Diapers to DOS: Today's kids key on computers

September 20, 1993|By Ann Doss Helms | Ann Doss Helms,Knight-Ridder News Service

Not only do many children start using computers when they enter public kindergartens, but many are also signing on shortly after they're out of diapers. Advocates say it's a fun, efficient way to help youngsters learn skills such as colors, numbers and letters, and prepares them for a lifetime of computer use.

"This is our kids' future," says Jane Floyd, a Charlotte, N.C.-area designer who gives lessons to preschoolers. "It's going to be here before we know it. Someday, they'll probably build new homes with computers in them."

With computers in almost one-fourth of U.S. homes already, plenty of parents are looking for the best software to teach and entertain their kids. Their own childhoods provide no clue, so they may feel bewildered by an ever-changing, often-expensive array of educational programs.

While some experts offer guidance on finding good software, others say parents should stick to books and toys for young children. They say computers for preschoolers are at best a status symbol, at worst another way of forcing children to accomplish too much too soon.

"I think there's this general trend toward trying to streamline the adult-child relationship to make it more efficient," says child psychologist and author John Rosemond. "You're substituting a technology that is impressive, but is the substitution in the child's best interest? I really don't think so."

Whatever the merits, computers for kids are booming business. Computertots, based in Virginia, was dubbed the year's best franchise investment by Success magazine. Annual software guides can't keep up with the steady flow of new kiddie programs. And CD ROM software, which comes on disks like those played in a stereo, is ushering in a new level of sophistication -- for those who have several hundred dollars' worth of equipment to use it.

Mr. Rosemond argues that children shouldn't start learning computers until they've mastered reading, around age 9 or 10. "These children are not going to be at any disadvantage for having learned later," he says.

David Elkind, professor of child study at Tufts University, says home computers offer competitive parents one more way to try to raise "superkids," along with pushing them too early into music lessons, sports and status preschools. Such efforts are more likely to produce stressed-out children than little geniuses, he writes in "Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk" (Knopf, $16.95).

Despite his misgivings, Mr. Elkind acknowledges it's too early to know how computers affect mental development. "If computers are developed to the point where even young children can interact with them simply and directly, mental development might be enhanced," he writes.

Computer advocates, including the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation and the National Association for the Education of Young Children, say the best software is already there.

"Age doesn't appear to be a limiting factor, as even 2-year-old children can work proficiently on the computer using age-appropriate software that requires only simple key presses or pointing with the mouse," says a recent article in the association's journal, Young Children.

That article cites several research projects that show computers contributing to gains in logical thinking, problem solving, math skills and reading readiness in young children.

The selection of educational software is always changing, but experts say several characteristics set the best programs apart:

* Simplicity: They're simple enough for children in the targeted age range to use by themselves. For instance, a program designed for preschoolers shouldn't require the user to follow written directions.

That doesn't mean parents shouldn't be involved when their children use the computer. It does mean children are more satisfied when they can do things themselves.

* Creativity: They provide room for creativity and imagination, not just a selection of right-and-wrong questions. For instance, there are graphics programs that allow kids of all ages to become designers, from a preschooler making silly pictures to a high-schooler illustrating a report.

* Variety: They provide enough variety to hold the child's interest, by offering several activities or levels of difficulty.

* Speed: Action takes place quickly when the child hits a key or clicks the mouse. Slow responses frustrate children.

The visual effects are bright and vivid enough to grab the child's interest, but the entertainment value doesn't overwhelm the learning.

"In sharp contrast to the lifeless sheets of paper that have, for many years, been the stock-in-trade of schools, educational software embeds learning in captivating formats with cartoon characters, bright colors, sounds, voices and animation. This advantage is invaluable but not free of pitfalls," write Marion Bland and Laura Berlin in "The Parent's Guide to Educational Software" (Microsoft Press, $14.95).

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