A generation of techno-toddlers Parents: Are children being encouraged - or forced - to join the information age?

November 23, 1998|By Dawn C. Chmielewski | Dawn C. Chmielewski,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Sabrina Pray sits on her mother's lap examining the case for the CD-ROM game JumpStart Baby. For the moment, it's more interesting than the teddy bear on the computer screen in front of her, inviting her to play.

"Let's make music! Press any key and we'll make music!"

With a little coaxing from Mom, 16-month-old Sabrina pokes the keyboard with her tiny fingers. One member of a barnyard quartet - the cat - responds with a furious bit of fiddling, hey-diddle-diddle-style.

Sabrina glances at the screen. Then she returns her attention to the CD case. In a matter of minutes, she arches her back, slides off her mother's lap and peers under her parents' bed in search of the family cat.

It's hard to see what Sabrina has gotten from her fleeting encounter with technology. But her parents, Bryan and Chandra Pray of Fullerton, Calif., are convinced that this early introduction to the PC will prepare her for school and, ultimately, her world.

"Anything that can teach them computers [is valuable]," Chandra Pray said.

Many parents eager to give their children the right start are placing computer mice in their babies' chubby little hands almost before they can hold a fork or spoon.

Brands long associated with children's play, including Hasbro, Mattel and Disney, are finding ways to plug into the computer craze.

Take, for instance, Hasbro Interactive's new Tonka Workshop. It's a CD-ROM program that comes with a workbench that straps over the keyboard, a carpenter's tool kit with plastic saws, sanders, drills and the like.

The narrator, a buff, overall-clad Tonka Joe, appears on the PC screen and coaxes the 3-year-olds to build a barn, spaceship or other project. Each action produces a response from the computer - a squeaking noise with every turn of the screw or a corresponding bang with each hammer strike, while the structure takes shape on screen.

That's a long way from earlier tries to snare techno-toddlers with what amounted to crude adaptations of existing hardware, such as Microsoft's EasyBall, a grapefruit-sized track-ball mouse that makes it easier for tiny hands to control the cursor.

The breakthrough came from software publishers such as Knowledge Adventure, which showed toy makers the way to tap the rich vein of parental angst about kids and computers with a whole new category of educational software aimed at preschoolers. Before long, it extended its successful JumpStart series to the most unlikely of audiences: the Teletubbies set.

Dubbed "lapware," the JumpStart Baby program is the first of a genre of programs intended for babies as young as 9 months to use while sitting on mommy's or daddy's lap. So far, it's enjoying the kind of success heretofore reserved for Tickle Me Elmo and other holiday fads.

Sales of software for children 5 and younger have more than doubled in the past year, from $9.7 million in the first quarter of 1997 to $17.9 million this year, according to PC Data Inc., a research company in Reston, Va. And it's growing faster than any other software category. PC Data Inc., a research company in Reston, Va. And it's growing faster than any other software category.

The majority draws heavily on well-loved children's books such as "Curious George" or "The Cat in the Hat," borrows characters from Sesame Street and other television shows or builds games around familiar toys made by Fisher-Price and Playskool.

Those CDs that attempt to do more than merely amuse offer the youngest computer users primers on colors, shapes, the alphabet or numbers. The more ambitious "edutainment" software attempts to introduce toddlers to a second language or teach.

"Everybody wants their child to have every advantage in the world," said Amy S. Bruckman, assistant professor at the College of Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "It symbolizes progress. Technology symbolizes an investment in the future. People think if their children use this powerful symbol of progress, they'll be powerful in the world."

Yet introducing children to technology at such a tender age is the subject of furious debate among educators and child development experts.

Advocates, who describe the computer as an essential learning tool, say teaching toddlers to point and click makes as much sense as helping them properly grip a pencil.

"In the same way we give kids Crayolas and pencils because one day they'll need to read and write, we also give them computers because they'll learn how to express themselves with computers," said Idit Harel, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab in Cambridge and founder of MaMaMedia Inc., a Web site designed for children ages 5 to 12 (www4.mamamedia.com).

Hogwash, say critics, who warn it's damaging to a child's developing brain.

"I cannot say strongly enough that there is not only absolutely no benefit, but there is the potential for enormous damage," said Jane M. Healy, an educational psychologist and author of "Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect our Children's Minds - For Better and Worse."

Healy says a child's developing brain needs time to make sense of their world. Children need to grasp and feel, to stack blocks, one on top of another, to learn concepts that later will help them solve math problems. They also need to gain a sense of self-control and patience.

Software programs that borrow the quick cuts, flashes of color and loud noises that are the attention-getting hallmark of a Nike ad make kids impatient and distracted once they're forced to cope with the slower pace of classroom instruction, she said.

"We have a generation of children coming on who have been so filled with fast-paced electronic glitz that they cannot connect two logical thoughts," Healy said.

Pub Date: 11/23/98

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