Preschoolers finding ABCs of computers easy as 1-2-3

February 13, 1994|By New York Times News Service

David Caropresi, who is 3, sits on a raised stenographer's chair in his family's upstairs office, using the computer to play with dinosaur software, clicking the computer's mouse to make things happen.

He has used the program since he was 26 months old, and "by the time he was 2 1/2 , he could name six or seven dinosaurs -- before he could count to 10," said his mother, Christine Caropresi, a corporate relocation specialist in Wexford, Pa.

He has some difficulty moving the mouse where he wants it, she said, but no problems exploring the software at his own speed. And he is allowed to play in the office by himself.

Call it lapware or totware, computer software is embracing younger children than ever before -- and vice versa. Designed expressly for 2- to 6-year-olds, the programs rely heavily on sound to provide direction and encouragement.

Is a generation emerging that will be computer literate before it is literate? Many people seem to think so.

"When they use these new programs, children are thinking, doing all the things we would like children to do," said Sue Bredekamp, director of professional development at the National Association for the Education of Young Children, in Washington.

"And for young children, computers are really a social activity. Children will interact in pairs, even in threes and fours.

"It's very different from the adult experience of computing."

Twenty-five to 30 percent of U.S. families now have a computer at home. Just how many of the nation's 80,000 licensed preschool programs have computers is not certain, Ms. Bredekamp said, but it is a sizable fraction. "You can sense the trend, the excitement," she said.

As more nursery schools invest in computers, some childhood educators say they see a variety of benefits to getting an early start on high technology.

Are computers needed?

"Computer literacy is not something that happens suddenly when you're 12," said Barbara T. Bowman, vice president for programs at the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development, a research center in Chicago. "It's a long process."

Yet it is not all blue skies in the world of preschool computing. Some educators say they simply do not understand the rush.

"Computers are an extra. They're fun, but the school's time and money can be better spent on other things," said Linda Jo Platt, director of the Community Nursery School in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. ** "Children learn by touching and feeling and holding. I'd rather hand them a puzzle."

In addition to her nursery school duties, Ms. Platt is a member of her village's school board. "By the time they leave our schools, they absolutely need computer literacy to succeed," she said. "But I don't see how 4-5-6's need it."

Economics creates gap

Many people in education and the computer business also worry that, because computing is distributed unequally at the preschool level, technology will reinforce the gap between affluent and poorer communities.

"Middle-class kids have computers at home; they have time to play and explore," said Ms. Bowman of the Erikson Institute. "Poor kids are simply not exposed to that. When children in both groups reach 13, you'll see striking differences."

While many after-school and community-center programs provide access to computers, the efforts are not adequate to close the gap, she said, because "most kids rotate through these programs for a half-hour a couple of times a week."

Software publishers say that, while middle-and upper-income families are embracing computing, use is growing among the less affluent as well. Rod Turner, who until last week was president and chief executive of the software company Knowledge Adventure in La Crescenta, Calif., said that at focus groups with parents "we have a broad mix of racial and economic groups."

"People on more limited income still really want to do the best they can for their children, and they are very price-conscious," he said.

Children's software generally sells for $29 to $59.

Sound and pictures

Whatever concerns may exist, computing among the very young is clearly surging, pushed along by changes in hardware and software. More than a third of computers sold to homes in recent months contained a compact-disc player and speakers that provide sophisticated sound.

This encourages software companies to develop programs that rely on sound, rather than words on screen, to engage young users.

And because compact discs have a far greater storage capacity than floppy diskettes or even hard drives, designers can load up their software with pictures and animation, as well as sound, all of which contain more data than text.

"Developmentally appropriate software provides young children the opportunity to be in command," said Ms. Bowman of the Erikson Institute. "Like paint programs: the child has the vision. He or she has to tell the computer what to do, and that's a very important lesson to learn. There's room for the child to have all sorts of different strategies, so the machine is an active agent of their imaginations."

High demand

At the Montessori School in Gig Harbor, Wash., an hour south of Seattle, six new computers have been installed, all with sound and two with compact-disc players, said Grace Lang, a parent who helps run the school.

"In a school survey, parents said computing and foreign language were their top two priorities, and nothing else was close," Ms. Lang said.

If this all sounds high-powered, note that when Ms. Lang suggested to her 5-year-old son, Austin, that he look at the Peter Rabbit software, he told her, "That's for the little kids the 2- and 3-year-olds."

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