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March/April 2002
Volume 10, No. 1

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Growing Up Digital

By Kelly McElveen

Some kids know how to use a computer before they can read.

They log on. They log out. And in between they do everything from exploring the ancient world of Rome to making pie charts off a spreadsheet. They are not computer software experts. In fact, they have not even reached their 10th birthday.

These kids are growing up digital, and for some of them that means knowing how to use a computer before they know how to read. That is exactly what has some childhood experts concerned.

Dr. Jane Healy is the author of Failure to Connect, and she believes using computers before the age of seven can be damaging to children. She says our society has not examined the physical or developmental effects of computers on the young mind.

?The brain has so much to do early in life, and the brain works early in life with the body and the hands, with taste, with interpersonal relationships, with formulating language, with listening to other people, that I think it’s a real mistake to start children out so early that they lose out on those,? Healy said.

Healy’s book is based on her controversial argument that some software can change the shape of the brain.

?What we know can happen in a child’s brain is that it gets formed by the experiences that the child has and the things that he does and the things he’s interested in,? she said. ?Literally, it makes tracks in your brain, and the younger you are, the more plastic the brain is.?

And Healy is not the only one concerned. Last September, a child-advocacy group called the Alliance for Childhood published a report saying America’s love for computers could be stunting the intellectual and social development of children.

The reports says, “Children need stronger personal bonds with caring adults. Yet powerful technologies are distracting children and adults from each other.”

Even doctors are beginning to wonder about all this time spent in front of computers. The American Academy of Pediatrics released a paper calling for limits on ?screen time? Ñ the time kids spend in front of televisions, video games, and computers. They have also suggested that doctors take a ?media history? when examining a child.

But not everyone agrees with Healy’s theory on computers.

Warren Buckleitner is the editor of Children’s Software Revue and is an early childhood educator.

?Another huge problem that people make is they lump video games or they lump television which is a passive experience in with interactive technology. ItÕs a completely different psychology,? Buckleitner said.

He says when it comes to computer activity, the key is within the software kids use. ?Some software’s good, some software’s bad. The key here is that it’s up to the parent or the grandparent or the teacher to make the good match between the child and the software,? he said.

Buckleitner readily admits some software programs do not help children and that some marketers are just preying on parents' desires to make their kids smarter. One example is software that is designed for babies as young as nine months old.

?We actually saw some software that was designed to, you’re suppose to put the keyboard in the crib with the baby,? he said.

But Buckleitner says this does little to help baby learn quicker. ?You should use common sense. You should watch your child’s hands and watch their eyes and ask yourself, ‘Do I feel good about what’s going on?’? he said.

At the heart of the issue is the way children learn. In the early years, kids begin forming their language and social skills. They learn how to solve problems. They learn cause and effect. They develop motor skills and depth perception. The education experts agree kids learn through their senses by touching, tasting, smelling, and hearing.

And Healy says children may not be able to learn these lessons from a computer screen.

?I have a wonderful story from a kindergarten about a little boy who came home and mommy said, ÔWhat did you learn today? And the little boy said, I learned 2 + 5 = 7. Mommy what’s seven? And you see seven is learned by actually having seven blocks,? Healy explained.

Most computer advocates agree that kids still need that vital hands-on experience.

?I wouldn’t want to see you spending money on a CD-ROM instead of crayons and paper and blocks,? Buckleitner said. ?I think that’s a waste of money. They shouldn’t replace one another. They should supplement it.?

It is that precise balance schools are seeking as they incorporate computers into their learning programs. Kids today are more ?tech? savvy than ever before, and schools are tapping into that excitement for computers.

In one instance, Henrico County Public Schools, located just outside Richmond, Virginia, wants to put a laptop computer in every backpack. The school system signed a deal with Apple Computers for 23,000 laptops. Over the next four years, every student in the 6th grade and up will have one of the lightweight ?iBook? computers. Superintendent Mark Edwards says this bold initiative has fired up the student body.

?We’ll use the laptops as a primary tool,? Edwards said. ?We’ll use it for writing purposes, for notes; we’ll use it on a transition piece ultimately to replace the standard text with a more vibrant resource material.?

The laptop could be the future of education. CD-ROMs allow kids to see 3-dimensional recreations of everything from the ancient world of Rome to the inside of a tornado.

And the teachers CBN News talked to said computers increased efficiency in their classroom. Students can know immediately whether their answers are right or wrong. And that means more time spent on learning and less time waiting on the teacher.

?Our generation was primarily linear learners, we learned in a sequence, now students learn more in fractals. They’re fearless in terms of using technology,? Edwards said.

But Henrico County does not plan to throw out the tried and true methods of learning. Hands-on labs, textbooks, and class discussions will continue to be a key part of the classroom. Edwards says the computers will be used as they are now Ñ as a tool to help students finish their final projectsJane Healy knows computers are here to stay, but she encourages parents to take an active role in what their children are learning.

?The best way to find that out is to sit down with your child and participate in the whole experience,? Healy said. ?Now you may not know a thing about computers, but it’s okay to explore with your child and not know everything. It’s okay to let your kids show you something.?

Reprinted with permission from CBN News.
More from CBN News ... http://www.cbn.com

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