In order to provide our readers with ratings for the products that we review, we put software, games, toys, and other products through a number of tests, the least of which involves hands-on testing with real children and their parents. We strive to make some sense out of the seemingly endless choices parents face when looking for worthwhile products for their children, and attempt to consider the many factors involved that determine whether a product stands out as superior.
All products are rated on a 5-star system. Any product with a 4.5 or 5 star rating receives our Award of Excellence.
- 5 stars Outstanding, highly recommended
- 4.5 stars Very Good, highly recommended
- 3.5 or 4 stars Recommended, with some reservations (as noted in the body of the review)
- 3 stars or less Not recommended
For more details, see our rating notes on each product category:
When selecting outstanding educational software programs, we look for products that are thoughtfully designed and produced and that appeal to a child's humanitarian qualities - ones that offer positive, encouraging, and socially responsible experiences to the children who use them. These programs contain activities that promote imagination and creativity, as well as independent thought and exploration. We look for software that sports an interface that is easy to understand and that doesn't detract from a child's enjoyment of the program or its educational content.
Software that has a high interactive component is another important factor. Although children might sit quietly in front of the television without complaint, they want to be actively involved when using the computer. Programs in which there are lengthy sequences that cannot be interrupted only serve to make children squirm. We look for titles that offer an experience that might not be presented to children beyond the software medium. In other words, software titles that give children opportunities to learn through play in unique ways that couldn't easily be acquired through traditional mediums(textbook learning, for example) receive high marks. We hold software programs in higher regard when they take full advantage of opportunities to teach children important educational concepts and social values.
Readers are encouraged to peruse the body of our reviews in order to draw their own conclusions. As objective as we endeavour to be with our ratings, it is important to consider an individual child's characteristics, skills, learning styles, and needs when selecting software.
We have chosen a software review format that attempts to accommodate different readers' needs. Included in the main body of a review are descriptions of the program's content (for example, activities and games), features (including things like progress reports and difficulty levels), as well as reactions from family testers and conclusions. Additionally, we attempt to summarize the software title into important categories (Educational Content, Entertainment Value, Design, Replayability, and Dollar Value) and provide a "Bottom Line" quick synopsis.
While the diverse nature of software offerings prevents us from strict adherence to our software evaluation tool, what follows are our general guidelines for determining numerical ratings.
- Does the program effectively teach the user new skills? (/8)
- Are the learning activities original and innovative? If not, are they classic but well done? (/7)
- Are the learning games age-appropriate - neither too easy or too hard? (/5)
- Are children given the opportunity to explore and experiment as a means of learning new skills? (/5)
- Does the software possess significant "kid appeal"? (/8)
- Are learning games made to be fun enough that kids want to try them again? (/5)
- Are there engaging scenes and/or characters? (/7)
- Are there challenge levels that are relatively broad in range? If so, are they easily adjusted? (/5)
- Is the interface well designed so that kids can play and exit the game intuitively? (/5)
- Are there appropriate help files/ manuals/ onscreen help? (/5)
- Is the program thoughtfully produced? (/5)
- Will children want to replay the game in the long run (/8)
- Does the game have enough content and levels to have a decent shelf life (/8)
- Can children at different age and skill levels enjoy this program (/4)
- Is this title worthwhile for the suggested retail price (/10)
- Would this program make a valuable addition to a family's software collection (/5)
The final score (/100) is divided by 10 to determine the rating out of 10 and on a five-star scale:
- 8.5 and higher - Highly Recommended (4.5 to 5 stars)
- 6.5 to 8.4 - Recommended with some reservations (3.5 to 4 stars)
- 6.4 and below - Not Recommended (3 stars or below)
While there are many software programs on the market that entertain as they educate commonly known as "edutainment" titles we do recognize that there is a place in children's lives for some relatively mindless entertainment. That is why we rate entertainment software and video games differently than we do edutainment or strictly educational software. Our software evaluation form is used, though it is modified to exclude Educational Content. Again, we consider a game's replay value and design as important criteria, and weigh the game's dollar value against its overall value. We do not recommend games that rely on gratuitous violence or excessive commercialism for entertainment. Instead, we look for games that offer children opportunities to kick back and enjoy themselves in fun, safe, and trustworthy environments.
When selecting toys to recommend to our readers, we look for those that possess outstanding play value. Products that engage children's minds as they play earn higher ratings, and include toys that:
- are age-appropriate;
- are durable, safe, and childproof;
- have high replay value and that are expected to delight over time; and
- inspire children to think, imagine, and learn as they play.
Keeping in mind the widespread concerns that children are watching too much television in a passive manner, we look for videos that truly distinguish themselves from others by offering stimulating and educational components in addition to entertaining features. When evaluating videos designed for children, some of the questions we ask include:
- Does the video offer a safe, trustworthy, and stimulating world that parents can trust?
- Are there clear and outstanding educational benefits to be derived from the program?
- Are children engaged and stimulated when they watch the video?
- Does the program encourage participation in any way? (Meaning, do children react to its content, whether it is through laughter, singing along, or responding to carefully timed questions?)
The children's books we recommend are those that stand out for their ability to educate, entertain, and inspire. In addition, we recommend books designed for parents, selecting books that encourage parents to take an active role in their children's education and growth and that offer innovative ways to do just that.
We select children's music recordings that:
- offer catchy rhymes and rhythms, helping to develop children's language skills;
- inspire imagination and wonder;
- feature engaging narrated stories that transport children to an imaginative world and/or introduce educational concepts in an innovative way; and
- feature soundtracks that are high quality and pleasing to young ears.
Comments or questions about our rating system and the products we've reviewed? Send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org