For a total change of pace, give this fantastically artistic CD-ROM a try with your preschooler. Based on the children's book of the same name (by Czech artist Kveta Pacovska), this program presents a parade of letters that come alive in unusual ways. Kids use the mouse, tap the keyboard, or speak into a microphone in order to interact with each letter of the alphabet. This is not standard alphabet software fare - you won't find a typical interface with easy icons and straightforward navigation or explicit pre-reading training sessions. Instead, this is a game of discovery and surprise.
This CD-ROM opens with a moving alphabet sequence. Tapping a specific letter on the keyboard triggers its appearance on the screen; clicking when the E pops up, for example, will prompt an activity revolving around a large letter E. Children soon discover that if they roll the mouse over one of its arms, it will elongate triumphantly to the sound of a trumpet; pull the mouse away and it retracts - all of this while a lovely instrumental plays in the background. Arguably the most intriguing activity features two marionettes that dance and spin in response to movements of the mouse. With the inspiring music to accompany these dances, the results are spectacular - children will instinctively time the marionettes' movements so that they become "one" with the music.
Letters dance, spiral, cavort, and transform, but music is as much a part of the program as these lively visuals. Some activities feature ambient everyday-life sounds, while bold sounds and instrumentals accompany others. Some activities allow children to experiment and interact with sounds. The drops of colorful paint in the Q activity, for example, can be moved inside of the Q to produce different musical combinations, with the line of the Q cycling around and "playing" the paint spots. The visuals in Alphabet include a paint-splattered backdrop for the moving ABCs, collage-like screens, and bold colors; and, aside from the musical soundtrack, the only audio comes from children naming the letters in both English and German.
At times, kids wonder what to do next, and then discover that if they abandon the mouse and start tapping letters on the keyboard, the activity advances. On the W page, a mouth whistles out letters and kids realize that hitting keys on the keyboard allows them to control which letters the mouth whistles. Then, a swipe of the mouse makes those letters dance and move. The N activity features a screen filled with vertical lines. Children control a diagonal line, moving it around and inserting it in between the vertical ones, prompting lines to push aside, squeeze in with their neighbors, and a letter N is formed! The X activity takes the form of a puzzle that is challenging even for adults. It's a different puzzle every time because before the screen breaks into X-shaped pieces, players use the mouse to define which letters fill the screen, and where they appear. Kids can blow F's across the screen, or play crashing letters with the C activity. Poor letter I is easily intimidated, especially when a child yells into the microphone. Groups of little I's flee when chased by the cursor. Kids can also play with a lone I - its playful dot bounces from the stem and onto the ground with a click of the mouse. "Stroking" the large letter S creates goosebumps, and a kite shaped like the letter T takes flight in response to mouse movements.
This title is filled with surprises. When children click on a smiley-faced moon, for example, it turns to face the screen and smacks a kiss - and it's hard not to giggle. As children "play" with letters in creative ways, the alphabet becomes more meaningful and interesting to them. Granted, hippopotamus doesn't begin with the letter B, and kite doesn't start with T, but this program is educational notwithstanding - in an artistic, inspirational way.
Down sides for some users may just as well be considered pluses to others. For example, the less-than-traditional interface may be seen as an invitation for exploration and discovery, or a frustrating experience. There is an uneven temper to this CD-ROM, with some abrupt sounds and movement as well as a rather evil-sounding laugh in one activity that may be off-putting to the youngest of players. Because the letters are not standard looking, the program might be best for children at least somewhat acquainted with the alphabet. As well, children with budding computer skills may be confused when things don't always respond the way they "should".
I always sought out alphabet books that showcased letters in a creative manner and wish this software treasure was available when my kids were new to their alphabet! Any parent who enjoys the more abstract alphabet vignettes in Sesame Street will fall in love with this CD-ROM.
Alphabet is abstract and bizarre in its own right, but utterly charming. Because it is not straightforward to use, parents will need to share this program with their young children, at least at first. However, many adults and older siblings will enjoy this original romp through the alphabet. While it may not be for everyone, we found it a breath of fresh air in a children's software market that has become rather predictable.