In today’s society, where computer literacy is considered an essential part of education, many parents assume that the earlier their children are introduced to technology, the better.
Entire multi-million-dollar industries have sprung up to cater to this assumption, introducing multitudes of smart toys as well as an explosion of the phenomenon known as lapware, such as JumpStart Baby and Baby Wow.
So named because babies play with it while sitting in Mommy’s or Daddy’s lap, lapware is designed to introduce infants as young as six months old to the keyboard, mouse, and monitor by allowing them to flail at the keys and produce images or sounds.
But do computer games for the diaper set, or for older preschoolers, actually help tots gain an intellectual edge or lead to success in school and workplace?
The consensus from a number of experts is a resounding no.
“Absurd,” was educational psychologist Jane Healy’s comment regarding the trend of putting babies in front of computers.
“Bogus,” said parenting columnist John Rosemond.
Art Rogers, editor of a California education newsletter entitled Technotes, stated his opinion of computers for preschoolers even more strongly.
“It’s criminal,” said Rogers.
Contending that software companies have “programmed” parents, Rogers wrote, “Parents need to wake up to the fact that software companies are in the business of securing a market share, exploiting that market share and making as big a profit as possible, not making your children intelligent, happy, functioning individuals.
“Computers cannot give children what they need most disparately in this increasingly inhuman world: human intimacy and connection with nature.”
Not only do Healy, Rosemond, Rogers and others call software for youngsters a waste of money; they are concerned that too-early introduction to academic instruction can be downright damaging to developing brains, and even set the stage for learning disabilities. As David Elkind, author of Miseducation, put it, “The parent’s lap notwithstanding, the use of computers with the very young carries many more risks than it does benefits.”
Its may be true that some familiarity with a computer can help preschoolers with manual dexterity, increase self-confidence, and perhaps even boost spatial or logistical skills.
And it’s clear that the greatest benefits of computers for children -- as with any electronic device -- are derived when used side-by-side with adults.
Nevertheless, many professionals do not recommend that children under three years old use computers at all. Software programs for infants and young children don’t provide them with the physical movement and active manipulation needed for sensorimotor and cognitive development, and may inhibit intellectual growth by limiting a
child’s real outlets for early stimulation.
In other words, computers simply do not match the learning styles of preschool children, who acquire knowledge of their world through their bodies -- by crawling, walking, talking, exploring the three-dimensional world, and interacting with human beings. Children are better off, experts say, acquiring manual dexterity, spatial skills and self-confidence through concrete hands-on activities such as building sandcastles and manipulating blocks and puzzle pieces.
What’s more, wrote Elkind, a professor of child development and one of the foremost critics of computers for young children, an infant’s visual system is relatively undeveloped. “We don’t know what the effect of watching a computer screen may be on the visual system which is not adapted to that type of stimulation or overstimulation.”
In addition, said Elkind, “encouraging the child to concentrate on visual stimuli could lead him to neglect information coming from the other senses. This is an age when children should be developing all of their senses to aid in sensory integration. “
Emotional bonds are key
A decade ago, Brian Harvey of the University of California at Berkeley noted that the Alliance for Childhood had called for a moratorium on further introduction of computers in early childhood and elementary education, except for special cases of students with disabilities.
Noting studies showing that infants prefer to look into the face and eyes of other human beings when interacting, Harvey agreed.
“[A baby’s] whole being is naturally tuned to learn through the window of feelings,” said Harvey, and parents should focus on the essentials of a healthy childhood such as building strong bonds with caring adults rather than structured “lessons” at the computer.
Although Healy began her research positively inclined toward computers for children, the author of Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds -- for Better or Worse eventually decided that computers are of questionable value in education, and could do harm to vision and posture. Healy has also said that computers “stifle learning and creativity” and suggested that conversation and play with family members provide just as much
educational stimulation as software -- with the added benefit of social interaction.
“Many adults think that something wonderful has happened when their three- or four-year-old succeeds in making a few words appear on a computer screen,” wrote Alison Armstrong and Charles Casement, authors of The Child and the Machine: How Computers Put Our Children’s Education at Risk.
“But something equally wonderful happens when that child takes pleasure in tracing patterns in the sand, makes a tower out of building blocks (and knocks it down again), or has conversations with a teddy bear.
“Computers cannot provide these kinds of sensory experiences, nor can they cultivate the emotional and intellectual bonds that develop between children and those who help them learn.”
Society’s ‘self-destruct mode’
Just as a computer cannot duplicate the three-dimensional physical world, it also cannot duplicate the emotional attachment between child and parent, and the kind of learning that takes place when babies explore their world alongside a parent.
Unfortunately, said child psychologist Paul Schwartz, too many parents see early stimulation programs as a panacea, and rely on them to the exclusion of more proven, time-tested activities. If parents want to boost their babies’ brain power, says Schwartz, they don’t need to buy computer programs or smart toys. Among the proven methods of enhancing a tot’s learning? Talking, singing and reading to them, engaging them in movement games, and taking them to zoos, museums, and libraries.
“This is a time,” wrote Harvey, “for storytelling, music, creative movement, song, drama, making things with the hands ... cooking, building things, and other handcrafts; and gardening and other hands-on experiences of nature and the physical world,” wrote Harvey. “In short, every educational technology that touches children’s hearts. “
But as Schwartz has observed, busy parents with technology at their fingertips find it all too easy to over-rely on that technology. And as with any technology, computer games used as a supplement to normal face-to-face interaction, art projects, and outdoor activities might be of some limited value. But used as a replacement for interaction and creative activities, such programs are worse than useless.
Art Rogers, who like many psychologists suspects a link between the growth of ADD and the effects of “MTV-style technology oversaturation on the developing brain,” predicts that ADD will only increase as children are exposed earlier and earlier to “instant gratification, multi-media technology.”
Rogers even goes so far as to predict that in the future, plaintiffs will bring class-action suits against software makers similar to those now brought against tobacco companies, alleging that manufacturers have recklessly endangered public health by selling a product known be to hazardous.
“What kids should be learning are social, relational and emotional skills that don’t evaporate with market swings or technological changes,” said Rogers. “Sadly, those are some of the very same skills (honesty, good citizenship, etc.) the American Association of School Administrators found parents ranked below computer literacy.
“And we wonder,” Rogers concluded, “why our society seems to be in self-destruct mode.”
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