"The problem is that there is an overemphasis on learning basic skills instead of creative thinking," says Jack Bookman, associate professor of the practice of mathematics at Duke University. This doesn't mean that learning multiplication, subtraction and addition isn't important or that software can't help with drilling, but such skills are best honed after kids have learned the underlying concepts for these operations.
"The job of the human brain in its early years is to make sense of mathematical principles from objects found in the natural world," says Jane M. Healy, an educational psychologist and author of Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Mind and What We Can Do About It. This philosophy championed most famously by the Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget explains the near ubiquity of counting rods and beads, known in academic circles as manipulatives, in most grade-school classrooms. As kids approach adolescence, however, they may be ready for slightly more abstract methods of learning, and computers may offer just what they need.
"As kids get older, visual representation is more important, and we've found that virtual manipulatives in computer programs are really popular with middle-school kids because they don't feel like it's baby stuff," says Shelley Goldman, associate professor of math at Stanford University's School of Education. Researchers have found that in some cases good software can do a better job of explaining a complex math or science problem to a 10-year-old than a person can. The trick is finding the right software.
Ann Orr, senior editor of Children's Software & New Media Revue, says parents should look for software that encourages kids' active participation but doesn't go overboard with cheerleading. "A hallmark of bad software design is excessive use of multiple choice and barking 'Good job!'" she says. The best way to get kids interested in the underlying concepts of mathematics, she says, is to offer them real-world applications for what they're learning.
One such math program is Math for the Real World (Knowledge Adventure; ages 10 to 14; $30). This game invites players to join a band and go on a tour across the country; along the way, they have to solve practical problems, such as budgeting for band equipment, food and gas. "Real world" can also mean any scenario in which math or science decisions have lifelike consequences. For example, in the science program Zap! (Edmark/Riverdeep; ages 8 to 12; $30), cartoon characters in a virtual physics lab ask for help manipulating lasers, electrical circuits and sound waves.
Even straightforward games can require creative thinking that goes beyond just punching the right button. In the classic math program Zoombinis Logical Journey (the Learning Company; ages 8and older; $25), a tribe of critters must wind their way through a labyrinth of nine different puzzles, each based on a different principle. Another excellent math game, Math Arena (Sunburst Communications Inc.; ages 8 to 12; $30), tests geometry by getting kids to tinker with fly-swatting angles and arrange quilt squares in a symmetrical pattern.
Young children can benefit from math software too, as long as parents are sitting alongside to answer questions and serve as sounding boards. Then again, Healy says, "if you have that much time, why aren't you doing something concrete that uses math, like categorizing bugs or cooking?"