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Beyond the Screen
By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 11, 1999
Computers are useful tools in educating kids – but not the only ones, nor always the best

They began fooling around with computers almost as soon as they could walk. Rachel was first. Sitting in her father's lap a dozen years ago, she watched letter after letter appear on-screen as she banged away at the same keyboard her parents-Jerry and Andrea Gross-used for adult tasks.

Then came Lisa and Sam. As toddlers, they specialized in scrawling electronic "paint." Now, it's 2-year-old Mia's turn. The youngest of the Gross children, she is a veritable techno-child who curls up with the ancient Mac in her sister Rachel's bedroom.

At a time when many parents and policymakers count on computers to boost student achievement, any of the children of this Fairfax County family could be a technology teacher's pet. All three are as comfortable with a mouse as they are with a television remote-or even a pen. And given the chance, they would probably spend as much time fiddling with computer games as other kids do watching cartoons.

But Jerry and Andrea have other ideas-notions of a sort that draw applause from a growing number of technology-savvy educators. Happy that their kids will have no trouble navigating the digital age, they want to make sure they have plenty of time for reading, playing with friends, running around in the park, building with Legos, creating hands-on art. So they carefully monitor the amount of time their children use the machines.

Computers are a useful tool, says Jerry, "but they're certainly not the only one, or even the best one, in many situations . . . I feel that reading books to your children is much more important than putting them on a computer."

Educators of young children praise this approach because it recognizes the importance of allowing kids to learn a wide variety of skills at their own pace. Building, drawing, playing with dolls and spending time reading with parents remain time-tested ways to prepare preschoolers, kindergartners and first-graders for success.

Computers can be a fun and stimulating addition to this mix, a tool that gives young children new power to manipulate colors or make beloved characters, such as the Cat in the Hat, come alive. Some programs allow little kids to dress up historical characters while learning about who those characters were. Others let them explore-or even create-strange new places that exist only on the computer.

Researchers say there's no doubt that children who are comfortable using computers will have an edge in the later elementary years. But a variety of studies also show the machines can stymie a child's education if used as tool to cram the kid full of facts and figures. It's the rare 5-year-old who thrives on a succession of math and vocabulary drills. "You want children to learn how to learn and to want to keep coming back," says Barbara Willer, deputy executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. "The building blocks of learning are exploration and play, whether we're talking about language or math or science. They are broad themes that hold true with computers."

 
'Kids come to the computer to be in control. They don't come to the computer to be passive,' says Warren Buckleitner, editor of Children's Software Revue. 'Basically, kids will vote with their feet.'
The key to making the most of computers with young children is using them in the same way they play with other things-to explore, express themselves and solve problems, says Cornelia Brunner, associate director of the Center for Children and Technology in New York.

Parents should think of computers almost as a fancy toy, she says. In addition to games, children can use e-mail to communicate with friends and family. And they can visit appropriate sites on the Web, those relating to a child's special interest in stars, dinosaurs, airplanes, dolls and such.

"The creative potential of these computers is very very high," Brunner says. "It all is a precursor to an understanding we are in the information age."

This approach may surprise some parents, given how powerful and dazzling ordinary PCs have become. But no matter what tools parents employ, children will still develop in certain ways, Brunner says. She chafes at stories about parents who try to use computers to turn their children into super-achievers.

"People are really trying to push kids to develop skills that really aren't necessary at that time," Brunner says. "Kids are spending a lot of time memorizing things that are really beside the point . . . It could lead to a kind of school phobia."

Shari Argue, the Montgomery County parent of a kindergartner and two older children, agrees that computers can be great fun. As her kids were getting used to the computer, they read plenty of books on CD-ROM. But she also believes children benefit from more direct instruction.

To prepare her kids for school, she has used a computer to drill them on their letters and to do math problems. "We got a lot of math-related software. It's something he likes," Argue says about her son, Robert, an 8-year-old. "Kids still need to learn their basic facts. They do need some skill and drill."

Sorting out the kinds of software that best suit young children is a mixture of homework, intuition and guesswork. Just as parents keep watch on what books their kids read, the TV they watch and the movies they see, they also should be involved in selecting computer programs that engage their kids and serve some instructive end, according to Warren Buckleitner, editor of Children's Software Revue, an independent educational company.

Parents should look for programs that give young children a strong sense of control, allowing them to guide the action or story line, he says. In general, that means avoiding programs that ask children to answer math problems or vocabulary quizzes. Buckleitner and others say, however, that this sort of direct instruction can be a great way to use a computer if an older student needs practice with reading or math skills.

Don't underestimate what you can do with software that comes preloaded on a new computer, such as Microsoft painting and word processing programs, Buckleitner says. Kids love to doodle and draw, and the painting software lets them do that in new ways. As for word processors, they can be set to make the letters appear in various colors and sizes, allowing kids learn the alphabet and keyboard in a fun way.

"Kids come to the computer to be in control. They don't come to the computer to be passive," says Buckleitner. "Basically, kids will vote with their feet."

No matter what parents choose to do, they should take it easy. Even if kids don't use computers at all in their early years, it's not the end of the world.

"We would much rather have children come to us with lots of skills and ready to learn. It doesn't matter, it simply doesn't matter, frankly, what they've done at home, if they come to us excited about learning," says Ellen S. Schoetzau, principal of Mantua Elementary, a school that focuses on technology in Fairfax, and the one the Gross kids attend. Of course, she says, if a computer is available, "a child should be able to play with it. It's another tool for learning."

Robert O'Harrow Jr. covers technology and privacy issues for The Post.


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