Toddlers on the net: When should you get your child a PC?

Posted on February 11, 2000 
Filed Under Anita, CNET, Features

by Anita Devasahayam

Children have become the new target of Internet pushers. Parents mesmerised by slick advertising campaigns, and not wanting their kids to be left behind, are taking the bait. But when is it the right time to introduce computers to children? And does the technology really provide them greater opportunities to be creative?

Educators are beginning to question the drive to get children on computers and on the Net at an early age — even before they can write, spell or do arithmetic. American educational psychologist Jane M Healy, PhD, in her eye-opening book: Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds — For Better And Worse points out that computers, used in the wrong way, can actually hinder a child’s educational development.

With 35 years experience in teaching, Healy, a former tech-pusher, made an about-turn after three-years of exhaustive research in hundreds of schools across the United States. According to her findings, children under seven don’t really need to be exposed to computers at all as it affects their brains and physical health. “The brain undergoes certain ‘critical’ or ’sensitive’ periods in both childhood and adolescence, when learning environments exert special kinds of effects and when certain types of activities and stimulation are most appropriate and necessary for the brain to reach its potential. If we waste or subvert these developmental windows, the losses may be irrecoverable,” writes Healy.

Healy claims that the human brain’s structure is malleable at a very young age, and that most children learn about the world from their physical interaction with it. To substitute early, vital sensory experience of the real world with pointing and clicking on a two-dimensional computer screen may seriously impair brain development.

“The immature human brain neither needs nor profits from attempts to ‘jump-start’ it. Simply selecting and watching a screen is a pallid substitute for real mental activity,” she said. Healy suggests that over-enthusiastic parents might just end up with a lot of dribble on their keyboard. Her research shows that children who used computers only after the age of seven picked up the basics quickly and, all other things being equal, did not lag behind their peers who had been clicking away since they were in their diapers.

Learn your ABCs or PCs?

Some educators agree that young children are better off learning the alphabet, or their Ps & Qs, or just having plain fun than being in front of a PC.

“Toddlers initial learning should not be so technology-centric,” said Pauline Yap, a nursery school teacher at Hampstead Hill School in London. “They need to learn some basic manners, pencil control and even reading before being exposed to the myriad of software on the computer or the Internet.

“If they don’t learn to read properly, then they will never appreciate the art of reading through books, much less the computer screen,” argued Yap, who has been teaching nursery school for the last 10 years.

Children at Hampstead Hill School are given PC familiarity sessions from age four onwards for 20 minutes a week, but they are not compulsory as the school emphasizes mastering reading, writing and social skills. “We want them to enjoy the simple things in life, fuel their curiosity and groom their observation skills,” she said.

On the other hand, Brenda Hafer, senior community manager at ParentSoup.com holds the opposite view and counters that it is never too early to expose a child to computers. “This is less a words issue than it is an equipment issue. They know how to open a refrigerator before they can cook, right?” she said.

Hafer suggests that children should be exposed to technology from as early as 18 months. “By exposing them early, it would simply normalize technology. I find no rationale behind keeping kids away,” she said.

She concedes, however, that adult supervision is necessary and should be total and direct initially. “As the child becomes more capable, the parent can begin to move away.”

Hafer also agrees that all PC and no play may make Jack a dull boy. “Parents need to be proactive in ensuring balance is maintained between physical activity and technology.”

Rachel Lim , Principal at Kinderland Ipoh said that four to six-year-old children in her kindergarten always look forward to computer classes. “The interaction between the kids and computers is amazing, they enjoy it very much and constantly ask for more time with computers,” she said.

At Kinderland, computers are used to complement the language lessons conducted in the classroom. Lim said that the kids are quick to learn and eager to move onto new programs once they are bored with what they are using.

Content, not hardware rules your child’s mind

Good software and appropriate user interfaces play an important role. Science and technology columnist Gene Emery, who reviews software for toddlers and children, reckons if parents want to get CD-ROM titles for their kids they should go for those that are fun, educational and have appropriate interfaces.

