THE WORLD INSIDE THE COMPUTER
Fred D'Ignazio, Associate Editor
New research suggests that infants are much brighter than we once thought. This research has prompted anxious parents who are worried about their children's ability to cope with a high-tech future, to enroll their infants in computer courses before they are even out of diapers. After class, the parents bring the kids home and drill them using flash cards. On the cards are written words like RAM, ROM, BITS, and BYTES. The parents think that early familiarity with computer technology and jargon will be the youngsters' ticket to a good college and a successful career.
Unfortunately, these parents are teaching their kids skills that may soon be obsolete. After all, it will be the twenty-first century before today's infants enter college or the job market. Between now and then, computers are going to change drastically.
Instead of concentrating on bits and bytes, parents of young children should concentrate on more general skills. They should strive to build a relaxed, comfortable relationship between their children and computers—a constructive relationship that enhances the child's self-image and self-confidence. As the child gets older, this sort of relationship will be more enduring and more valuable than specific skills which may quickly go out of date.
Fred D'Ignazio is a computer enthusiast and author of several books on computers for young people. His books include Katie and the Computer (Creative Computing), Chip Mitchell: The Case of the Stolen Computer Brains (Dutton/Lodestar), The Star Wars Question and Answer Book About Computers (Random House), and How To Get Intimate With Your Computer (A 10-Step Plan To Conquer Computer Anxiety) (McGraw-Hill).
As the father of two young children, Fred has become concerned with introducing the computer to children as a wonderful tool rather than as a forbidding electronic device. His column appears monthly in COMPUTE!.
Understandably, parents want their children to do something productive on the computer. For example, they may buy drill-and-practice software that will help give the child a boost in a school subject with which he is struggling.
At first, this approach works well. The child diligently works at the computer and seems to be making progress. But then boredom sets in, the software's novelty fades, and the child loses interest in the computer. The parents' natural reaction is to make the child sit at the computer and continue drilling.
Unfortunately, this approach may lead to toddler burnout. For many kids, the joy of computing is replaced by the drudgery of computing. Computers are no longer fun, they are pure work. If kids are "strapped to their computer" every afternoon (as I was once strapped to my piano), they could develop a lifelong negative attitude toward computers and a mental block about using them.
The Computer Playground
We have so many computers around our house that people think we must be a futuristic family. They think that our computers are plugged into everything, including the coffee maker, the thermostat, the bathroom scales, and the toaster oven. They think we live computerized lives.
Nothing could be further from the truth. When I get the chance to tell people what really goes on, I say that we have an Erma Bombeck household. Sure we use computers, but not to make our lives more rigid, organized, and mechanical. Instead, we use them as an electronic playground—and not just for Catie and Eric, but for me and my wife, Jan, too.
When people ask me what kind of software we buy for the kids, I say that we buy the software that turns us on. Then when the kids see us using the computer and having a good time, it gets them excited, too.
At my house we don't think of play as trivial. To us, play is a product of love. If we love to do something, it isn't work, it is play.
I would like my children to love to use computers, to use them playfully and creatively. I never want my kids to feel that computers are chains tying them to a hateful task. Instead, I want them to see computers as wings that enable them to swoop, dive, and have fun, and take them to new heights and soar to the limits of their abilities and imaginations.
The Computer As A Babysitter
The computer makes a great babysitter—even better than TV (unless you have cable, a VCR, and lots of tapes). It will soon be a big temptation for parents to turn on the computer to get their little kids out of their hair.
The computer can make a healthful babysitter—to a point. It can provide a much-needed break for a harried parent. And it can become a child's companion and a patient teacher. Also, flying solo on a computer can be a very positive experience for a child. It can give them a sense of control, mastery, and responsibility that they seldom experience at such a young age.
However, it is easy for little kids to get too much of a good thing. More than computing they need time to play with other children, get lots of exercise, fresh air, and experience the joy of swinging, digging in sand, and getting elbow-deep in finger paints.
Most important of all, they need to spend time with their parents. Computers make great toys, but they cannot replace parents. Parents are children's first and most important toys. Computers make a very poor substitute.
