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Let Your Kids Learn Skills On ‘Look-Alike’ Computer

Want to prepare your preschool to preteen offspring for a lifetime of pounding away at a computer?

You could let the little one loose at the keyboard of your $2,000 PC, but what if the child spills a sticky drink into the works or inadvertently destroys your irreplaceable files?

A safer solution, that lets you work in peace while the kids have fun, is an ELA (electronic learning aid), which looks and functions like a computer but can also pass as a toy, thanks to colorful packaging and edutainment software.

Better still, even the most elaborate of the several dozen models introduced at the recent American Toy Fair sell for just a fraction of the cost of the real thing - most under $150.

Trust me. This strategy of warming up little ones on a “look-alike” toy really works. As a kid, I lusted for a cute red-toned toy typewriter with movable keys (advertised with the reassuring phrase “Gee, it really works!”). Hey, I still like tapping out the stories.

The gray-and-turquoise ComQuest Plus kid computer from Team Concepts ($150) mimics the look and functionality of Mom and Dad’s battery-operated laptop portable - from its flip-up lid with LCD display screen to a full-stroke keyboard that has acceptable springback for novice and casual typists.

(Forget the flat membrane keyboards offered in some pee-wee ‘puters, unless your kid’s a total slob and sure to smear peanut butter on it. While easily cleaned, those membrane keyboards aren’t suitable to master touch typing.)

Preloaded with software, the ComQuest Plus lures in a child with word and math games, cute screen graphics and piercing sound effects. A detachable control device looks like a computer mouse but functions like a video game controller, another subtle “aren’t we having fun” hint for young ‘uns.

A word-processing program with spellcheck is built in and will become more useful with a soon-coming $50 accessory package that lets you plug this computer into a parallel printer.

If you want the tech-tots to get the hang of dragging a real mouse around, check out the suitably equipped kid-puters from V-Tech. Its extensive offerings also include a unique voice-recognition feature in the Speak and Listen line and a Smart Keys computer keyboard that teaches word and music skills.

While Apple is now aiming to move its own computer lines upscale, the company is also licensing its technology to toy companies for much less expensive products. Bandai, best known for its action figures, is polishing up a CD-ROM disc-based multimedia game and educational system (code name: Pippin) built around the guts of the Apple Macintosh. Plugging into your TV set, a starter system (with a gamelike controller) is expected later this year for under $500, keyboard optional.

Tiger Electronics Interactive has licensed the technology that ran Apple’s school computer warhorse, the IIe, and is building it into the $150 Tiger Learning Computer, dubbed a “computer for the masses.”

Holding down the cost, this solid-state computer has no disc drive or monitor, but wires to any old TV set. Software will be loaded onto 2 MB cartridges instead of floppy discs, with as many as three titles (from respected brands Scholastic, Optimum and MECC) available on a single cart for $15-$20. A second port lets you save work onto blank RAM cartridges (about $5). This serious computer likewise downloads to printers and takes an optional modem to connect to a text-based service on the Internet and transmit e-mail.

Graphics display capability will be minimal on the TLC, although a Tiger spokesman rationalizes that as an advantage.

“We want kids to be able to get onto the World Book home page but not be able to access material that’s photo-sensitive” (i.e. the Playboy web site).

Tiger’s extensive techtoy line also boasts new talking versions of Speak and Spell (the original ELAs for spelling and math skills developed by Texas Instruments in the 1970s), the laptop-style and likewise talking Video Quest Master Computer with activities that can be played on a TV screen or the built-in LCD screen, and the Playskool My First Computer baby laptop for ages 3 and up.

Merging your grown-up computer’s brain power (486/66MHz or better) and full-color video display to their special software and kiddie keyboards is the approach Fisher Price and Compaq recommend with their new, cooperatively designed Wonder Tools line of computer peripherals and software for ages 3-7.

The Wonder Tools Keyboard ($130) features oversized number and letter buttons, a built-in finger mouse and fun activity software. You’ll want to tether a color printer to this system, since one dedicated button on the kid-board lets users instantly print out a cartoon-bright screen scene.

Cute as a button is the Wonder Tools Cruiser ($150), a driving console plus special CD-ROM software that encourages the wee ones to navigate through software adventures, interact with characters, unscramble alphabet picture puzzles and even invent and assemble toys. And all the while they’re fine-tuning motor, problem-solving and decision-making skills.

Both products should be on store shelves by summer, with extra software packages trailing close behind.

 

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