?
  • If the software is advertised as a program children can run themselves, can they do this easily? If adult help is needed initially, can a child manage alone after some experience with the software?
  • Is the program designed so that it is likely to be used repeatedly, even by the same child, thus justifying the cost?

Well-designed graphics, color and sound, and reinforcement features which are intrinsically related to the program's content also contribute to a program's quality. Children's ability to follow different paths as a result of choices made while operating a program increases their interest and allows a child the satisfaction of directing the program in some measure.

Highly Structured Programs

Some computer programs can be described as more structured than others with respect to the number and variety of responses they allow children to make. Software in which acceptable responses to choices are already pre-programmed requires children to match responses in the computer's memory rather than to create their own. Brief descriptions of some "highly structured" programs are given below.

Computer Games

Computer games are among the most popular software for children. Most of these games are highly structured, although some of the newer ones invite children to make more choices than earlier versions.

Drill and Practice

Drill and practice software gives children practice in doing arithmetic problems or developing prereading skills, reinforcing what children have already learned. One advantage of these programs is that the better ones give immediate feedback or move the child to an easier or more challenging drill according to the child's previous answers.

Good drill and practice programs take advantage of the special capabilities of the computer (animation, chance to try again, choice options, and so on) to enhance content presentation and encourage the child to interact with the computer. On the other hand, it can be argued that drill and practice exercises are widely available in workbooks and that programs which make more imaginative use of the computer's capabilities are preferable.

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