A computer in every crib!
For a while that seemed to be the motto for those who thought it could never be too early to learn about technology. Fortunately, common sense seems to have prevailed. Although technology can be part of a healthy childhood, it should get, at most, a sliver of a young child’s attention.
To start with the basics, there’s no evidence children younger than age 6 will fall behind in any way if they don’t have early exposure to computers and other interactive technology. The most rewarding things to be done with computers require reading and writing, both skills that tend to emerge around age 6. Jumping in early produces no particular benefits and may cause harm if computing crowds out other childhood pastimes.
In short, postponing an investment in technology until kids are in school is a good idea. The one exception to this rule may be kids with special needs who can benefit from computers long before typical siblings.
On the other hand, when little kids live in homes where computers are prominent features, used by both parents and siblings, it’s perfectly natural for them to say “me do it!” And it’s a rare parent who can’t help feeling a little jolt of pride if a child seems precocious about technology. When parents guide the experience, selected Web sites and quality software can build a young child’s confidence, creativity and cooperation as well as problem solving capabilities.
What follows are some suggestions about activities that are developmentally appropriate for kids 0 – 6. At each stage, ask two key questions. First, is your child having fun? Young children learn best when they do things for the sheer joy of playing. Second, are you having fun? Little kids can’t use technology unless parents are involved. If tech time seems more annoying than amusing, turn off the computer and find activities both of you can enjoy.
0 – 12 Months
Babies grow at such a dizzying rate of speed, it’s impossible to improve on their progress with a computer. However, some software programs offer visual rewards whenever Baby hits the keys. The bright shapes and melodic sounds can bring squeals of delight.
Toddlers like to do what their parents do, so if you spend time at the computer, he will want to crawl up on your lap to see what’s up. The likelihood, of course, is that after a moment of contact, your little busy body will want to get down and on to the next thing. Follow your child’s lead. If you’re both having fun at the computer, play for a few minutes, but don’t coax when your child loses interest.
At this age, children are soaking up language, so if they do anything at the computer, it should be narrated by an adult. Talk about what you see on the screen and why you do what you do. Look for Web sites or software programs that are highly responsive to whatever a child does. Programs like Jumpstart Toddler are ideal at this age because they have minimal narration and lots of rewards. Keep in mind that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends toddlers have minimal screen time – that includes TV and video games as well as computers.
Sometime during this year, most children develop the small motor skills needed to manage a mouse. Parents can help by placing a hand over the child’s hand and moving the mouse together. Clicking and double clicking require practice, too. Look for simple, engaging programs and Web activities that don’t include commercial messages because children this age can’t distinguish between content and advertising. PBS, for example, offers an assortment of simple games which can be searched by activity and age range. Find something for your child at www.pbs.org/parents/fungames/.
Any computer activity for preschoolers should put them firmly in charge. Be sure your child can change activities or leave the program without needing to read instructions or ask for help from an adult. Although there are many free games online at sites like funschool.com, preschoolers often do better with well-designed software. Not only are these programs free from advertising messages, but they’ve also been kid-tested. Instead of software that drills kids on basics like shapes, colors, letters and numbers, look for classic programs like Zoombinis to encourage problem-solving or Kidpix Studio to promote creativity.
By now, children are becoming more independent about many things including computer use. Teach your child good computer habits such as turning the computer on and off properly and keeping food and drink away from the keyboard. Because there are big risks to adult data if kids forget these rules, many parents prefer that kindergarteners do their exploring on child-friendly systems like Leapster (leapster.com). Enforcing time limits becomes even more crucial for these portable units; most early childhood experts recommend computer or video game sessions last a maximum of 20 – 30 minutes and that daily “screen time” be less than two hours.
Although many terrific Web sites are intended for elementary age children, there’s always the chance kids will wander off the site into an area that’s inappropriate.
If you do allow your child to go online, use the highest level of parental controls your browser has. Better yet, sit down and explore a topic together using the leads from www.littleclickers.com or www.surfnetkids.com. Any searching should be done through child-friendly sites like www.yahooligans.com or www.askforkids.com.
Regardless of whether they’ve had access when they were little, most 6-year-olds quickly pick up the computer essentials they’ll need in school. Before you know it, they’ll be setting up IM accounts and lobbying for a phone with Internet access. They will, after all, have a lifetime to explore technology and just a few short years to do the things that bring joy only to very young children and the people lucky enough to be in their company. Make the most of them!
Carolyn Jabs is a former Contributing Editor for Family PC and mother of three computer savvy kids.
software for youngsters
Learning how to use a computer is just the beginning for kids. But having a software program that is just right for them is another. There are many programs available for kids for both PC and Mac. From boosting creativity to learning how to type, there is something for everyone. Here are some top picks to get you started.
Kid Pix Deluxe 4
Ages 4 and Older; $19.99
Kids can create a wide array of images using different paint brushes, shapes, photos and more.
School Zone Alphabet Express: Preschool
Age 3 – 6; $19.99
With this program, your child can learn the alphabet in a fun, interactive way with colorful pictures emphasizing each letter of the alphabet.
Type to Learn Jr.
Ages 5 – 7; $14.95
This program teaches early learners the correct way to type. As your child helps the silly characters find treasures throughout the game, he will learn with what hand to type each letter. As the program goes on, short words are introduced. He will soon have the best typing skills ever.