by Warren Buckleitner

Thanks to excellent new software, computers can actually increase both the quality and the quantity of children's social interactions. Here are four ways computers can support emotional development, along with specific software recommendations for each category.

1. Software can facilitate collaboration. Programs that take children on an adventure create an excellent opportunity for diverse groups to work together.

Freddi Fish 4: The Case of the Hogfish Rustlers of Briny Gulch

Ages: 3-8
Teaches: interpersonal development, working in a group, problem solving, and memory skills

Working in small groups of two or three, children can explore richly illustrated underwater scenes as they help Freddi Fish and her pal Luther search for a stolen "hogfish." Challenging puzzles, with a Wild West theme, also foster collaboration. For example, to discover the rustlers' identities and locate the hogfish, Freddi and Luther have to find a hat, belt, and other rustler attire scattered around the ocean floor. Keeping track of characters and items is tricky, but children will quickly discover that when solving problems like these, two heads can be better than one. Humongous Entertainment, 800-499-8386; Windows/Mac CD-ROM; $29.95.

2. Software can aid communication. Affordable color printers and a new generation of creativity software give both children and teachers more tools for making contact with others.

My First Greeting Cards

Ages: 3-5
Teaches: interpersonal development through writing and visual creativity

This very simple, fun, and affordable card-making activity makes it easy for young children to create and then print out simple cards for birthdays or major holidays. Edmark, 800-362-2890; Windows/Mac CD-ROM; $9.95

PrintMaster Platinum 7.0

Ages: for teachers

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then consider the value of 150,000 pictures on these 10 Printmaster Platinum CD-ROMs. With this program, adults can quickly create customized and professional-looking newsletters and parent-night invitations, along with interesting and attractive additions to enrich literacy awareness and print on classrooms walls. The library of images, which can be used in a variety of electronic formats, such as e-mail, is also useful for creating Web pages. Mindscape (The Learning Company), 800-234-3088; Windows 95 CD-ROM; $69

3. Software can help children feel good about achievements. Programs in which kids accomplish tasks help boost self-esteem.

Fisher-Price My Very First Little People Play House

Ages 2-4
Teaches: problem solving, matching, and logic

Thoughtfully designed for children with developing mouse skills, this CD offers six entertaining and educational games that pose a variety of challenges. To serve snacks to Little People characters, for example, children click the mouse or touch the keyboard and a cupcake or brownie is placed on a plate. Or children can help a puppy clean up by putting toys away. Kids with mouse skills can point and click to make their specific selection in the usual way. Knowledge Adventure, 800-542-4240; Windows/Mac CD-ROM; $20

Huggly's Sleepover

Ages 4-6
Teaches: social problem solving, logic, and letter recognition

This playful program stars Huggly, a cute little monster, who is getting ready for a sleepover party. Children visit various rooms in Huggly's house to accumulate what Huggly will need for the party later on. In addition to early learning skills, activities give children a chance to practice social skills. One game, for instance, helps children recognize different moods and emotions, while another provides opportunities for problem-solving with a younger sibling. Once all the games have been played and party objects have been found, it's time for the sleepover! Scholastic New Media, 800-724-4718; Windows/Mac CD-ROM; $14.95

4. Software can help children learn to empathize with others. As children take care of virtual pets, they become aware of some of their own needs and also learn more about the effects their behavior has on others.

Quest for Camelot

Ages: 4-10
Teaches: intrapersonal development and nurturing

Of the seven activities contained in this activity pack, the favorite is hatching and caring for a virtual pet baby dragon (which, thankfully, won't die!). Activities include bottle feeding (you have to "hold" the bottle with the mouse), diaper changing, and nap time. After a period of time, the baby dragon is able to drink from a cup, walk, and even breathe fire. Knowledge Adventure, 800-542-4240; Windows/Mac CD-ROM; $20

Success Tip: Choose Software for Sharing

As you know, certain materials, such as a large set of classroom blocks, offer and inspire opportunities for cooperative play, while materials that are designed to be used by just one child seem destined to create conflict. The same holds true for software. Some computer activities are just more shareable than others. Look for software that provides opportunities for children to take turns, and challenges children with activities that benefit from mutual problem solving. Most open-ended adventure software gives children opportunities to grow and explore while providing a built-in structure that lends itself to partner participation.

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Warren Buckleitner is a contributing editor to Early Childhood Today and Parent & Child. He is also editor of Children's Software Review, which provides objective information about the latest children's software. All the software he recommends has been tested with young children.