I am on a mission. A mission to find software that feeds children's cravings to learn, rather than their cravings to be mindlessly entertained. At the end of my first try I didn't find exactly what I was looking for, but I did find a good substitute -- adult intervention.
I tried to take it easy on myself on my first mission; I explored software that should inherently promote creativity -- graphics programs. I gathered three of them: the queen of graphics programs, The Learning Company's $30 Kid Pix Studio Deluxe ( www.kidpix.com; read the review ); Disney's $20 Magic Artist Studio ( www.disney.com; read the review ); and a new contender, Crescent Vision's $25 Discover Painting ( www.crescentvision.com ). I clutched them under my arms -- a bit bulky, but I was on a mission -- and I headed over to the house of my nine year old friend Liv Lopez, one of the most creative people I know. She played with the programs while I watched to see if they brought her imagination to life or put her in a mind-numbing television-like space.
Even a person as creative as Liv (who is working on a novella in which the protagonist is embroiled in controversy for changing the lyrics to "Mary Had a Little Lamb" to " Mary had a big, fat lamb/And it got in big big trouble ") was quickly sucked into the part of the program that's most like habit-forming candy.
She abandoned the drawing tools, such as pen and paintbrush, as soon as she discovered the evil part of the program -- the stamps. Stamps let you choose pre-made graphics and then drop them anywhere you want with just a click, an act that's not very creative. Mickey and Minnie Mouse were having a heyday in her drawings: Mickey in a Hawaiian frock, Mickey in lederhosen, Minnie in a short dress, Minnie in a long dress, Mickey facing left,M ickey facing right, Mickey, Minnie, Mickey, Minnie, and Goofy. I fell into a trance watching her work with the stamps.
The voice of her step-father, director of a children's art program, brought me out of my trance. "We limit our students to two stamps." Good tip. I didn't impose this rule on Liv, but I did redirect her. I asked her to make a Christmas card. That's all it took to make her abandon the ready-made stamps and head back to the drawing board. She used a ready-made background, but it was just a starting point upon which to add her own creations.
That made me think of other ways to guide children with graphics programs. I polled my husband, the art teacher, for ideas, and here's what we came up with:
Limit Ready-Made Options. Limit the number of ready-made images children can use. That way they create art that looks and feels like their own.
Think Big. Children tend to make tiny drawings and then call it finished. Encourage them to blow their object up to super-life-size. For instance, a butterfly wing could take up the entire screen, making the drawing look like a stained glass window or a Georgia O'Keefe painting.
Ask Questions. To get your children to build images in their minds, ask questions about their drawings. This is especially useful if they're stuck. For instance, if there's no background, ask where their subjects are -- underground, in a park, or on a rooftop.
Tell a Story. For small children, younger than seven years old, hearing a fantastic tale can help them generate images. For older children, give them a beginning of a story and have them complete it by illustrating it.
Even more important than the program you choose is how you interact with your children when they're on the computer. A little encouragement and guidance will go a long way in helping your charges use software as a way to expand their creativity rather than limit themselves.
Kid Pix Studio Deluxe:
Magic Artist Studio: Excellent
Discover Painting: Good
Liv never met a children's program she didn't like, including these three graphics programs. On a rating scale of Excellent, Good, Different, and Weird, all three scored above Different. Her clear favorite was Broderbund's Kid Pix Studio Deluxe ($30), which not only lets you draw, but also lets you make movies and watch bizarre film clips. This program has it all. While I too was entranced by all the features of this heavyweight, I'm concerned that it'll be used more like a babysitter, rather than a tool that taps into creativity.
Wacky TV, a feature of Kid Pix Studio Deluxe, will draw you in and not let you go for a long time. It has folders and folders full of entertaining film clips and animations. It's hard to quit without looking at every single one of them.
Second on her list was Magic Artist Studio, which Liv liked because it was lousy with images of Disney characters. I also liked this program, despite my fear that Disney, Microsoft, and Martha Stewart will eventually take over the world. I won't budge from my stand that the stamps are evil, but this program is oozing with creativity. Disney didn't rest on Mickey's laurels -- the tools squeak, rattle, and jingle as you roll your mouse over them. And it has fun extras such as animated characters that you can add to any drawing.
Magic Artist Studio has the most lively interface of all three graphics programs Liv reviewed.
Last -- but not Different or Weird -- was Crescent Vision's Discover Painting. It might have received Liv's title of Excellent if it had had Mickey or Minnie, but even from my point of view this program didn't quite stack up to the other two. It has some of the same drawing tools that the other programs do, but fewer tools overall, and it has some minor glitches that make it feel less polished. For instance, you can't draw at the very top of a drawing because clicking on the top of the screen makes menu items appear over the drawing area. The program limits your options unnecessarily: you can't import your own images (like digital photos), and you can't make animations.
By giving Liv the slightest bit of direction, she made original art rather than the cookie-cutter variety. She made this card in Crescent Vision's Discover Painting.
In one area, though, less is more. This program has fewer ready-made images. That's not a drawback if you want your child to dominate the drawing, rather than a Disney cartoonist. Discover Painting is the least like a video game of the three programs.Macworld Senior Editor NANCY PETERSON ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) covers children's software with some self-interest -- she's a mom herself.