Learning is Childsplay

After I finished my recent articles on Teaching with Tux and Learning with Gcompris, I received a couple of suggestions from readers that I take a look at Childsplay. I spent some time looking at Childsplay and if you have small children, I think you should too. As soon as I started the program, it started to play it's theme song and my 18 month old son came running, and he still comes running every time he hears that music. For most parents and educators, my review of this program could end right here, but I suspect that I should probably write a bit more.

Figure 1

As you can see from Figure 1, Childsplay has 14 different children's activities. These activities are geared toward very young children. My 18 month old son didn't have the mouse or keyboard skills necessary to play the games directly, but he enjoyed sitting on my lap while I “worked” with the program for this review.

As a reviewer, the first thing I find difficult about the program is that none of the activities seem to have names, just icons. So, for the sake of this review, I'll refer to each activity by it's row and column, as shown in Figure 1. And by the way, for you programmer-geeks like me, rows and columns begin with “1” not “0”.

When I first started the activity on the left side of the top row, I thought it was merely a typing game where the program displays a picture and a word and you have to type the word. What I found was that it's actually a spelling activity. You type the word completely for the first round. In the second round, one of the letters is missing, but you still have to type the word. In the third round, most of the letters are missing. So, by the time you finish the activity, you've typed the word and learned to spell it.

The second activity on the top row was my 18 month old son's favorite. (Figure 2) This activity displays a letter and an animal who's name begins with that letter. Then the animal's name is spoken, followed by a recording of the sound that the animal makes. You can click on the animal to hear the sound again. You can also click on the animal's name or the letter to hear them pronounced. Amazingly, my son found this activity more interesting than the cell phone sitting on my desk! Sadly, I have to admit that I actually learned something from this activity. Do you know what a nandou looks like? Well, I do now.

Figure 2

The third activity on the top row is a billiards game. In this game, you click on the white ball approximately where you would hit the ball with the cue stick in order to sink the ball into the hole. I found this activity a bit primitive as you can't “re-aim” once you've clicked on the ball. Also, the longer you hold the mouse button down, the harder the ball is hit and the farther it travels. This isn't entirely intuitive, but once you get the hang of it, it's kind of fun. My older boy had to come and see what I was doing because every time I'd sink the ball, the game would play a recording of Homer Simpson saying “woo hoo!” There's just something about Homer Simpson that appeals to kids of all ages...

When I first started playing the Pac-Man game, I thought it was just that, Pac-man. It's not. (Figure 3) Sure, you have a maze, a pac-man, and the pac-man sounds, but there's a twist. The goal of the game is to gobble up the letters in order to spell a particular word. As you gobble up the letters, the letter is pronounced for you. If you gobble up the wrong letter, your pac-man turns into a frown-man, and you lose a life.

Figure 3

I type at a rate of over 100 words per minute so I found the “type the falling character” game to be excruciatingly slow. But for a small child who actually has to search for each character on the keyboard, this is a very approachable game. Here we have a nice background and falling letters. (We even have a penguin.) The characters don't fall very fast and they don't come quite as quickly as most of the other games of the genre. This makes it ideal for very young children just learning about the keyboard.

The last activity on the top row is a math activity. In this activity, the program displays a Mathematical fact, but without the operator. For example, it might display 9 ? 3 = 3 and the child would have to drag the “/” operator over to where the “?” is. Once again, we hear Homer Simpson telling us when we've answered the question correctly. However, I have to wonder if this is an activity appropriate for a child who has a grasp of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. I'll have to solicit the help of my 9 year old to find out. Otherwise, it is a unique activity and my youngest son enjoyed watching daddy play with it.

The first activity of row two teaches the child to recognize numbers and letters. (Figure 4) In this activity, we have a list of numbers or letters across the top of the screen. Then the program says a number or letter and the child has to click on the appropriate number or letter. The first round was only numbers to 10. The second round was upper-case letters. The third round was lower case letters.

Figure 4

The second activity in row two is probably the most challenging of all. In this activity, the child works on their multiplication tables. Here they are presented with a list of tables to work on, like “6's.” Once they have selected a table to work on, they are asked to fill out that table. For example, the “6's” table would ask them to fill out 6x1 through 6x10. Since the questions are asked in order, this becomes analogous to simply asking the child to count by 6's, which is a valuable skill at this level.

