Thursday, May 13, 2010

Books vs computers: the Zillion Dollar Question

Q:
In this new computer age what are your recommendations for when to introduce a computer and how much computer time to allow. I have studied for boards and am  impressed by how many more questions I can do in a night when I am using the computer version than the paper version of review questions. I know computers can teach but I am also concerned about avoiding nurturing a game addict. Preschool software to teach shapes and letters and numbers seems very tempting. Your thoughts?

  • A computer is indispensable for adults and most school children.
  • Computers can both save time and waste time.
  • Toddlers sitting on your lap will be interested in what you are doing, in the screen, and in the keyboard (they would be interested if you were sorting beans or weaving a basket) and they quickly become comfortable with this tool and know people look at the screen and move fingers on the keys .
  • Children born in the computer age are digital natives (unlike me for whom "computer" is a second language) and being comfortable with a computer is an important pre-skill to learning how to use it.
There is no evidence that early exposure to computer software designed for preschoolers helps them learn to read or write. Rather it is being on the parents lap and interacting with Mommy or Daddy. You don't need special software to show the young child that the screen changes when you use the mouse or keyboard. Save your money.

One study showed that a small sample of parents who were asked about computer usage in their preschool children-reported that about 18% used a computer on a given day. Children age 2 1/2 were "lap users" but by 3 1/2 parents reported autonomous use of computer and mouse. There is a "digital divide" with low income and ethnic minorities reporting less computer ownership and usage.

I believe in the wonderful, time honored triangle that we know helps children acquire literacy skills: parent's lap, book, and young child. I don't want this to be supplanted by the computer. I also worry about the development of attention in the young child. There are data that suggest exposure to screens (TV, computers) with rapidly changing pictures and accompanying noise can interfere with pathways that enable us to attend. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends NO screen time before age two I like to stretch this out to almost three or at least minimize screen time before age three.

To answer the book vs computer question, I advocate doing both: let your young child see what you are doing with the computer AND give the child plenty of "triangle" time with you and the book. I know how busy parents are today so please don't let these words make you feel guilty if you can't follow my suggestion. Every normal child will learn to read. Maybe a bit earlier if you have books in the house and the child sees you read. Maybe earlier if you spend time reading to your child.

Try to spend at least 15 minutes a day reading to your child. Don't stop when the child can read. Continue, alternating the child reading to you and vice versa. And be sure your child sees you read. The most important reason for doing this is that it's enjoyable! For both of you.


This answer is  NOT intended as a substitute for professional
medical care. ALWAYS consult your physician or childcare expert
if you have any questions concerning yourself or your family's
well being.

Tell your friends they too can get a personal answer to their
parenting question from Dr. Heins and can subscribe to her free parenting newsletter by going to http://www.ParentKidsRight.com.

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