Ages & Stages: 0-5: Tiny Techies: When to Introduce Kids to the Computer

A computer in every crib! For a while that seemed to be the motto for those who thought it could never be too early to learn about technology. Fortunately, common sense seems to have prevailed. Although technology can be part of a healthy childhood, it should get at most a sliver of a young child’s attention.

To start with the basics, there’s no evidence that children under 6 years old will fall behind in any way if they don’t have early exposure to computers and other interactive technology. The most rewarding things to be done with computers require reading and writing, both skills that tend to emerge around age 6. Jumping in early produces no particular benefits and may cause harm if computing crowds out other childhood pastimes.

In short, postponing an investment in technology until kids are in school is a perfectly responsible strategy for parents. The one exception to this rule may be kids with special needs who often get benefits from computers long before their typical siblings.
For information, check out Tots and Tech, (http://www.asu.edu/clas/tnt/) a site run by the University of Arizona.

On the other hand, when little kids live in homes where computers are prominent features, used by both parents and siblings, it’s perfectly natural for them to say “me do it!” And it’s a rare parent who can’t help feeling a little jolt of pride if a child seems precocious about technology. When parents guide the experience, selected Web sites and quality software can build a young child’s confidence, creativity and cooperation as well as the capacity to solve problems.

What follows are some suggestions about activities that are developmentally appropriate for kids 0-6. At each stage, ask two key questions. First, is your child having fun? Young children learn best when they do things for the sheer joy of playing. Second, are you having fun? Little kids can’t use technology unless parents are involved. If tech time seems more annoying than amusing, turn off the computer and find activities both you and your child genuinely enjoy.

0-12 months
Babies grow at such a dizzying rate of speed that it’s impossible to improve on their progress with a computer. Parents, however, might benefit from the chance to connect with other parents at social networking sites like www.charlottemommies.com or www.parentsconnect.com.

One-year-olds
Toddlers like to do what their parents do, so if you spend time at the computer, he or she will want to crawl up on your lap to see what’s up. The likelihood, of course, is that after a moment of contact, your little busybody will want to get down and go on to the next thing. Follow your child’s lead. If you’re both having fun at the computer, play for a few minutes but don’t coax when your child loses interest.

Two-year-olds
At this age, children are soaking up language, so if they do anything at the computer, it should be narrated by an adult. Talk about what you see on the screen and why you do what you do. Look for Web sites or software programs that are highly responsive to whatever a child does. Programs like Jumpstart Toddler are ideal at this age because they have minimal narration and something interesting happens as soon as your child touches the keyboard or the mouse. Keep in mind that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends toddlers have minimal screen time — that includes TV and video games as well as computers.

Three-year-olds
Sometime during this year, most children develop the small motor skills needed to manage a mouse. Parents can help by placing a hand over the child’s hand and moving the mouse together. Clicking and double clicking require practice, too. Some kids find these skills easier when there’s a sticker on the left button of the mouse. Look for simple, engaging programs and Web activities that don’t include commercial messages because children this age can’t distinguish between content and advertising. PBS, for example, offers an assortment of simple games that can be searched by activity and age range. (http://www.pbs.org/parents/fungames/)

Four-year-olds
Any computer activity for preschoolers should put them firmly in charge. Be sure your child can change activities or leave the program without needing to read instructions or ask for help from an adult. Although there are many free games online at sites like funschool.com, preschoolers often do better with well-designed software. Not only are these programs free from advertising messages, but they’ve also been tested by several generations of kids. Instead of software that drills kids on basics like shapes, colors, letters and numbers, look for classic programs like Zoombinis to encourage problem-solving or Kidpix Studio to promote creativity.

Five-year-olds
By now, children are becoming more independent about many things, including computer use. Teach your child good computer habits such turning the computer on and off properly and keeping food and drink away from the keyboard. Because there are big risks to adult data if kids forget these rules, many parents prefer that kindergarteners do their exploring on child-friendly systems like Leapster. Enforcing time limits becomes even more crucial for these portable units; most early childhood experts recommend computer or video game sessions last 20-30 minutes max and that daily “screen time” be under two hours.

Six-year-olds
Although many terrific Web sites are intended for elementary age children, there’s always the chance kids will wander off the site into an area that’s inappropriate.
If you do allow your child to go online, use the highest level of parental controls. (Good ones are now available free from America Online.) Better yet, sit down and explore a topic together using the leads from littleclickers.com or surfnetkids.com. Any searching should be done through child-friendly sites like yahooligans.com or askforkids.com.

Regardless of whether they’ve had access when they were little, most elementary-age kids quickly pick up the computer essentials they’ll need in school. Before you know it, they’ll be setting up IM accounts and lobbying for a phone with Internet access. They will, after all, have a lifetime to explore technology and just a few short years to do the things that bring joy only to very young children and the people lucky enough to be in their company. Make the most of them!