Summertime, and the living is boooring.
For the first week after school got out, everything was great for the kids around the house sleeping late, goofing around. What's not to like?
By now, though, the kids are seriously bored with summer vacation. Worse, they seem to think we parents are responsible for doing something about it.
One way to handle this perennial problem is to plop the children down in front of the TV set. But given the nature of TV these days, that brings its own set of parental anxieties. Instead, why not put the kids in front of the computer screen, and let them go back to class (without knowing it)?
There are thousands of educational software programs on the market for both Macintosh and Windows PCs. Most cost $25 or less, which is a lot less than one trip to the movies for our families.
A movie is a good comparison, by the way, because the current crop of educational software generally comes on CD-ROM disks, which means they contain much more than mere text on a screen. Most have movies, animation, speeches, music, and games spliced in around the pedagogy.
A fairly good example is the program "Battles of the World," (Compton's New Media), which is an encyclopedia of military history on a disk. The information is primarily in text form, but there are also photos, video clips, and animations that analyze some famous battles including Norman Schwartzkopf's strategy for the Persian Gulf War. The maps and diagrams are too simple for a serious student, but a program like this can provide lots of instructional diversion for a kid, say, who's heading into sixth grade next fall.
As we do every summer, we strongly urge parents to sit their kids down at the computer keyboard and let them learn to type. This is a valuable skill that just about anybody can learn on their own, with good computerized instruction, in the space of one summer vacation.
There are several programs that make it (somewhat) fun to learn; our choice remains the long-time bestseller "Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing." If you want to kill three educational birds with one software stone, a program called "Type to Learn" will teach your kids to type, and then test their typing skill with a series of spelling and geography tests.
How about another form of keyboard instruction? Your computer can get a kid started playing the piano. We've never found a software program that comes close to the level of instruction a friendly human piano teacher can provide. But computerized instruction might be a wise first step for a family that isn't ready to commit yet to buying a piano and signing up for lessons.
The "Piano Discovery System" (from Jump! Music) offers a 49-key (four octave) keyboard that attaches to the computer and plays through the PC's sound card. The accompanying software offers 450 brief lessons that teach how to read music, play simple melodies, and finger the major chords. It even keeps track of practice sessions.
The whole set (with a separate program that turns the keyboard into a player piano), for either Mac or Windows, costs under $200. If it turns out by the end of the summer that your kids aren't motivated, or would really rather be playing a tuba, that's going to look like a smart investment compared to what you might have shelled out to rent or buy a piano.
Be warned, though, that Piano Discovery System and similar keyboards require a so-called "MIDI" connection to hook up to your computer. Most multimedia computers lack this kind of connecting port. Solution: tell your retailer you won't buy the system unless the store provides whatever adapter cable you need to make the connection.
Finally, you could steer your children to the world's largest school, university and library the World Wide Web. If you sign up with an Internet provider (cost: about $40 for the summer) and let your children log on each day, they can reach a universe of instruction. (They'll also develop their Internet-search skill, which is already a requirement for many careers.)
Of course, this isn't foolproof. We recently steered the resident sixth-grader to the 'net, and watched in satisfaction as she spent a full weekend surfing through that rich sea of information.
"Look at how much she's learning!" we thought.
Only later did we learn that our young scholar had spent the whole 10 hours online mooning over the photos on the Leonardo DiCaprio home page.
T.R. Reid is Rocky Mountain bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at email@example.com, or Brit Hume at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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