Software for children

Hayley's software

Here is an incomplete list of Hayley's software:

Imagination Express

[30-Sep-99 I tried Imagination express on W2K, and it seemed fine. Hayley will stress-test it, I hope :-)] Imagination Express is a very good program from Edmark. It consists of a series of CDs, each one corresponding to some topic; we have Ocean and Rainforest.

When the program starts up, you enter your name and are then given the choice of creating a new book, viewing an existing book, or editing an existing book.

When you create a new book, you are given a choice of 18 different backgrounds for your first page. The backgrounds are colorful pictures of scenes in the topic area (ocean, rainforest, etc). The backgrounds have several variants, so really there are more like 60 or 70 different backgrounds.

After picking a background, the background is displayed in the main work area, and a window appears with stickers (small images) to choose from. There are a huge number of stickers, divided into categories. For example, in the ocean CD, there are people, ocean mammals, fish, invertebrates, seabirds, algae, sea grasses, equipment, hazards, artifacts, fantasy, and text. Within each category you see five or ten different stickers, and can scroll through four or five such pages, so there must be thousands of stickers in all.

You can drag stickers onto the background of your picture and move them around (as you move them, they come into the foreground and get bigger or recede into the distance). Another window provides controls to adjust the stickers: make them larger, smaller, move them up or down, or flip them around. You can also animate them and associate sounds with them, but we have never used either of those features.

You can add text to the pictures, and choose where to put the text, how big it should be, choose from a few different fonts and colors, and choose a topic-related background for the text so it is more readable (e.g., a clam-shell in the ocean CD).

The interface is extraordinarily well-designed; Hayley had practically no difficulty with it right from the start.

You can create up to forty pages per book. You can save the books for later editing, or print them in various formats (one image per page, four per page, nine per page, all on one page, or just the current page). One unfortunate mis-feature is that you cannot (as far as I know) choose the printer from within the program, so if you want to print to a PDF printer, you have to make that the default printer before printing. One other unfortunate thing about Imagination Express is that it will only run in 256-color mode, which means rebooting on Windows95 if you usually work in more than 8-bit color (as I would imagine most people do).

I highly recommend the Imagination Express series for children as young as four or five, and it is flexible and sophisticated enough for people of all ages.

Here is an example of a book Hayley made in early 99, when she was five and a half. She dictated the text for each page to me, and I typed it in.

101 Dalmations Animated Storybook

Let's Go Read: An Island Adventure

Hayley hasn't played with this much yet. Seems to work ok in W2K.

Hercules Animated Storybook

Rugrats Activity challenge

Dragon in a Wagon

This is a very nice game that teaches children about transportation: different vehicles, what their parts are called, what kind of terrain they are designed for, and so on.

The interface is well designed; a dragon and a child give explanations and tell the player when they have done something wrong, or give congratulations for success (e.g., "are you sure you aren't in college yet?" :-)

There are a number of games unlike anything I have seen elsewhere; this is a very imaginative program. Unfortunately, it is made by Diamar, which seems to no longer be producing games.

There are a number of subgames, each with nicely scaled levels, so the game is good for children from 4 to 8 at least; younger children also like it, and adults find many parts of it entertaining.

The quiz show

Here are a few of the questions:
  1. Level 1
  2. Level 2
  3. Level 3

The body shop

On level 1, you are shown a sketch of a vehicle on the right, and the pieces that make it up on the left. You drag the pieces into place, and the dragon tells you what the pieces are called. On level 2, you are shown pieces that do not belong as well as those that do, and you have to choose the right ones. On level 3 the vehicles are more complicated.

In a different mode, you can construct your own vehicle from pieces. The vehicle is then animated for you.

The art center

This is a macpaint type drawing program. You can choose a pencil, brush, marker, spray, dropper, text, or stencil of vehicles, animals or people. You can choose different colors in each case. There is an eraser, and an undo button (very nice feature, that). The interface takes a little getting used to, but is pretty well done. For example, you can draw freehand and then fill in closed areas with the dropper, which is relatively sophisticated.

Hayley really loves this drawing program, but was sorely disappointed that she could not save her drawings. Even more unfortunately, printing to Acrobat PDF writer does not work (the image is severely distorted), so if you aren't connected to a printer, you will lose anything you do in this part of the game.

Cross road puzzle

In level 1, you are shown a strip of interlocking jigsaw pieces, with a vehicle above each one. At the bottom of the screen are the pieces; each one is a kind of terrain. You have to drag the appropriate terrains under the vehicles. In level 2, you have to place both the vehicles and the terrains. In level 3, you are given more complicated vehicles.

Path builder

This is an interesting game. You are shown a 5x6 grid. You are given a start point, some features to visit (like a hospital, a school, etc), and an end point. You make a path by dragging pieces from a palette and dropping them onto the squares. You can choose whether to make a path of road, railway tracks, water or dirt path for a horse. When you are done, you turn a key, and a vehicle moves along the path you have made. If you made the path right, and get to the goal after visiting all the features, the dragon congratulates you; otherwise it tells you to try again.

You can also build your own puzzles and have someone else try to make the path. Hayley liked making puzzles for me a lot.

This is a very clever game; I've never seen anything similar.

The Playroom

This was one of Hayley's favorite games when she was about 4; some of the parts are still fun to her (she has just turned 6), but a lot of it she finds too babyish. It only runs in 256 color mode, unfortunately. The interface is fairly friendly, though it does sometimes block user input while animations are happening. This can be frustrating for children.

When you start it you are shown a picture of a playroom; clicking on various things will make little animations appear. A number of the things you can click on lead to other parts of the game.


