Important to Link Software to Child's Level

It's clear that choosing computer software that's appropriate for a certain age group is one way parents can cope with the wide range of titles available for kids younger than 5.

For all kids younger than 5, it's important for parents to choose software that uses pictures and sounds rather than text to instruct players, says Vicki Folds, vice president of early childhood education for Tutor Time Child Care/Learning Systems.

These programs also should offer different levels for each set of skills and supply many learning options, she said. Folds, who oversees computer centers in 200 Tutor Time locations, has devised technology tips for the 35,000 kids younger than 5 who visit these centers.

"We allow the child to make the choice," Folds said. "We've found that for very young children under 18 months, [the PC] won't be a big attraction. They are active learners and have to move, feel, touch and taste--things the computer may not satisfy."

Although educators differ on what the best age is to start kids on a computer, here are some general tips from Folds and other education experts:

* 18 months to 2 years: Computer use at this age is best when shared between a caregiver and a child for periods of less than 15 minutes. The experience, however, is mostly passive for these kids. Although they can track what's happening on the screen, they aren't able to make much happen themselves--aside from banging on the keyboard or the mouse--or to understand why it's happening. Most experts agree that computer use for kids younger than 2 is unnecessary.

* 2 to 3 years: These kids can interact with the software in rudimentary ways, such as singing or dancing along with characters. Most kids younger than 3 will struggle to master the mouse, so it's best to continue to have a caregiver assist them when they're using the PC, Folds said. Software that parents choose for 2-year-olds should focus on teaching colors, but not letters and numbers--skills that aren't appropriate for this age group, one expert says.

* 3 to 5 years: These kids have better motor skills and thus are more adept at using the mouse and keyboard. They are able to spend more time working effectively with software. Experts caution that these kids should still have time limits on the PC and be watched closely for signs of addiction. (Introverted kids will tend to spend more time at the PC when they should be socializing.) Three-year-olds can experiment with cause and effect in simple environments such as interactive stories and play rooms. Titles that teach kids how to draw or let them create things are best. These kids can turn the computer on and off and choose from a selection of software.

Some educators say despite the boom in software for very young kids, old-fashioned reading and writing are still the best way to teach toddlers. For kids younger than 5, the best predictor of how well they'll read later in life is based on how much they're read to when they fall into this age group, says David H. Rose, director of the Center for Applied Special Technology, which develops Internet-based software for interactive learning.

"If you had a choice to read your kid a book or to use a computer, the book should win every time," Rose says. "But in our culture, we are greatly unequal in our ability to sit with our children and read. For kids that don't have parents reading to them, I would recommend good early reading software."

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