Big Technology in Little Hands

Enhancing preschoolers’ learning with computers.

A screensaver splashes family photos across a computer monitor, presenting a slide show of one photograph to the next, until a little hand reaches out and shakes the mouse. The screen instantly changes to display a window with letters, numbers and images. "Wow," thinks the child with the wandering hand, "I just made that happen!"

Even before any children's software is added to this computer, the child makes some interesting observations, namely that pressing the keyboard buttons causes letters to appear on the screen and that moving a mouse causes a bright arrow move around in a matching motion.

The computer sparks children's curiosity by displaying pictures with color, showing luminosity, making sounds and being impacted by touch. The computer simultaneously engages multiple senses. Now add stimulating content, such as chid-focused software and Web sites, and the computer can be one of the best tools to get children passionate about learning.

No doubt, young children today are surrounded by a lot of high-tech products, some created for and marketed specifically to them, and other gadgets and technology that adults around the children use daily. Some parents wonder whether their child is the right age to use a computer and whether there are educational benefits. With so many stories of how computers distract from important physical playtime, and the dangers lurking online, it is likely refreshing for parents to hear that there is a good side to the latest and greatest technology. And, yes, it is fine for a preschool-age child to be on the computer, and the child can actually learn and develop while using it.

When children learn through multiple senses, research has shown that they better retain information. Young children love to touch objects to see what will happen. As a child presses a letter on the computer keyboard, he or she may then see something appear on the screen and also hear a sound. Through touch, sight and sound, the child becomes interested and engaged.

In addition to delivering content to children in a meaningful way, the computer introduces and improves several skills. The basic understanding of cause and effect is apparent with the child who shakes the mouse or presses the keys to make something happen on the screen. A related benefit includes enhancing visual discrimination skills, which are important for learning to read and write. Young children using computers come to distinguish letters on the keyboard. And understanding letters, numbers and left-to-right progression are essential pre-reading skills. Using the computer, the child also improves problem-solving skills and memory. With guided use and well-chosen content, the computer can ignite creative expression, too.

Another great benefit to using the computer is that the child learns unrestricted by labels. The computer doesn't judge or apply labels to the child it teaches. Rather, the child is free to explore and learn in his or her own style and pace, accomplishing great things along the way.

What is the right age for introducing the computer to your child? While the answer to this question varies, some children as young as 2½ years have the attention, understanding and eye-hand coordination to prepare them for the computer. Though other children need a little more time, a child is generally ready to start using the computer between ages 3 and 4.

Learning happens best in a setting where there is structure, including rules, respect and balance. This means, if you are ready to have your preschool-age child begin exploring the computer, you should plan to be involved firsthand in the process. The right software or Web site may keep your child occupied and learning, but don't underestimate your role as your child's coach and teacher, right at your child's side, to set the rules, give guidance on various tasks and offer praise for your child's accomplishments.

Now that you feel confident that the computer will benefit your child, are you prepared to let your child loose on the home computer? Before you just sit your child down for a preschool educational Web site activity or children's software program, heed these important suggestions.

Let your child know that he or she is about to do something really special, something only "big" people get to do. Also encourage your child to value the privilege of using the computer. For example, you might say to your child, "You have been behaving so well. Guess what? You are going to get to use the computer!

Teach your child right from the start that he or she needs to follow specific rules when using the computer. Make the rules simple for your young child to understand. You might say, "How do you use a computer? Do you think you should bang on the computer?" Shake your head and say an exaggerated "Nooo." Next say: "Do you think you should tap the keys with one finger? Yes. First, let's pretend." Along with your child, pretend to tap keys in the air using the pointer finger. Then, introduce your child to the mouse. Simply placing a sticker on the left mouse button makes it easy for a young child to know which button to click. Have your child practice clicking the mouse.

When you think your child has grasped the movement of the mouse, the tapping of the keys and how the tasks are related to what happens on the screen, move on to trying your selected children's software or Web site.

With every few months of age, a child typically experiences a substantial forward progression concerning his or her computer comprehension. If your child has attempted using the computer and you are not comfortable that your child is ready, give it a month or two and try again. You might be surprised by how much a child develops in a short span of time.

Given the right approach, young children can learn and develop many new skills using technology. It is most important to keep the experience a positive one, which means your child continuously uses the computer with respect and rules, and a compassionate voice praises the child's accomplishments during the learning process.