Digital Childhood

Load from hard driveLoad from hard driveIt's insideIt's insideStoring informationFor our educationClap we're onClap we're on. -- Song sung by preschool-age children before a COMPUTERTOTS classI'm going to put my bias right out front: When it comes to kids and computers, I think the world would be a better place if tykes still played with blocks.Call me a technophobe if you like, but it ain't so. I work on a computer every day. I peruse the Net. I don't use the verb "surf." Once, I actually found information pertinent to a task at hand on the World Wide Web.Nonetheless, I'd rather my 2-year-old daughter spend her time flinging Play-Doh at the cat than clicking away in virtual reality. Kids should spend their formative years in tactile, sloppy, painful exploration of nonvirtual reality -- what we used to call life. No matter what she decides to do with her life, my daughter will undoubtedly spend a good chunk of it interacting with a machine as I am right now. It's called work, and there's plenty of time for it later.Besides, there's something about talking technology with a preschooler that brings out the smoke-and-mirrors nature of it all:Child: What's a hard drive?Adult: It's a thing that puts away information for use later.Child: Why?Adult: Because you may need it later on.Child: Oh. What's so hard about it?Adult: I don't know.I realize, however, that not everyone shares my reductive view. The world is full of stage moms and dads hoping to raise the next Bill Gates, or at least hoping their kid won't be swept off the technology juggernaut and crushed beneath its relentless forward march. For such parents, the question isn't "should I?", but rather, "when?" Now that you know where I stand you should also know that early-childhood education experts give computers a guarded but nearly universal thumbs up, even for toddlers. They cite study after study showing increased test scores, improved self-esteem and confidence and better verbal skills, all attributable to computer use early and often.That hasn't always been the case. Even five years ago things were different. As computers have become more powerful and cheaper, educational software has gotten better. The best software for kids today wasn't even possible a few years ago.So computers and kids are natural combination. But there's something about the utopian promise of a digital future that makes me uneasy. Weren't we supposed to have conquered hunger, be driving helicopters and washing our dishes with sound waves by now?Barbara Willer, public affairs director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children in Washington, D.C., says computers are neither intrinsically good nor intrinsically bad. "At the worst, computer programs are nothing more than electronic worksheets," says Willer. "At best, they are tremendous tools that give children power in expression and creativity that goes beyond anything else they would have."Two things make the difference, she says: software and guidance.Good software, says Willer, is open-ended. Instead of fishing for a specific answer, it might tell a story and allow the child's input along the way. It might encourage guessing, or suggest different ways to achieve a goal. It might require children to figure out a mathematical or grammatical concept before moving on. "Some of the more creative programs are things like living books where language is embedded in a meaningful context," says Willer.Other concepts computers have proven their mettle on include letters and numbers, sorting and grouping, and thinking logically. And computers never run short on patience -- something that can't always be said for adults. "Computers can be repetitive for as long as children want them to be," says Willer. "They don't mind doing it over and over and over."Beth Graue, an associate professor in University of Wisconsin at Madison's department of curricular instruction, says story software is particularly suited to very young children. "Books that read back to them and have some input allow the child to have some agency in all of it," says Graue.Of course, good software is useless to a 3-year-old if it isn't visually appealing, colorful and relative to a 3-year-old's world. That's where the power of new computers comes in. The more power, memory, speed and color, the better, says Graue. Which runs counter to the notion of giving kids the old computers adults outgrow. "It's true," she says. "Children are the ones who actually need the most powerful machines."But unlike television, computers are poor electronic babysitters. Kids need someone to show them the ropes, to be right there when seemingly insurmountable obstacles pop up. Left alone at a machine, young children quickly get bored and restless, unable to grasp even basic skills such as manipulating a mouse. Something as simple as the cause-and-effect relationship between moving the mouse and moving an on-screen cursor, for example, is something young children won't quickly grasp.In preschools, using computers effectively means knowing the technology and knowing how to make it relevant to this easily bored demographic. In an article titled "Technology and School Change: New Lamps for Old?", researchers Douglas Clements and Sudha Swaminathan write that such change doesn't come easily. "Effective integration of technology requires effort, time, commitment and sometimes even a change in beliefs."If done right -- especially when the computers are equipped with age-appropriate word-processing and painting software -- kids make great strides, say Clements and Swaminathan. "Even young children can competently revise their text when shown how to do so on the computer."Graue, who taught kindergarten at a school that treated computers as a learning tool akin to pencils and blocks, has seen the benefits personally. "It ended up being that because we had enough computers, kids weren't fighting over them," she says. "Kids used them socially. There were a lot of fears about kids not interacting socially, about turning into automatons. It didn't come true."Here then is another tidbit that runs counter to common sense. Adults tend to use computers by themselves, whether working or playing. Kids, as I observed at a COMPUTERTOTS class at a west-side Madison, Wisconsin preschool, are much more boisterous about it. They work well in groups of three or four, passing the mouse and trading thoughts freely. (COMPUTERTOTS is a national franchise that specializes in teaching computer basics to preschoolers.)Jane Rogers, owner of the Madison COMPUTERTOTS, points out another aspect parents and teachers have to be on the lookout for: gender gaps. Rogers says she's noticed that girls tend to lose interest in computers at an early age, so parents and teachers need to watch for the signs of disinterest. "I've taught classes at Lincoln Elementary school with 25 3- to 5-year-olds, with only one girl. They have the same opportunities as the boys, but even by that age they are turning off."Don't get the idea, however, that everyone believes computers and kids go together like summer and lemonade. I'm in good company in my dissension.Take Alan Kay, for example. Kay is an Apple Computer Inc. research fellow who helped create Apple's groundbreaking user interface. If ever there was someone who believed kids should be at the keyboards, you'd think it was Kay. But it's not so."Young children ages 6 and below really need to do a lot of kinesthetic action in the world around them," Kay says in a recent Wall Street Journal article. "To be totally in an image-based world is not a good idea."Kay also notes that toddlers will have plenty of time to learn about computers in grade school or even high school. In the meantime, parents who rush their children on to the infobahn risk cruising past some other very important aspects of being a kid such as texture, touch and imagination.Others believe, as I do, that no matter how sophisticated computers get they still present a circumscribed world of limited choices to children. What happens to budding creativity if you have choices A, B, C, D and E but you really want option Q?Am I afraid my daughter will fall into the widening information gap? No. Because I know from experience that most of the mountain of information only a keystroke away via this revolutionary machine I'm typing away on is superfluous. If I had to decide, and if it was my decision to make, I'd rather she be happy than technologically literate. nSIDEBAR 1THE SOFTWARE SEARCHHere's what experts say to look for when choosing software for kids:*Make sure it's interactive and open-ended. Avoid software that drills on basic skills.*The best software automatically senses how advanced the child is and adjusts the difficulty accordingly.*Look for large icons and pictures that will help young kids get around the program easily.*Read the package to determine if the software focuses on specific skills.*If you have access to it, check the World Wide Web before you buy software. Many publishers have home pages that include free previews.

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