Preschool | Family fun | Kindergarten | Behavior + Discipline

Interactive software can help children learn

My granddaughter, Ariella, has always adored books, much to her family's delight. After all, we're told, you can never read enough to your children. "Duck!" "Car!" "Birdie!" she'd exclaim, and point to the bright, colorful pictures in a soft-cloth reader. She's learning words and recognizing objects, I'd say to myself and anyone else who would listen. Reading's working!

When I discovered computer software that helped hone some of those very same skills, I was elated. So was she: "Truck!" "Cat!" "Doggie!" And there they were on the screen -- colossal, crystal clear and often accompanied by serene yet authoritative voices, thanks to my oversized iMac LCD and reasonably up-to-date external audio speakers.

The thrill didn't last long (does it ever?): The naysayers were just around the corner, ready to pounce on us overly permissive grown-ups who let children use computers. The American Academy of Pediatrics, in fact, recommends no screen time for children under age 2.

What's a parent to do? More to the point, what's a grandma to do?

Think moderation, education experts suggest. Expose kids to a whole host of experiences. "Young children are little sponges," says Donna Stanger, former general manager of Edmark, which develops educational software. "Anything that enriches the child's environment and is interactive is a good thing."

That includes computer use -- if you chose your software with care, says Alice Baggett, technology teacher at Seattle Country Day School. "We tend to be suspicious of technology," she says. "With so many changes, there are risks that occur. But a smart population can figure out how to use new technology well."

Pete Findley is CEO of Giant Campus, a Seattle-based company that teaches tech skills to kids and adults. "The most important thing is to focus on balance -- and kids who spend all their time in front of a computer don't have a good balance," he says. "But technology skills are important as reading and writing, and that's not going to go away. It's part of life and second nature to today's kids. You have to embrace that."

Embracing that can provide young students with "wonderful problem- solving opportunities," Baggett notes. "Using computers involves risk taking, as in, which button should I push? What will happen? And there's learning to interact with a whole other language. The technology introduces logical thinking in a new medium -- and that's very valuable."

According to Baggett, the best software -- often offered in the classroom -- helps kids learn to problem-solve, and capitalizes on their creativity. "In an educational setting, the teacher can do projects of greater complexity," she says. "At home, we're not always there sitting with them and giving them help. With more sophisticated software, kids can become the creators rather than the consumers."

Baggett's students create art using paint programs, use movie software to make movies, play games to learn about the solar system, and learn how to build three-dimensional models.

When parents select software for their children, they should target programs that encourage perseverance, Stanger says. "One of the most important things you can teach a child is that persistence pays off," she says. "We've found that if a child persists, the chance of solving a problem is much greater."
Stanger also recommends that parents:

  • Think about what you value and believe your child needs. Does the software provide that?
  • Choose software that allows the child to think -- or to do something he or she couldn't do with paper and pencil.
  • Choose software that supports an area that your child is not as strong in -- and pay attention to the way the software interacts with your child. Millie's Math House, for example, keeps the child on task and rewards the child for a correct answer.
  • Make sure the child has to do something to cause something to happen. Software should be interactive. You don't want your child to click and watch a movie go by.

My granddaughter (she's now 4) was a little over a year old when we sacrificed the blocks and the books for an occasional hour or so to follow trucks and kitties floating impressively life-like across the monitor. Is that too early for quality screen time?

Stanger won't commit. "It's like saying my 1-year-old and yours are all the same," she says. "But I've seen a baby use a program where you touch a key and something happens. And to sit on a parent or grandparent's lap and laugh together -- I don't think that's so bad."

Linda Morganwrites frequently on education issues for ParentMap.

Alice Baggett's software picks:

Here's a list of kids' software recommended by the Boston Museum of Science. 

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