The BBC featured an article on their site last week, The rise of the cyber children
. Basically describes a debate concerning when kids should begin using computers and if they gain any benefits from starting at an early age. Some of the interesting nuggets:
1) 4-7 year olds in a London school participating in weekend computer programs. Article says the kids were recently plugging numbers into Microsoft Excel. No doubt: MS Office is one of the killer apps in education.
2) Kids as young as 18 months are being introduced to computers, developing those motor skills that'll let 'em point and click for the rest of their lives (or maybe not...point/click may not be around in 5-10 years, never know). Some quotes from groups saying that traditional computers (mouse, keyboard, display) may not be appropriate for age 1.5-2.5 years.
3) Questions about whether early training makes a difference later in life. No strong evidence presented either way...clearly something researchers will be investigating.
I found this interesting since I have an 18 month old daughter who's been exposed to computers from day one. She actually doesn't know much about the mouse/keyboard or the Web and all the stuff it offers (for better or worse). She still thinks computer displays are where people come to talk to her. We did a lot of (Apple) iChat video conferencing with family over the years. The other night we connected with her aunt, baby girl did her best version of carrying on a conversation.
It's a traditional computer, but we haven't exposed her to all the mousing, double clicking, etc. Not that I believe kids shouldn't touch computers at an early age. In fact, I'd be happy if my girl could start programming with me...I could use some help cranking out projects.
Even if I hadn't shown her a laptop, she (and other kids) are basically surrounded by computers these days. Hit any toy store these days, and you'll find a rack of toys that talk, dance, and respond to kid actions because of their embedded microcontrollers. Leapfrog's Learning Friend Lily
is one of my daughter's favorites. Press Lily's foot, and she sings this counting song that slowly gets into parents' heads...you'll be singing that sucka all day long. No mouse, no keyboard, but Lily certainly has to be considered a computer. And the good thing about her is that everyone get sucked into her singing, making it an interesting prop for socializing with the kiddies.
Same time this article was released, I was polishing off a chapter for a book where I talk about video conferencing and Lily, how they faciliated social connections between my daugher and her grandmother. I'll have to post the chapter once it gets through final edits with MIT Press. I wasn't arguing that kids should or shouldn't get on machines early in life, but I suppose if pressed I'd argue for.
Rather, kids are gonna see various forms of computation early whether parents like it or not (most people's cars are just big computers on wheels these days, never mind your cell phones with the cameras, your microwave ovens, iPods, etc.). If parents/teachers supervise the activities and support kids in learning with the devices...well, they're no different than books. In fact, it's funny that we'd have debates about computers and their effects since we don't seem to question things like crayons, analog dolls (as opposed to digital ones), Legos (and even they've had computational cousins for a long time), etc.
If I put on my "scholar cap," I'd say there needs to be more sociocultural studies of computing in early childhood. Looking to quantify motor development due to playing with a mouse...well, someone must study that stuff, but better them than me. I'm more interested in understanding how parent-child interactions (or older peer, grandparent, etc. interactions) around computing in various form factors might assist social aspects of learning.
But I seriously hope my baby doesn't start using Powerpoint at age 2. That's another story for another posting...