New games are starting to appear (including many programs from Children's Television Workshop, Spinnaker, Sunburst, and Counter-point Software) that encourage parents and children to play on the computer together. Then the computer changes from being a babysitter that isolates the child to an electronic hearth that brings the whole family together actively and happily. In fact, studies at New York University suggest that computers encourage families to spend more time together.
Computer Elevator Shoes
Computers are like booster shoes. They can give handicapped people a boost so they can go about their lives on par with the rest of the world. Computers can also play this role with young children.
My children are always at the bottom of the family totem pole, except when they use the computer. I encourage five-year-old Eric and eight-year-old Catie to do things on the computer that enhance their abilities, that increase their self-respect and self-confidence, and give them a leg up on the rest of us. Here are some of the things our kids do on their computers:
- Gobbledygook Processing. Five-year-old Eric bangs on the keys of the computer and gets it to print out page after page of gobbledygook. Eric is learning how to type, he thinks he is doing work, and he takes his gobbledygook to school and sends it to both his grandmothers. Remarkably, the gobbledygook is gradually starting to make sense. Real words, phrases, and sentences are starting to appear. Most important of all, Eric is developing the habit of using the computer as a tool to help him think better and not as a crutch to do his thinking for him.
- Training The Family Pet. Catie and Eric treat our computers like pets. Sometimes they pull their tails, but mostly they are learning "computer manners"—how to treat the computers kindly and responsibly. They can turn on all the computers, use the floppy disks and cartridges, and call up all their favorite programs. Eric, for example, is so good that when I hired a housekeeper and a secretary, he taught them how to use the family computers.
- Computer Scribbling. Catie and Eric have a skill that Janet and I have lost: They can scribble! When we turned Catie and Eric loose on a computer touch tablet—like the PowerPad from Chalk Board and the KoalaPad from Koala Technologies—it was incredible. The tablets enhanced the kids' motor skills, allowed them to make fine, detailed changes to their drawings and pictures, and gave them the freedom to creatively scribble. We now have a slideshow of the children's computer pictures and a door full of their drawings on the new Macintosh computer.
- The Computer Sandbox. The children play games on the computer that give them the most control. They control the computer, rather than the other way around. One of the children's most popular games is to play on the keyboard, pushing buttons just to see what happens. They call this "Flying the Cursor." Doing this they have discovered how to get the computer to make moving rainbows, colorful letters, upside-down letters, pictures, and sounds—all without writing or buying a single program.
- The Electronic Picturebook. The kids have both learned how to read by using computer adventure games for young children like Sierra OnLine's Troll's Tale and Dragon's Keep. They enter the microworlds inside the computer and instantly become the heroes at center stage. To journey through the world they have to remember where they are, and read the signs in the pictures and the messages at the bottom of the screens. In these games, words gain real meaning and power. They are the keys Catie and Eric use to outwit an ugly troll or rescue small animals from a mean dragon.
Robots: Bag Ladies And Alarm Clocks
We have lots of computers around the house, but we also have robots. In fact, we run a flophouse for robots. We never know when a robot will come to our door looking for a home. Then I write an article about the robot, and, pretty soon, we have to send the robot along to another writer so they can write about the robot, too.
My children love robots—not as servants, but as pets. When TOPO the robot came to visit us, for example, my children noticed that TOPO was naked and dressed it in various costumes. My son tied his blanket to TOPO and turned it into a superhero. My daughter dressed TOPO as a New York bag lady, as a little girl, and as a witch, complete with a long pointed hat, a black cape, and vampire teeth.
TOPO never washed any dishes, made any beds, or took out the trash, but it was still useful. Every school morning, I turned TOPO on and sent it into the children's bedrooms to wake them up. When Jan and I wake up the kids they growl, whine, and complain. But when TOPO appeared, did a silly jig, and said, "Wake up, sleepyheads. Time to get out of bed," the kids got up smiling and gave the robot a hug.
Robots may never be good as maids or butlers, but they make great pets and alarm clocks.