Preschoolers and Computers: Too Young or Over the Hill?

First Annual Preschooler Lecture on Cognition and Technology

Invited Address by Tess V., Age 32 Months

March 17, 1999
CEP 909: Cognition and Technology

The rapid development of new information technologies has raised a wide range of important questions for society. An important example is software designed for younger and younger children. How young is too young?  Do children learn anything from this software? Why do parents purchase software for children and how do they view their children's use of such software?  How much time should children be allowed to spend with computers?

Ergonomically, some worry about the possibilities of long-term damage to children's hands or eyes from early and prolonged use of computers.  Others wonder whether young children can manipulate a standard mouse and keyboard. Given these pressing questions, for which research is scant and strong opinions are rife, it was with great pleasure that our seminar welcomed Tess V., noted expert, active user, and much-sought-after expert, to give a thought-provoking lecture on the question, "Preschoolers and Computers: Too Young or Over the Hill?"  Augmenting her demonstrations with carefully chosen words, Miss V. was a master of the Socratic style, allowing students to carry the discourse evoked by the questions her presence posed so thoughtfully. ("Brevity is the soul of wit," Polonius, 1663.)

Miss V.began her presentation with a tour of some of the features of Jumpstart Preschool for the benefit of elderly members of the audience whose Stone Age upbringing had not introduced them to this educational environment.  Moving quickly, Miss V. demonstrated features such as numeration (connecting numbered dots in order), painting, and musical melodies, including the ever-popular, "I'm a little teapot, short and stout, here is my handle, here is my spout!"

In response to questions from the audience, Miss V. reported that she currently recommended two programs, Jumpstart Baby and Winnie the Pooh, which she left at home today, fearing it was a bit advanced for an introductory lecture. She encouraged advanced students to look at Winnie the Pooh as an independent study.

Speaking through her mother, Tess admitted that her mother had had some doubts about her ability to use a standard mouse and had considered buying a trackball, but Tess found the mouse quite adequate, though in proportion to her small hand, she thought it might be more appropriate to refer to it as "wharf rat" instead of "mouse," admitting marketing problems with that name.  Her mother reported that she tried to limit Tess' time on the computer because her hand and eyes appeared to become tired after a while.  Two hours was seen as the upper limit that might be desirable. Attempts at having Tess limit her time with a clock timer had not been completely successful, given the intensity of Tess' engagement with the computer. Tess referred students interested in this issue of ergonomics and children to a recent article in the New York Times.

Tess' mother also reported that Tess seemed to like the self-directed nature of computer use, perhaps because, according to some developmental psychologists, children at this age (unlike graduate students) like to have control over their lives. Her mother had thought that using the computer might become a "family activity" but so far it has not worked out that way because of Tess' desire for autonomy.  Tess did not need to be shown how to use the program and after a few days the parents had been rendered "superfluous" by Tess' competence.

In terms of learning, her mother reported she felt that Tess had learned the days of the week in order from the program. For example, if asked what day comes after Wednesday, Tess responds correctly. Similarly, she had learned what letter words like "book" began with.  Tess supplemented her mother's remarks by demonstrating her skill in connecting the dots in response to the nurturant voice of the computer: "What number comes after 3?"

Tess' lecture stimulated other questions from the enthralled audience, including contrasts between educational software and games, the development of handedness and ambidexterity, effects of computer-based environments on learning curves, definitions of giftedness, and sustainability of early childhood interventions on later school performance. Her mother's comment that seeing Tess' work with the computer had led her to consider enrolling Tess in school early led to a discussion of issues surrounding acceleration and enrichment approaches.

In response to a question from the audience, Tess referred members of the class to Children's Software Review for a responsible collection of reviews of children's software.

There being no further questions about Jumpstart Baby, Tess briefly demonstrated a new CD-ROM from Blue's Clues, a show on Nickelodeon Junior. She encouraged the audience to note the high quality video but questioned the level of interactivity the program provided.  "Perhaps this would be more appropriate for a younger child," she was imagined to have said.

Sensing that the audience's attention was beginning to wander, Tess suggested that perhaps her time would be better spent at the MSU Dairy Store. The professor apologized for the limited attention spans of students at this age and Tess shrugged her none-too-large shoulders, saying ruefully, "What can you do...they've been in school a long, long time, haven't they?"

After graciously acknowledging the sitting ovation, our first annual distinguished speaker departed. After her departure a (regrettably) unidentified member of the class was heard to murmur, "We should have Tess back next week. At least, she doesn't talk all the time." Overhearing this, the professor asked for two volunteers to lead the discussion next week of chapter 4 and two volunteers for chapter 6, and looks forward to receiving email from volunteers shortly.

PS: Tess phoned to say that she thought the class behaved very well but recommended that I require students to explore the Knowledge Adventure (publisher of the Jumpstart series, HyperStudio, and other software) website.  She noted that the website includes tipsheets for parents on improving their children's math skills and free web-based activities, such as a coloring book, for kids whose cave-dwelling parents won't buy their children the CD version.

Required Surfing: Knowledge Adventure website.  Please explore enough to read the company's philosophy, see the entire Jumpstart series, and try at least one of the web-based free activites. Reflection questions: 1. Would you recommend Jumpstart Preschool to a parent of a preschooler?  2. Would you like to work for this company?  3. Do you think such software could help children from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds?  4. Are there other questions you'd like to answer? (If so, write them and respond.)