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Kids on Computers : When to Start?

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

During Randy Parker’s Seattle radio interview, the issue of age appropriateness came up.

Yes, we hear stories of eighty-year-olds having a grand old time with Creativity Express, but what about on the other end?  When is a child ready to play with the program?

This can be puzzling. The animated software program suggests ages 7-97. Dr. Toy, which has recognized Creativity Express as one of this year’s “Top 10 Creative Products” suggests 6-12. (Thanks also to Homeschool Blog for an award).

Really, when can kids get the most value out of Creativity Express and other programs? If we say Let’s Start With Art, when do we start?

We probably all know a family (or three!) that are all over tech. The parents are engineers or web developers. The kids are writing code by eight. They design games for each other for fun. But what about the rest of us?

Well know that you are probably not the first to ask. Daniel D. Shade wrote his oft-quoted piece, Developmentally Appropriate Software back in 1991. Some of us weren’t even “launched” then. He developed, with Dr. Susan Haugland, a criteria scale, that measures the value of software programs for kids.

Some of the criteria are obvious.

* Does the software offer clear instructions?
* Age appropriate in terms of realistic concepts?
* Appropriate methods?
* Expanding complexity?  “low entry, high ceiling.”

He also writes, “Please do not think, however, that we have reached the pinnacle of early childhood computer applications. The majority of software produced for early childhood is still drill-and-practice, software improvements continue to center on graphics and sound rather than content.”

So, as we have heard before, in other contexts, content is key. What are kids being asked to do?  Chase things around to groovy sounds and lights? Or is there value in the program?  Frustration or mastery?

Between the ages of 1 and 2, cause and effect makes sense to a child. They also start getting computer basics around now. Be gentle with the keyboard. Don’t sit on it. Don’t throw it. There are games that offer magic by simply touching a key. Since this age group can’t recognize letters, keyboarding is limited to forward and back arrows. Full-on assistance please.
There are programs like Baby Smash that don’t even ask for fingers. My boys loved this one.

At around 3 or 4, your child will start showing readiness for “real” software. Simple stories. Puzzles. No complicated scenarios. No timed games. They need to work at their own pace.
They also still need a helper, since few children are reading at this age. A parent or teacher on hand is a good way to learn.

There is software that supports learning numbers, colors, shapes, letters. It’s also a good age for music and artistic software. Make sure there is a  balance between structured learning, right/wrong stuff, and open play.
It’s all good.

According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, when used appropriately, technology can enhance children’s cognitive and social abilities. Computers are compelling. Colors. Sounds. Little people see us big ones working on computers, they want to do that too. (They want cel phones too, but that’s another story).

The right software programs engage them in creative play, problem solving, some sort of conversation. And control! How cool for them to control pacing. Repeat games as often as they want.

Again! again! again! heard that before?

NAEYC also recommends, “Just as parents continue to read to children who can read themselves, parents and teachers should both participate with children in computer activities and encourage children to use computers on their own and with peers.”

So they are on their own, but they aren’t. Be with them to offer help, encouragement, praise.

In terms of choice, Dr. Hoagland offers these sage words of advice.
“The instructions should be clear and easy to understand and the software should provide the kids with visual prompts and/or a help option they can refer to when needed, minimizing adult supervision. Software should contain no violent objects, characters or activities, and should include positive social values, such as cooperating, sharing, communicating and expressing feelings.   Advertisement is visibly reduced and the children are exposed to concrete representations of objects, sounds and settings that belong to the real world, since children tend to believe without much questioning that what they see and hear is true.”

And there will be merchandise targeting the little people.
There are scaled-down versions of mice that claim to work from ages 2-10.
Or why not just shoot for the whole FunKey Board Fun Mouse Bundle.
And what about a pre-school computer desk, “comfortably fits a child from 2 to 6.” But maybe we don’t need to shell out the big bucks to create our Mini Me.

Dr. Hoagland sums up by saying ” in their early ages, children need to engage in activities that require the use of their hands, hearts, bodies and minds.”

So true. Let’s not make the computer, like the TV, in Stephen Spielberg’s assessment, “the third parent.”

Also, don’t forget to introduce healthy computing habits.

* Posture (Did we all just straighten up?)
* Seat comfort.
* Take breaks to rest the body and eyes.
* No food or drinks within dangerous proximity.
* Clean screen. Just like grownups.

Also, realize that kids will be online more as they age. But don’t worry. That’s a good thing. According to a recent Macarthur Foundation study, it turns out that America’s youth are developing important social and technical skills online. They are hanging out, but they are also learning. So that’s good, right?

It’s what we do.

So there is no right time to start with art. Just let the little bots play, explore, and see what happens. Years from now, who knows what they will be doing with computers?

But if we help them now, they will help us later, when the latest technology confounds us oldsters.

Photo by machado17

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