The third activity in row two is pong. For those of you too young to remember pong, pong was a game that came out in the early 70's and ran on a computer with the processing power of a modern wristwatch. In this case, we have a 1 or 2 player game that is quite well suited to smaller children. As the child only has to press the Q and A or P and L keys, I can see this as a fun game for the child to play with (or against?) their parent.

The fourth activity is a simple puzzle game where the child has to assemble the 4 puzzle pieces to complete the picture.

The last two activities on the second row are memory games where you have to find the pairs of matching pictures or sounds. As you click on the matching pairs, they disappear. Both games start with 3 hidden pairs and get progressively more difficult with each round.

This gets us to the two activities on the third row. Both of these activities are animal sound activities. In the first one, (Figure 5) the child clicks on an animal to hear the sound it makes. In the second activity, the child hears the animal sound and has to click on the appropriate animal.

Figure 5

I found all of the activities included in Childsplay to be well done and I can see where parents could use this program to help their children learn. I did have one technical issue, however. It seems that my workstation doesn't support frame buffer and so Childsplay did terrible things to my display when run in full screen mode. It ran perfectly in window mode, though.

After visiting Childsplay's website I find that there are other projects in the works, Schoolsplay, and Cognitionplay. Schoolsplay is apparently an adaptation of Childsplay aimed at a classroom environment, complete with per-user metrics collection. Cognitionplay is a similar program aimed at hospital settings where patients are dealing with various mental diseases. Neither of these programs are ready for release, yet. These two programs fill a niche that I don't think many programs fill, so I look forward to reviewing them when they are released. Perhaps if you are a programmer and have an interest in this field, you could offer your help as a developer.

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Mike Diehl is a freelance Computer Nerd specializing in Linux administration, programing, and VoIP. Mike lives in Albuquerque, NM. with his wife and 3 sons. He can be reached at mdiehl@diehlnet.com


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What's the point?

Michael's picture

Thanks for the overview of Childsplay, Mike. It summarizes the program pretty well.

I tried introducing my three and a half year old to the program, but found myself asking... "What's the point?" Both Childsplay and GCompris feel like a collection of simple activities/games, most of which seem intended to be educational. But the required skill level of the child is very inconsistent, and there isn't any sense of progression from beginning to mastery of a skill.

Pong and billiards serve no educational purpose here. The interface switches between mouse and keyboard seemingly at random, and key choices are sometimes unintuitive (pong uses Q,A or P.L and ignores arrow keys.) The number/letter recognition and animal sound recognition activities give no indication or guidance on an incorrect selection. The recognition activites, block puzzle, and memory card activities are at a hugely different age/skill level than the math activities. Yet there are only 14 games total which seems a paltry number for any given age.

And on a program that is teaching the basics to children, is there really any need to introduce "nandou"? Really? That is intended to help the child how? (Maybe this is a North American bias on my part.. )

And these complaints don't even begin to get into the inconsistency of the art and sound, largely stemming from the use of free or ripped clip art and samples. The one notable sound you mention is ripped from a TV show, and its attraction has nothing to do with the software itself. And can we please stop plastering Tux's image on everything?

You yourself noted that your youngest child enjoyed watching you play with the program, but did not play with it himself. I wonder how many kids find Childsplay fun and interesting, versus kids who are put in front of it because their parents want to support FLOSS software and because there isn't really anything else available.

I have a launcher on my panel for Tux Paint, and my son loves playing with that program (though I have my own set of rants about it). But I don't think Childsplay is going to be getting a lot of play in this household.



Mike Diehl's picture

Many of your criticisms of the program suite are well taken, and I hope that I at least alluded to many of them. But your main question is "what's the point" of all of these games and activities, some of which have dubious educational benefits.

My answer is that these activities make the computer more approachable to very young kids, even if its simply an activity that they share with a parent. The child will see how the mouse is used, how the keyboard works, and what to look for on the screen. In this case, I'd like to think that familiarity breeds acceptance. I think if the child is engaged at an earlier age, they will also become proficient at an earlier age.

That said, I agree that these programs often resemble sort of a collage of other, smaller, programs.

Mike Diehl is a freelance Computer Nerd specializing in Linux administration, programing, and VoIP. Mike lives in Albuquerque, NM. with his wife and 3 sons. He can be reached at mdiehl@diehlnet.com