Shows a clock and a picture of a scene; if you click on the clock, it turns around to that time, a cartoon character says the time, and the scene changes to something appropriate for that time of day. It also shows a digital clock with the same time, and the time in English. This part didn't keep Hayley's attention for long, and she rarely goes back there.

Colour mixing

Shows a funky machine with beakers containing yellow, red and blue liquids; you can mix them and see what the resulting color is. Interested Hayley for a short time.


Five different tunes, to which animated characters dance. This amused Hayley for quite a while.


This was one of Hayley's favorite parts. It shows one of four scenes: a doll house, a farmyard, a fairyland castle, or a street scene. The letters of the alphabet are shown at the top of the screen. When you click on a letter, it shows you a box with the letter in upper and lower case, and a picture of an object (appropriate to the scene) that starts with that letter. You can then drag the object onto the scene. You can have as many copies of an object as you like; Hayley would make a pen *filled* with zebras, for example. You can click on a dumptruck to clean up the scene (it prompts you very clearly to make sure you want to), and there is a garbage can you can drag objects into if you don't want them. You can also print the picture. Unfortunately, you can't save pictures.


You are shown a box with two wheels, each with a clock-like hand. One of the wheels lets you choose an object amongst pigs, shoes, trucks, etc. The other wheel lets you choose a number from 1 to 12 (no zero, unfortunately). The box then shows the number, and that many copies of the object. Hayley wasn't very interested by this.


This is an excellent game. You are shown a typewriter and a screen full of wooden crates, each with a word underneat it. You click on a crate, and a cartoon character shows you the letters of the word one by one, while the keyboard shows you where the letter is (along with a few letters around it). When you have spelled the word, the crate opens and an animation corresponding to the word is shown. Hayley spent hours playing this when she was four and five, and she would probably still like it now that she's six.


This is another excellent game. It is a variant of snakes-and-ladders. There is a path, divided into squares, from start to finish.

You can play against another player or against a robot. Each player in turn rolls three dice and chooses one of them. The player then moves that many squares forward. If the square the player lands on has a white number, the player moves forward that many squares (like the ladders that shoot you further on). If the square has a black number on it, the player moves backward that many squares (like the snakes that send you back to an earlier position). The reason this game is so interesting is that the player has a choice at each round, unlike the usual snakes-and-ladders games, where the player just rolls a die or spins a spinner to determine how many steps to move.

In mathematical terms, this turns the game from a markov chain to a markov decision process, a very significantly more complicated system. The strategy that children usually start with is to pick the largest of the three dice. After a while, they realize that this is not always optimal, and they switch to a better strategy: for each of the three dice, see how many squares you would move forward if you chose that die. Theoretically this isn't quite the optimal strategy, since it assumes that getting as far forward as possible is the best thing to do, and with nastily placed snakes, it might not be. However, in practice, given the way the snakes and ladders are placed in this version, it turns out to be optimal. It is interesting that both Hayley and her friend Jessica seemed to switch from the first strategy to the second after a clear "aha" moment, and from then on always used the second strategy.

All Dogs Go To Heaven 2 Animated Moviebook

Dinosaur Hunter

By Eyewitness virtual reality

This game had a very slick appearance, but was pretty limited. The installation was restricted to dos filenames. Reasonable virtual reality setup to move through the museum, but the information presented was pretty dry.

We returned to this game some months (a year?) later, and found it much more interesting. It doesn't throw things in your face like many games do; you have to look around a bit, but the environment is actually very rich.


By Oxford University Press

Only runs in 8bit color. This was very disappointing.

1st Grade Success Starter

Active Mind Series, Broderbund, The Treehouse

Only runs in 8bit color. Was a little advanced for Hayley when we tried it; waiting to try again. Very busy: bright colors and lots of moving objects; clicking on things makes them perform short animations, several creatures talk to you.



The installation was horrible: you can select which drive to install on, but not a directory within the drive. It then fails to correctly update the start menu. Uses non-standard controls such as "press on the large button to continue", where the large button is a big panda. Unnecessary bells and whistles in an installation script are a bad sign. However, once inside the program the interface is ok. The CD is billed as a kids' encyclopaedia of nature. It does not present very many topics; for example, ligers and tigons aren't mentioned, and out of a dozen or so words on nature that I chose at random in the Cambridge Encyclopaedia , three out of four were not listed in the explorapedia. However, it provides a fair amount of information on each topic that it does list. The information is nicely presented, and seems reasonably accurate.

Children's software

Here are some descriptions of software programs for kids by other people.

Edmark and Broderbund both produce some very good software for children.

Simple drawing program for children

I wanted Hayley to be able to draw pictures on our Suns, but standard drawing and painting programs are completely unsuited for young children. Drawing usually requires holding a mouse button down, changing colors or line thicknesses is difficult, and so on.

I wrote a program in Perl to make it easier for her to draw. It just draws a line wherever the mouse moves; clicking on a mouse button changes the color or the thickness of the line randomly. Some keystroke commands let an older person print the image to a postscript file or quit.


Here is Hayley's first computer-drawn picture. It was pretty hard to get her to keep moving the mouse, as she didn't really make the connection between the mouse and the screen.

Here is the source to this drawing program.

This will only work if you are at Brown, and accessing this page via localhost, rather than If so, you can try running the program. Type q to quit, and p to print a postscript version of the current image.

Here is a question for Web experts: in this program, I carefully flush after writing the instructions. However, when I run it from netscape, none of the output is displayed until the program finishes. How can I force it to flush? [Brown] [Brown CS] [People] [Jak]

Jak Kirman