Technology is child's play

Computer literacy is important, but so is childhood innocence

Computer literacy is important, but so is childhood innocence

October 22, 2004|by CHRIS COPLEY

When she taught her granddaughter, Kaci, to use a computer, Shawnna Gonzalez knew she was pushing the envelope.

Kaci was 6 months old.

But Gonzalez wanted to try introducing her granddaughter to technology in a slow, sensible way.

"I think they are always old enough to understand your voice," she said. "I told her what the monitor is, what the keyboard is. I put her hand on the mouse. Very small doses. And it was very comprehensive. We had balanced meals, pretend time, outside play. And I introduced the computer."

Gonzalez, who is child development specialist with Washington County Family Center in Hagerstown, wanted the child she loved to know how to use the tool that has revolutionized American life in the early 21st century. But, like many parents and guardians of young children, Gonzalez doesn't want technology to distract children from traditional children's play.

Too early? Too late?

Deborah Phillips, director of the YMCA Day Care Center in Hagerstown, watches over children as old as 5 and 6. She doesn't want them to be overexposed to computers.

"It is detrimental for them to be on computers too much," Phillips said. "I'm sure some parents would disagree, but I think before children get to kindergarten, teaching computer might be too much. They have so many other things they are adjusting to."

Phillips said her own children first learned how to use a computer when they were 6 and 10. That seemed like a good age for them, she said.

"They enjoyed it and learned quickly," Phillips said. "I had to limit their time on the computer to one hour a day. Now they can practically put one together."

But Phillips is not entirely opposed to young children using computers.

"We had some parents who gave us a computer," she said. "The kids were able to play games on them. Games are probably OK at age 5."

Like Phillips, Rick Burkett, principal of Broadfording Christian Academy just east of Hagerstown can see both sides of the kids-and-technology debate.

"I love technology, and computers are almost as commonplace as the TV at home," Burkett said. "But computers should not be used as a electronic babysitter. Computers are not an end unto themselves. They are a tool."

Basic training

Since computers are so thoroughly integrated into modern life - common in schools, offices, factories and libraries, not to mention homes - Broadfording wants to make sure its students are computer literate. Burkett said computer instruction begins in elementary school.

"What we're finding is that kids are developing bad keyboarding habits on their own," he said. "Even at that early age, you have to undo bad habits."

And, at least early in their computer learning curve, Broadfording students do not cruise the Web by themselves, Burkett said.

"As you know, the Internet is access to all of the world - the good, the bad and the ugly," he said. "So we have controlled access, and close adult supervision. It's like learning to drive. You'd never put a kid in a car and let them on the highway without an adult with them. Handling technology is similar."

Pay attention

Burkett said teachers have a particular concern about early use of computers, hand-held game computers, TV and other electronic entertainment. Students who spend a lot of time watching TV or surfing the Internet seem to prefer their information in quick bursts.

"I think kids who are overexposed to VCRs, TVs, computers have a shorter attention span," Burkett said. "They can not sit and listen to a speaker develop an idea. They are used to the sound bite, the quick score, so they can advance to the next level (of the computer game)."

This can have a negative impact in the classroom, Burkett said. There are studies that associate attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children with high levels of computer and TV use. Burkett tried to explain the phenomenon without judgment.

"What we're seeing are students who process information in a multisensory fashion," he said. "We try to engage them at one level. They're used to processing at many levels at once. They're used to to turning off information they don't want - changing channels, looking for something more interesting - so they may have a hard time staying on task."

Burkett said these children are overstimulated. That is, they are used to lots of action.

"I think if you walk into an arcade, you get a good idea what overstimulation is all about," he said. "When you have a child used to that environment, they have a hard time sitting still in school."

Body and mind

Although she introduced her granddaughter to computers early, Gonzalez said she has an old-fashioned view of computers. She favors hands-on play, not virtual play, for young children.

"If children are on computers too much, the first thing is they don't get exercise," she said. "Also, they forget to use their imagination. They don't get to use their parents' clothes to pretend in. That's what I have found."

The Washington County Family Center advocates a full range of traditional play for children and parents, Gonzalez said. Read together. Get the art materials out. Go outside and run around. If computers are a part of a young child's life, she said, let it be in short time slots. Maintain a balance among all activities; don't rely on computers or the TV as babysitters.

"I'm kind of the old school of thought," Gonzalez said. "Turn off the television at night and make a cozy nighttime routine. Make it cozy for you and for your child. This brings the child and parent closer together."

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