Content, not hardware rules your child's mind
Good software and appropriate user interfaces play an important role. Science and technology columnist Gene Emery, who reviews software for toddlers and children, reckons if parents want to get CD-ROM titles for their kids they should go for those that are fun, educational and have appropriate interfaces.
Emery recently reviewed three CD-ROMs designed for toddlers as young as nine
months old and concluded most children that age aren't ready for the computer. "To them, a keyboard is simply something to bang on, and the concept of properly moving a mouse is even more difficult to master. The programs require so much parental guidance to do anything constructive, it's probably not worth the effort."
Emery discovered one exception though with Knowledge Adventure's latest product
"JumpStart Baby with Baby Ball." "The CD-ROM program is combined with a rugged eight-inch-wide plastic dome that a child can simply press, or pound on, to send signals to the computer. Parents don't have to worry about the child hammering at the mouse or the keyboard."
He added that the ball, designed for ages 9 to 24 months, would simply be a gimmick if it weren't for the software, which is a cut above other CD titles for toddlers. "For one thing, the program teaches patience. Once a child activates an animated sequence, he or she must wait for the sequence to end before doing anything else. Other programs 'reward' incessant keyboard pounding by aborting whatever's happening and activating another
On early exposure, Emery takes the stand parents should indulge their children only when they are ready. "When they're ready, you'll know. If they sit at the keyboard and all they can do is bang away at the keys, they're not ready," he said. "It's no different from playing with building blocks. When they've developed some patience, they learn to stack blocks and build things. When they're not ready, all they can do is knock something down or put the pieces in their mouths."
He doubts, however, that early exposure to computers will breed a generation of
programmers or high-tech wizards, or even give kids an edge in kindergarten.
"There's no good evidence I've seen that toddlers with a computer at home will grow up to be superior students. Today's 27-year-olds spent their early years without home PCs, and they seem to be doing well. Clearly there are programs on the market for the patient child. But if the child would rather play with building blocks than the PC, it's no big loss," he said.
Emery is more for parents helping children develop real-world motor skills they may need to get around in the virtual world. "That means giving them crayons and paper instead of a mouse and a drawing program. Most people who live in the real world can make the leap into the virtual world. I suspect that the opposite is less true," he said.
However, he adds that learning proper keyboarding may be essential for older children. "I'm a firm believer in requiring children to learn how to touch-type once their hands are large enough to accommodate the keyboard. I got my kids a Mario Teaches Typing program and forced them to spend 15 minutes a day throughout the summer learning to type properly. It's an invaluable skill in the computer age."
He adds that older youngsters are going to need to know how to mine the Internet for school papers. "But, here again, computers do nothing to teach children how to critically assess the information -- much of it junk -- that they can get over the Internet. That's something parents and teachers must convey."