Now that baby is old enough to grab, and hold on to, the mouse, it might be time to invest in some learning software for your Macintosh. Here's a guide to some new Mac software and accessories made just for the tykes, straight from Macworld's own child at heart, Brett Larson.
Miss Spider's Tea Party
The point of this game: to gather the friends of Miss Spider for her Tea Party, to which the player is also invited. There are about a dozen creatures (including ants, butterflies, bees, and caterpillars) that need to be invited, and each one has to accomplish a task--with the help of the player--before they can go. The tasks include matching shapes and patterns (flowers, butterflies, bugs), finding the way through a maze, travelling across a pond (similar to playing a game of Frogger), making your way safely down a hill as a caterpillar, identifying shapes, colors and animals, and more. There are 3 levels to the game; however, the only difference between the three is the speed at which each is played and the difficulty. Of all the children's software I tried this fall, I enjoyed this one the most.
Good news for parents and kids alike: Miss Spider's Tea Party is forgiving for those kids who don't get it right the first time. (Your fearless correspondent did get a few items wrong intentionally just to see what would happen, though Miss Spider's moth maze was very challenging even for a 24-year-old.) Unlike some other children's software that greets mistakes with awful sounding buzzers, Miss Spider tells you "not to worry" and encourages you to try again. ($23; Simon & Schuster Interactive; 212/698-7000; Ages 3-7)Sesame Street Baby & Me
Familiar Sesame Street faces welcome your child, as they learn through pointing and clicking, as well as using the keyboard. Learning the seasons is easy: rake in the fall (using your mouse to click and drag over the leaves) and shovel snow in the winter. This CD-ROM also offers coloring books that require a simple point, click and drag over the picture to make colors appear. There's the "follow me" game, where Zoe and Ernie imitate each other's moves, and encourage you to do the same. There is also the Musical room, where clicking on objects to color them, also brings them to their musical life.
I encourage you to sit with your child while playing the program's games, as most of them require the use of both the mouse and keyboard--one by you, the other by your child. ($30; Creative Wonders ( The Learning Company ); 510/792-2101; Ages 1-3)Disney's Activity Center: Toy Story 2 CD-ROM
Definitely software for older kids, but a great CD-ROM that also comes with a Woody key chain. The games use scenes from "Toy Story 2" (ones that won't ruin the movie for kids who haven't yet seen it), and make them interactive. You can cross the street safely under traffic cones, fight evil Emperor Zurg, play a board game, and solve a puzzle. The games are all very fun, and have various levels of difficulty, but they don't really teach anything on the way.
The CD also features Woody's Printing Press, which allows kids to print greeting cards, postcards and a poster that all feature stars from the movie, and stickers featuring Sheriff Woody and Buzz Lightyear.
Finally, there's my personal favorite feature: Create a Comic Book. Here players can create comic books on the screen that feature their favorite "Toy Story 2" characters, various backgrounds, special effects, and props, not to mention what they want the characters to say. When finished, you can print your self-made creation to share with friends or hang on the refrigerator. ($30; Disney Interactive; 800/900-9234; Ages 4-8)Reader Rabbit Playtime for Baby
This software is definitely for the younger children. The games help to learn colors, animal sounds, shapes, moods and more using the mouse to roll and click on bubbles that pop splattering colorful paint, animals that make noise, shapes that need to be matched the same hole to fall down a slide, and instruments that play music. You also get a CD of the children's music used in the software. You can add the name of your baby, a photo, and even your baby's voice, which will all be added to "My Storybook", making the book personalized for your baby. No computer skills are required to use this software. ($30; The Learning Company; 510/792-2101; Ages 9-24 months)Uncle Albert's Magical Album
Similar to "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego," Uncle Albert's Magical Album is an educational treasure hunt. The goal is to free Tom, the friendly animal left in the magical album, by finding the hidden treasure. The game has you searching through the pages of the album for clues and stories that will help you along the way. You will also encounter living, intelligent animals during their journey--creatures that behave as they would in real life. ($30; Vtech; 714/734-4800; Ages 9 and up)Thinkin' Things All Around FrippleTown
One of our Macworld Eddy Award nominees, this is another program that teaches shapes, colors and numbers with interactive games such as Fripple Cookie shop. In that one, kids are asked to make cookies using different cut-out shapes, decorations and candy, all in order to make the cookie to a customer's demanding specifications. Unlike many of the programs I've mentioned so far, All Around FrippleTown doesn't require a lot of adult supervison. I'm not suggesting you should park your child in front of this game for a few hours, but you certainly wouldn't need to guide them through every step of the process. ($26; Edmark; 206/566-8825; Ages 4-8)MindTwister Math
This game is ideal for kids who want to excel in math, but not necessarily for kids who need to first learn the concepts of mathematics. MindTwister Math offers a series of games using addition, subtraction, and--for kids who are good at it--multiplication and division. The game is narrated by a boy and girl, whose comments are rather silly and unnecessary, and the game is not forgiving to kids who get the wrong answers--in fact, it's rather condescending.
The CD-ROM is also an audio CD, featuring the high intensity "Who Wants to be a Millionaire"-esque music played during the game. Talk about a way to wake kids out of their deep and happy slumbers! ($30; Edmark; 206/566-8825; Ages 8-10)Midnight Play
This game brings to life the characters of Kveta Pacovská, an award winning children's book illustrator. Users click on characters, like clowns and animals, as they drop into the scene, and they become animated: playing music with their instruments (which also fall with them), and moving around. The music can be a little annoying, as it doesn't seem to play a recognizable tune.
Midnight Play also doesn't seem to have any educational component, unless your kid wants to be a Hollywood producer. In which case, shopping for CD-ROMs is the least of your problems. ($28; Simon and Schuster Interactive; 212-698-7000; Age 6 and Up)Pokémon Mouse Pads
Now that you've seen the movie, and have a house littered with Pokémon trading cards, shouldn't you get your kid a Pokémon Mouse Pad or CD wallet? Computer Expressions has a line of four--collect 'em all--mouse pads for the Pokémon lover in your life, one featuring a broad cast of characters, and others that highlight Pikachu, Squirtle and Mewtwo. And don't worry, no surfing on eBay for this one--they're on sale now across the country. ($12.50; Computer Expressions; 800/443-8278)JamCam Digital Camera
This low-cost digital camera is definitely for kids. The camera downloads images to the computer using a USB connection, and produces images of low quality (640 x 480, but some images may appear blurry). It comes with Windows software, so you'll need to get an image editing program such as Adobe PhotoDeluxe or Photoshop LE to edit your photos. Setting up the computer to download the pictures may be a bit difficult, but once it starts working, getting the images off the camera and onto the desktop is very simple. ($89; KB Gear Interactive; 612/941-1905)Pablo Drawing Tablet
This drawing tablet is an inexpensive alternative to a mouse, and perfect for kids. The 8x6-inch tablet connects to your Mac via USB, and comes with a pressure-sensitive pen, plus a handful of software (Photoshop LE, Adobe PageMill, and WebPainter) that will allow young minds to draw and create their favorite things on the computer. Also available from KB Gear is the $59 SketchBoard Studio, a 7x5-inch tablet. (KB Gear Interactive; $99)