Should kids be using the computer?

We are definitely in the technological era. Just look at the toys for little ones and you’ll get an idea of how early children are introduced to technology. Toy versions of computers are easy to find and it’s not uncommon for little ones to be seen moving their finger and pointing to images on an iPad screen.

Should kids be using the computer

So the question that begs to be asked is: “What technology is appropriate for children?” As a former teacher and grandparent to four children under the age of six, I have a few thoughts to share. Of course, though, each parent should ultimately decide what, if any, technology they want to share with their children.

Guidance for using the computer with your child

I believe that children can benefit from structured experiences with the computer. For example, there are many quality education sites that are age-appropriate for children as young as three or four and parents can easily explore these with their child.

  • Sit next to your child or let him sit on your lap. This will let him know that you are fully engaged in the activity with him. It will also help you to know what your child is seeing on the screen and how he is responding. Also, a young child may struggle to properly operate the mouse. If you are sitting with your child, you can move the mouse for him when he points to activities on the screen that are interesting to him or to his answer if there is a worksheet or activity already on the screen.
  • Give your child choices about the activities he wants to do. Most educational websites, included, offer a variety of activities from letter recognition to counting to visual discrimination. Your child may simply be in the mood to play with the keyboard and practice naming letters as he randomly types them. Or there may be an educational matching or visual discrimination game he wants to try. When first sitting down at the computer with your child, present him with two or three options or ask him what activity he would like to try. When children get to choose, they are more likely to stay attentive and enjoy the activity.
  • Constantly monitor the difficulty of the activity. The appealing graphics on the screen can entice a young child and draw him to an activity that is well beyond his skill level. Then, once the novelty of the colorful graphics has worn off, your child will likely feel frustrated. To avoid feelings of frustration or confusion, help your child find appropriate games that will challenge him a little, teach him a little, and entertain him a lot. If your child selects a letter recognition game, for example, that flashes the letters too quickly on the screen, consider creating your own letter recognition game instead. You can open a blank word processing document, set a clear font (such as Comic sans) to size 40, and type letters on the screen as he calls out the name of the letter and the sound each letter makes. In this way, you are still spending time together on the computer but with a more appropriate activity. Or, if the visual discrimination matching game he is playing is too challenging, consider navigating around the website to select a beginning-level worksheet instead of an intermediate or advanced-level worksheet.
  • Monitor the amount of time spent.  We all know how easy it is to get lost on the computer. As with all things (and to quote my very wise grandmother), “everything in moderation.” It is generally difficult to keep track of the time spent on the computer because everyone is having fun. But if you agree that limits are important, try setting a timer to help you stay aware of the time. Make the timer part of your “computer time” routine so your child understands that the bell means time is up. Or the bell might signal the last game, so that your child could finish any activity or game he started. This also works well because children can be allowed equal amounts of time in a fair, less arbitrary way.  And then the “bell” is the bad guy signaling the end of computer time instead of you.

The computer should supplement - not substitute - other activities

Children will inevitably become adept at controlling a mouse and punching keys on the computer keyboard. In fact, some children may learn to send e-mails long before they can handwrite and mail a letter. However, they will still need to be able to correctly and comfortably use a pencil and scissors and will need opportunities to develop these important fine motor skills.

For all of the benefits it provides, a computer is not designed to help children develop these critical fine motor skills and cannot take the place of time spent at a desk working with materials such as crayons, scissors, pencils, beads, and laces. For this reason, strive to balance computer time with real-life activities that highlight for your child the usefulness of certain important skills. For instance, show your child how you write items on a shopping list before you go to the grocery. Or ask your child to write a thank you note (or draw a thank you picture) to show his appreciation for a gift. Your child will learn that some things are done better by hand than with computers.

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Image used under Creative Commons from Jean in TX.