Toddlers imitate what the big people in their lives do, so when they see big kids and adults using computers, they want to use them, too. For those who are brave enough to turn the computer over to a small child, DonationCoder founder Mouser's new Little Voice Commander (free/donationware) could be a good program to start with.
This simple program encourages toddlers to speak and experiment by showing pictures of words they are likely to know, such as "dog," "apple," or, well, "baby," whenever a word is spoken or when a key on the keyboard is pressed. A sound file also speaks the word out loud. Press K, see a kite, hear "kite." The pictures typically arrange themselves into a mosaic; sometimes these images are repeated. The translation of babyspeak into American standard English depends on Microsoft's speech-recognition engine, making it necessarily an inexact business, but that's part of the fun. For example, imagine a child saying "No!" and being rewarded with pictures of snow.
What do very young children get out of this? They learn that verbal commands and keystrokes can evoke increasingly predictable responses from the computer. The more they refine and improve their own delivery, the more predictable the outcome.
In addition to the 287 stock images that are supplied, users can expand Little Voice Commander's repertoire with additional images and MP3 sound files, such as the faces and names of family members. To add images, name them in word_# format (e.g., banana_1), and put them in the stock images folder in the VPMedia subdirectory. In my installation, there were two such folders, called FromApp103 and FromApp103b. I found the sound files in a third folder called renegadeaudio_mp3. I added images without corresponding sounds and this works fine; the program will still render the word and the image(s) that go with it. It just won't say the word out loud.
Little Voice Commander is a modified version of a screensaver program called Multi Photo Quotes, and like that program will render across multiple screens when they are available. Configuration options also allow users to "childproof" settings, so to speak. For example, instead of using <Esc> to exit the program, you can change this setting to <Ctrl-Alt-Esc>, a combination much less likely to be triggered accidentally by vigorous banging on the keyboard.
Given that the program is free and there is only so much software out there for children who are pre-verbal (who also tend to have short attention spans), Little Voice Commander serves a definite need. For parents of pre-preschoolers, it's worth a download and perhaps even a small donation to the developer.