Back in the days before personal computers found their way into the average American household, parents used to beam with pride when their 2-year-old built a tower out of Duplos. In our current era, however, a growing number expect their toddler to be as comfortable with the computer mouse as she is with Mickey Mouse.
This trend is driven not only by eager parents who want their children on the cutting edge of technology but also by computer, software, and toy manufacturers churning out products for younger children. Advocates claim that introducing very young children to computers gives them an intellectual head start. They believe computer programs designed for toddlers can strengthen problem-solving abilities, increase hand-eye coordination, and stimulate budding minds.
Other experts are more skeptical, urging parents to proceed with caution. "There's a lot of hype, but does a 2-year-old need to be on the computer?" asks Colleen Cordes, who co-coordinates the Task Force on Computers in Childhood for the Alliance for Childhood, a College Park, Maryland-based advocacy group.
Many educators consider 2 to be the ideal age to introduce computers, primarily because most toddlers by this time have the attention span and the hand-eye coordination required to move the mouse and follow the arrow on-screen. Most 2-year-olds are enchanted with the brightly colored images and enjoy making them change by clicking the mouse. At this age, children can usually grasp the concepts presented on beginner computer programs. Studies have shown that such programs can help toddlers learn shapes, colors, letters, and numbers, says Ellen Wolock, managing editor of Children's Software Review, a publication that covers children's interactive media. However, Wolock warns parents against replacing traditional learning materials with computers. "They should be used to supplement, not replace, traditional learning toys like blocks, sandboxes, and crayons."
Computers can also teach the relationship between cause and effect, notes Vicki Folds, Ed.D., vice president of Tutor Time, a Boca Raton, Florida-based company that owns and franchises child-care centers. "If the students push something on the keyboard, something happens on-screen," Dr. Folds says. Tutor Time's schools have been using computers in their curriculum for children ages 2 and up for the past decade.
Pamela Uncles introduced her daughter, Tara, to the computer shortly after her second birthday, with a program called Dr. Seuss Preschool. "She was transfixed," recalls Uncles, an educator in Reston, Virginia. "It helps her with her vocabulary."
Jill Burg, of Hartsdale, New York, echoes those sentiments. After she started her 2-year-old daughter, Rachel, on the computer, she saw a marked improvement in the girl's vocabulary and hand-eye coordination. Moreover, when Rachel wanted to learn about caterpillars, her mom found a Website that would let the two of them watch one instantly transform into a butterfly.
Not everyone, however, is sold on the virtues of early computer use. Critics point out that the skills computers teach can be acquired just as easily through old-fashioned, low-tech activities -- as indeed they were before the proliferation of PCs. In a recent report, the Alliance for Childhood detailed the potential hazards of computer use among young children. The report concluded that an overreliance on computers can give rise to the sorts of problems long associated with television use: stifled natural creativity, hampered social skills, and health effects such as eyestrain and obesity.
"Young children need a hands-on relationship with nature and the physical world around them, not interaction with machines," Cordes says.
Jane Healy, Ph.D., an educational psychologist in Vail, Colorado, and an outspoken skeptic of widespread computer use by youngsters, goes even further. "These children are not formulating language or expressing their needs," Dr. Healy says. "They're pushing a button to get their needs met. It's causing language use to diminish."
Dr. Healy, the author of Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds and What We Can Do About It (Touchstone Books, 1999), believes that, as with TV, allowing children too much exposure to computers at an early age can be detrimental to the developing brain. "The first three years of life are when children learn the foundation for creativity and develop critical motor skills," she says. "It's a time when kids should be encouraged to experiment and interact with people and their surroundings -- not to sit in front of a screen."
Most experts take the middle road, pointing out that the keys to making the most of computers are moderation and realistic expectations. No parent should park a child in front of this electronic baby-sitter. "In the end, software is just like any other interactive toy," says Susan Fryer Patrick, who designs educational programs for the Learning Company, in Novato, California. "It's one more way for kids to explore the world."
Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the February 2001 issue of Parents magazine.
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