Four-year-old Michael McCormick stared intently at the monitor and slowly counted a row of rockets. Maneuvering a palm-sized gadget, he selected "16" from a list of digits on the monitor's right-hand side. A grin spread over his face as all 16 rockets shot into space, accompanied by a burst of funky music.
Michael had just learned how to use a computer.
The San Marino youngster is one of many enrolled in Futurekids, one of a growing number of private computer franchises designed to make children comfortable with computers and avoid the technophobia some of their parents suffer.
The Los Angeles-based company, which targets children from 3 to 13, has grown to 150 franchises since 1983, when Peter Markovitz established the first center in Westwood.
Markovitz attributes his company's rise to a philosophy that integrates computers with traditional teaching methods.
"The computer is not everything, and that philosophy is what made us the leading computer school in the world," said Markovitz, who established the company to help pay the bills as a film student at USC.
For example, Futurekids maintains a ratio of one teacher to four children, and youngsters can be seen using computers as often as they do crayons.
"It's not with fancy technology we can teach our children," Markovitz said. "We know children need fun with learning. We know children need love and attention. We're so old-fashioned. We do the obvious--what other people overlooked."
When Markovitz established the first center, parents were more comfortable with traditional teaching methods than with computers.
"They were appalled and thought you were going to connect electrodes to (children's) brains," Markovitz recalled. "Now there's such an overwhelming demand."
The company is opening 10 to 12 franchises a month around the world. There are 17 franchisees in Los Angeles, including the Westwood center.
"Our goal is to have 1,500 centers in the next 30 months," Markovitz said. "We would like a computer school in every other neighborhood just as there is a music or dance school."
The parent company, excluding all franchisees, earned $2 million last year, Markovitz said. He expects the company to earn $3.5 million next year.
A greater acceptance of computers in education has also increased the number of enrichment programs, said Mary Rogers, co-founder of Computertots, a Great Falls, Va.,-based computer literacy program for children ages 3 to 8. Founded in 1984, the company offers programs at 43 locations in the United States and Korea. It serves about 12,000 students in the United States alone, she said.
According to Edward W. Warnshuis, publisher of Technological Horizons in Education Journal, a lack of school computers has created a higher demand for computer learning centers.
Last year, the average school offered one computer for 22 students, he said, giving the average student about 1 1/2 hours a week on a computer. Faced with those statistics, parents are eager to sign up their children for computer enrichment programs.
At the San Marino Futurekids office, parents pay $75 to $95 for their children to attend a monthlong, once-a-week class after school.
This summer, Futurekids offered monthlong computer camps for more than 70 students in San Marino and Temple City. For fees ranging from $299 to $399, children became computer literate by using programs that required them to manipulate a mouse, operate printers and even transmit videotape footage to computers.
Gerald Kwon, 8, of Glendale participated in the summer camp with his brother. Gerald said he liked "playing computer games," which are disguised software programs that address subjects ranging from mathematics to creative writing.
Other students participated in the summer program for more traditional reasons.
Carol Laing of San Marino and her best friend, Lindsay Waite of Pasadena, both 11, wanted to hone their typing skills. As sixth-graders, they are expected to type their school reports.
To ensure that children become comfortable with computers from the start, they are introduced to easy software programs at Futurekids.
"If the program is too difficult, their first impression of the computer is that it's difficult," said Beverly Kidd, who operates the San Marino Futurekids franchise with her husband, Patrick.
All the software used at Futurekids is available elsewhere, but the center "has gone through literally thousands of titles," said Patrick Kidd, who selects programs most likely to captivate students.
Despite the popularity of the classes, some educators see a downside to computer learning.
"Our society is much more of a solitary society," said Valerie Wallace, a psychologist with the Los Angeles Unified School District. "We have a tendency to sit at home and watch TV. It is much more isolating with computers and hand-held calculators."
Critics say that although computers teach facts and help drill students on their lessons, there is no substitute for a good teacher or classroom learning.
"You can't take that human element out of it," said Victor Placeres, assistant director of the Information Systems Branch in the Los Angeles school district.
Advocates of electronic education, however, say centers such as Futurekids enable children to get the most out of software programs by providing a structured environment.
"Parents don't know how to get kids to use (academic software programs)," Beverly Kidd said. "When you're at home, you have so many things to do you're not as devoted to it."
Anne Au, whose 7-year-old son, Andrew, has been participating in Futurekids since last September, praised the center's educational programs.
"They're able to cater to individual kids' needs," said Au, whose son enjoys creative writing but dislikes using paper and pencil.
"Writing on paper seems to be more of a chore," Au said. "It's more fun on the computer."
Supporters of electronic education say computers have endless patience and provide immediate feedback to students. What's more, computer-literate youngsters are better listeners, have greater hand-eye coordination skills and can follow instructions more readily than those who have not had computer education, one preschool teacher said.
"It helps their attention span," said Lilli James, a preschool teacher at Tender Care Child Development Center in Inglewood. "It helps them to better focus on whatever is in front of them."
Although some educators say preschool is the ideal age for introducing youngsters to computers, Wallace said computers should be gradually introduced to children between 1 and 4 because they develop at uneven rates.
For example, a computer may be inappropriate for a 3-year-old if the child isn't interested, Wallace said.
But computers can be a rewarding experience for young children "if somebody sits with them, plays a game with them," Wallace said.
Patrick Kidd said the human interaction is crucial.
"Creativity doesn't come from the computer but between the students and teacher," Kidd said.