Emery recently reviewed three CD-ROMs designed for toddlers as young as nine months old and concluded most children that age aren’t ready for the computer. “To them, a keyboard is simply something to bang on, and the concept of properly moving a mouse is even more difficult to master. The programs require so much parental guidance to do anything constructive, it’s probably not worth the effort.”

Emery discovered one exception though with Knowledge Adventure’s latest product “JumpStart Baby with Baby Ball.” “The CD-ROM program is combined with a rugged eight-inch-wide plastic dome that a child can simply press, or pound on, to send signals to the computer. Parents don’t have to worry about the child hammering at the mouse or the keyboard.”

He added that the ball, designed for ages 9 to 24 months, would simply be a gimmick if it weren’t for the software, which is a cut above other CD titles for toddlers. “For one thing, the program teaches patience. Once a child activates an animated sequence, he or she must wait for the sequence to end before doing anything else. Other programs ‘reward’ incessant keyboard pounding by aborting whatever’s happening and activating another animation.”

On early exposure, Emery takes the stand parents should indulge their children only when they are ready. “When they’re ready, you’ll know. If they sit at the keyboard and all they can do is bang away at the keys, they’re not ready,” he said. “It’s no different from playing with building blocks. When they’ve developed some patience, they learn to stack blocks and build things. When they’re not ready, all they can do is knock something down or put the pieces in their mouths.”

He doubts, however, that early exposure to computers will breed a generation of programmers or high-tech wizards, or even give kids an edge in kindergarten.

“There’s no good evidence I’ve seen that toddlers with a computer at home will grow up to be superior students. Today’s 27-year-olds spent their early years without home PCs, and they seem to be doing well. Clearly there are programs on the market for the patient child. But if the child would rather play with building blocks than the PC, it’s no big loss,” he said.

Emery is more for parents helping children develop real-world motor skills they may need to get around in the virtual world. “That means giving them crayons and paper instead of a mouse and a drawing program. Most people who live in the real world can make the leap into the virtual world. I suspect that the opposite is less true,” he said.

However, he adds that learning proper keyboarding may be essential for older children. “I’m a firm believer in requiring children to learn how to touch-type once their hands are large enough to accommodate the keyboard. I got my kids a Mario Teaches Typing program and forced them to spend 15 minutes a day throughout the summer learning to type properly. It’s an invaluable skill in the computer age.”

He adds that older youngsters are going to need to know how to mine the Internet for school papers. “But, here again, computers do nothing to teach children how to critically assess the information — much of it junk — that they can get over the Internet. That’s something parents and teachers must convey.”

Children need parents, not PCs

Teaching responsibility cuts across both worlds - virtual or real: “You let them know there are elements on the Internet, just as in real life, that are bad and they should avoid them. There’s bad information, bad pictures, people trying to encourage them to do harmful or hateful things. Software that tries to screen out inappropriate sites is helpful for this, but certainly far from perfect, as I’ve discovered when I’ve given some products a test run.”

Emery advised parents to stick with educational programs as kids will eventually discover the arcade-styled games. “A parent should try to keep youngsters away from the vacuous products as long as they can,” he said.

In contrast to Emery’s more moderate stance, Healy remains skeptical of the educational benefit of current software programs. “This ‘halo effect’ faith — that the computer is somehow automatically better than television — is unjustified. If your child is watching too much TV, the first thing to do is start applying some limits rather than adding yet another excuse to tune you out!”

“It all boils down to the grown-ups in the home,” rejoins Emery. “At this stage of technology, it’s the time a parent spends interacting with a child, and the quality of that interaction, that matters. That won’t change until you have computer programs that can, in effect, act as a parent would. Until computers can read a child’s moods, reward them for doing well and discourage them from errant behavior, they will be a poor substitute for parental involvement.”

The synthesis of all these opinions is that the content inside your PC and, to a lesser extent, its physical interfaces will determine whether IT will be a boon or burden to your child. Ultimately however, there is no substitute for the quality time parents ought to share with their children.

Concludes Healy: “Slow down, turn off the media, and spend some time just being together for a while. ”

Published in CNET Asia, Feb 11, 2000.

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