Whether it's trikes or technology, some experiences lend themselves better to socialization than others. When it comes to the computer, however, most people see it as a solo activity. I say, it's all in the way you structure the setting.
One key is to find computer activities with defined roles for each participant. Another is to expand your mindset about how computers can be used.
SOFTWARE FOR SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT
Here are four software programs that encourage children to work with a partner or to join a small group of peers for fun and learning.
Stuart Little: His Adventures in Numberland
Formerly called Piggy in Numberland, this outstanding early math and logic program now features the familiar mouse, Stuart Little. The action starts in Numberland, a whimsical 3D environment with 11 clever math puzzles. Some of the games are excellent for two or more players because they give each child a task. For example, in Dinoroo's Bridge Game, two players take turns as they move through a number line adventure. Other games include dotto-dot puzzles and Bee's Toy Store, where children help a shopkeeper count items by ones or twos. All in all, there are plenty of opportunities for playful experimentation with quantitative concepts. Supermentor.com, 800-474-4423; www.supermentor.com; Windows; $29.95. Ages 4-7.
My Little CD Tots
This innovative simulation takes doll play to a new level. How? By giving children the chance to feed, dress, walk, wash, and play with one of four onscreen babies. The babies are realistic in their movements and sounds, and they let their caregivers know what they want via little thought bubbles. For example, as children feed their babies, the infants show their preferences for bananas, peas, or carrots through pictures of the foods (which is great for non-readers). The program is easy to use, and it gives children a chance to practice their caregiving skills, which can transfer nicely to the pretend-play area of your classroom. The CD comes packaged with a soft-bodied doll, which is useful for extending the play away from the computer. Apptastic Software Inc. (Graco), 888-438-8808 (purchasing information); www.apptastc-games.com; Windows; $29.99 (suggested). Ages 3-6.
Freddi Fish 5: The Case of the Creature of Coral Cove
This outstanding new Freddi Fish scavenger hunt adventure offers an ideal problem-solving opportunity for small groups. Make sure everyone starts together, and encourage children to take turns deciding where to go next. Freddi needs all the help she can get! Children explore screen after screen of colorful underwater scenes to help solve a sea monster mystery! There are ample chances to practice visual-memory and creative-thinking skills. Humongous Entertainment, 800-499-8386; www.humongous.com; Windows/Mac; $19.99. Ages 3-8.
Reader Rabbit Preschool Sparkle Star Rescue!
Five friendly, multi-level activities are perfect for presenting a variety of early reading and math skills. Kids can take turns playing the games, which teach counting, letters, shapes, and more. The program tracks progress (for up to 99 children) and gradually increases the challenge, making this an excellent all-purpose starter program. A handy map makes it easy to jump directly to a specific game, plus there is a practice mode, which keeps the game from advancing automatically to the next levels. This program has it alla theme that works, engaging activities, theatrical quality music and animation, plus personalization options. The Learning Company, 800-395-0277; www.learningco.com; Windows/Mac; $19.99. Ages 3-5.Rm
TECH TOYS: Walkie-Talkies
Just hand a child a walkie-talkie and even the most trivial utterance like "my nose itches" becomes interesting. And they certainly facilitate socialization. There are a variety of units available, but be especially wary of the lowerend models. For example, the Jurassic Park III Walkie-Talkies ($20, Tiger Electronics, www.tigertoys.com) were only able to give us scratchy signals up to 30 feet-far less than the advertised 100 feet. The battery ran down, too, when my younger daughter fell asleep with her walkie-talkie still on. Slightly better is the Tech Link Long-Range Hands Free WalkieTalkie ($30/set, DSI Toys, Inc., www.dsitoys.com) with a special headset enabling skaters or bike riders to talk and ride at the same time. DSI also makes a watch-style walkie-talkie called the Micro Link for around $30. But, like the $19 models, you can't wander far without losing the signal. By far the best performer was the Motorola Talkabout T6200 ($75/set, www.motorola.com) which gave us clear reception from as far as several blocks down the street. This might be especially useful when children in your outdoor play space want to communicate with friends indoors!