When my daughter was younger and learning to read, we bought her a LeapFrog LeapPad Learning System to encourage her to get to grips with words. I don't know how much this had to do with the fantastic reader she later became (age 10 with a reading age of 15), but it can't have hurt.
The LeapPad system has now evolved into the handheld Leapster2, aimed at children aged four to eight. We were sent a console and game, which I tried out with my six-year-old son.
I know not everybody likes electronic games for young children, but sometimes they have a lot of educational potential to offer. And the award-winning Leapster 2 might just be the one to win you over.
Looking at the reviews from parents on the Argos website, they are overwhelmingly positive, with several parents noting that children with special needs particularly enjoyed this system.
Here's how we got on:
The chunky styling of the Leapster2 is reminiscent of a Nintendo DS. So if like my son you haven't got a DS because your meanie mum thinks you're too young, then this is a good substitute. The casing feels sturdier than a DS, making it less likely to break if dropped.
The unit is available in green or pink, and there are a few simple games included, but to get the most out of this you need to look to the various add-on cartridge games which are available. There's a huge range of game cartridges (priced around £19.99) to plug into the system – from licensed characters like Scooby Doo, Disney Princesses, WALL.E and Star Wars, to specifically educational games. Or Jedi Maths, which is a bit of both.
It needs four AA batteries to work – not included, so make sure you stock up. The screen lights up with colour animation, which I thought was very good quality considering the price of £39.99.
There's a stylus attached, and this can be used on the interactive touchscreen. It comes with a lead to connect to your computer, so children can link in to an online system offering extra activities and rewards. Parents can also use the online function to get updates and check their child's progress. The controls are very simple and intuitive – my son was able to operate it straight away.
The games are narrated by an English-accented male voice. Like most electronic games it was a bit too loud for my taste, but there is a volume control and a socket to attach headphones if you prefer.
We also tested Mr Pencil's Learn to Draw and Write game. My son is left-handed and finds pencil control a struggle, so I was interested to see how he'd take to this.
The games teach drawing using animation (you can make your own flip book and see it move), and challenges like mazes. There are over 100 step by step lessons to help your child draw and write. It seemed to me a good mix of instruction and space for the player to use their own imagination. Mr Pencil is the best cheerleader you will ever have, greeting every scribble with cries of Amazing! Good effort! Great! I found this aspect a bit cheesy, but then it's not for my benefit. It's too early to say if this game will help my son with his writing, but he really likes the game and is putting in the practice.
Over all, the Leapster 2 was a big hit. I would be happy to recommend this to any young child, as it's one of those games where a child is learning and having fun at the same time – a win-win situation. With holidays coming up, this would be a good way of entertaining your child when they're travelling.
Leapster 2 and games are widely available. You can find out more from the LeapFrog website.