THE coming together of computers, the ultimate of human innovation, and children, human innocence at its purest, has parents and child development experts in knots. Is it good or bad to introduce young children to computers?
People opposed to it say computers do not allow a child’s natural growth that needs more real-life experiences than a computer can possibly give. The supporters would say computers are only an aid in addition to the normal learning process and open new scope for learning.
Either way, there is this given factor that the world today has computers in every place, including homes. This means that children will be exposed to computers and, secondly, they will be forced to learn using them if they have to move along with the world as computers are now a more important tool than the age-old pen. To say that you are educated but cannot use a computer is today as ridiculous as it would be to say "I am literate, but cannot use a pen."
With certain balances
and checks, parents and academicians can safely presume that the
benefits of computers far outweigh the potential risks of introducing
them to young children. Now that we realise there is no escape from
computers, we should try and get the most out of them for our
While till now the conventional way of teaching has been telling or lecturing a child and learning has been memorising, today the "constructivist" view says that comprehension, reasoning, composition, and experimentation are developed best by children’s interaction with the content subject matter. A two-way flow of information and stimuli makes a child participate in the learning process, which is more fun and the learning is made more permanent. This two-way flow is exactly what a multi-media computer can give.
According to researchers, the appropriate age for introducing computers is anytime after three. Depending on the appropriateness of the teaching/entertainment software, the gains children stand to make are improved motor skills, mathematical thinking, creativity, and problem solving. They also gain the confidence that they can have a control over the environment around them as good children’s software allows them to be in charge of their own learning process. It has also been found that in a classroom environment, children interact with one another more when they are learning on computers than when learning through books.
Apart from more efficient learning, computers enable children to use knowledge resources and materials they would probably never have had access to otherwise. In the process, their overall education level improves and equips them better for success in later life.
A simple computer can let a child do a wide variety of things and today there are plenty of software resources available in India at reasonable prices.
To begin with, your computer has certain basic drawing packages that come with your operating system (in Windows, click start>programs>accessories>paint) that even a small child of four can use to experiment with drawing and colours. These drawings could also be printed to be coloured later on paper. Of course, a little older children could use your word processing package to prepare reports that are rich with pictures, drawings and graphs included, giving them a better feeling of creation.
To introduce children to the computer there are certain software available free on the Net that can be downloaded. You could look for them through search engines using terms like search strings like "games for pre-schoolers" or "software for kids"—if you add the word "free" to your search, your results may be narrowed to software available for free. Usually most software would be around 1 MB, which should not take more than half an hour even on a simple dial-up connection. These software have certain games to teach basic mouse control and then can go on to teach alphabet or colour recognition. You may have to download a few before you find what is most appropriate for your child.
Apart from packages for very young children, the Internet itself is vast resource of information for the middle or high school level children, what with sites specifically designed for helping children with projects and homework. Explanations and answers to most of their questions on concepts of science or society can be found.
Another fast-expanding resource for children of all ages is the educational/ entertainment software available on CDs at reasonable prices in most Indian cities. The CDs are made for specific ages and subjects. For pre-schoolers there are games that basically teach colours, alphabet and motor control and are fun at the same time. Then there are packages that bring alive the whole human body and a student can take a tour through it, or packages that talk geography in a manner that can hold a child and keep her eyes wide open. Very recently, Indian as well as imported educational CDs have started arriving in the market that are designed according to school board syllabi. So you have CDs even for CBSE syllabus for various middle and senior classes. Over the next year a wide range of such material is expected.
While the very basic games and lessons start around Rs 200, the slightly more involved ones (mostly imported) cost Rs 400-500. Then there are reference materials like the Encarta Encyclopaedia that have almost infinite information available and cost around Rs 2,000.
Education apart, computers can be useful for games too. If used responsibly, children can learn many problem-solving, memory-improving and motor skills from these games. There are plenty of games available for children of various ages. These multimedia CDs can be found at most large music stores or shops dealing exclusively with computer software.
Unless the software you buy for your child suits her, she may not enjoy her experience on the computer. She may even get put off the computer itself for long. Make sure the package is meant for her age and your expectation should be realistic.
A good package would let the child decide the flow and direction of learning and let her explore, rather than go through a drill governed by the package. There should be clear and short verbal instructions in the package to make it easier for the child to use it, otherwise a child may get frustrated. It would be good if a game or learning package has various levels of toughness to keep the challenge alive.
While supervision is required, a child should need minimal help with the package. Rich software would have realistic models with colours and sounds from the real world. Stay clear of packages that essentially textbooks on CD. Later the version, the better it is likely to be, so check the date. Also, make sure there is no violence or suggestion to it in any game you buy for a child of any age. Beware, there are many games that involve shooting and blasting.
In short, the more interactive a program is, i.e., the more it allows a child to "do," the better it is. However, be prepared to land up with a few useless packages before find good ones. It is good if you can share what you have with friends—then you can have access to a wider variety.
Any negative effects of using computers arise only when there is excess of it. Just as there are rules for watching TV, there have to be rules for computer time. There is general consensus that an hour and a half a day is acceptable. Also, computer should cut into TV time just as much as it cuts into playtime, preferably more into TV time. Parents should also avoid using the computer as a baby-sitter. Particularly for young children, this has to be a parent-child activity.
As children grow older, they start accessing the Internet, which needs supervision. This is best done personally, though there are plenty of other ways too. (Check Log in… Tribune dated February 19 (www.tribuneindia.com/20010219/login/index.htm) for details).
Ergonomically speaking-the comfort of the body while sitting at a computer-the general rules that apply to an adult also apply to a child. (refer to Log in… Tribune dated June 18 (www.tribuneindia.com/20010618/login/index.htm) for more on that). The only special consideration is their smaller legs, arms and hands. Necessary adjustments in chair height and footrests would be required. For the smaller hands, small mice are available for around Rs 700.
Along with these precautions, if we remember that a computer cannot teach values or develop human qualities, we can use the machine as wonderful tools to develop rich interactive ways of learning that may interest the child and spark curiosity. The possibilities are endless.