Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 55 / DECEMBER 1984 / PAGE 146

Computers And Society

David D. Thornburg, Associate Editor

Of Cats, Kids And Computers

I read an interesting article about cats. It was about an experiment in which newborn kittens were raised in special environments. One group of kittens was raised from birth in a room containing only vertical stripes on its walls, and the second group was raised in a room with only horizontal stripes on its walls.

As these kittens matured, they were released into the normal world of chairs, tables, and people, to see how they would react. The researchers in this study made some interesting observations. The cats that were raised among only vertical stripes fared well in the world of chairs and tables, without ever bumping into the legs by accident. But these cats never once jumped onto a chair or table top. As for the cats raised in the other room, their behavior was quite different. While they would frequently jump on table tops and chairs, they seemed to be forever bumping into furniture legs—almost as if they didn't see them.

Were these effects reversible? As I recall, it was discovered that the effects of these special rooms would wear off only if the kittens were removed from the rooms after a few weeks. If they were kept in these environments for a longer period, the sensory environment of their youth would forever influence their view of the world.

Kids, of course, are not cats, and yet parents share an almost instinctive need to provide their children with all the stimulation they can handle. From crib toys to peekaboo, our babies have their waking hours filled with the wide range of stimuli that might forever shape their own views of the world.

But, just as some of our parentally provided stimulation is intentional, some of it is not. A child who is raised from birth in front of a television set is likely to have a different world view than one who was engaged in more active pursuits. We have all heard of the toddler whose first song was "You Deserve a Break Today."

Childhood Discovery Tools

Fortunately, our babies don't rely on us as their sole source of stimulation for long. What parent hasn't noticed that the baby has been "too quiet," only to find that the little pumpkin is busily exploring the rich texture of strained apricots as they are pressed into the white living room rug a mere two hours before guests arrive for a formal dinner?

While most parents are not likely to view this incident with detached amusement and recognition of the strong desire of our children to make discoveries on their own, we do acknowledge the importance of discovery to our children and provide them with discovery tools of our choosing—blocks, dolls, trucks, and perhaps computers.

The notion that a computer can be a discovery tool for the very young is not particularly new. What is new is the growing realization that if computers are to be used by the very young, they must be used in ways that are completely different from the ways they are used by older children and adults.

I am often presented with opportunities to review commercial educational software for the preschooler. While this software has a certain appeal for the adults who purchase it, much of it is totally inappropriate for its targeted user. The reason for this is easy to detect: Our commercial marketplace has presented us with a problem. In order for a customer to find appropriate software in the store, a buyer has to be sufficiently impressed to purchase it. Amazingly few buyers for retail chains have Ph.D.'s in early childhood education, and the criteria that a buyer may use in selecting titles for inventory are likely to be different from those that are of importance to the cognitive development of a three-year-old child. As a consequence, I have seen otherwise charming alphabet-learning programs that paint words from right to left across the screen, thus causing the child's eyes to track in the wrong direction for reading. I have seen prereading software that includes (in small type) messages such as PRESS RETURN WHEN DONE.

In fact, good software is hard to write, and good software for preschoolers is very hard to write. Consequently, there is very little of it.

Designing Software For Tots

To see the nature of the problem, consider three aspects of a child's use of the computer. In order to interact with the computer effectively, three things need to be at the child's level: the input skills, the subject matter and style, and the information displayed on the screen. Some otherwise wonderful software has fallen short because of a failure in one of these areas.

Many of the shortcomings in early childhood software can be overcome by careful design of the program in the first place. While too many experts can ruin an otherwise good product, it is important that software be examined by someone on the staff who has worked extensively with children in the target age-range, and who knows their skills and limitations. It is also important that the software be tested (and modified and tested again) with a group of children to see what problems they uncover. In fact, most of the problems I have seen could have been trapped and corrected at the storyboard stage before a single line of program was written.

Of course, such testing is expensive, and it causes product development cycles to be much longer than they would be otherwise. When these factors are considered in the light that a good children's package may be harder to program than a new spreadsheet, it is a miracle that there are any good programs available at all.

In fact, there is much that any programmer can do to make sure that programs for young children are appropriate. On the content side, give careful consideration to the dominant learning mode of the child. If the audience consists of children who are engaged in making their own discoveries by physical experimentation, the interactiveness of the program should reflect this learning mode. If the program is to be used by early readers, be certain that the screen is free of clutter and the words are formed from characters that are easy to read. Just because a child can read a 1/4-inch-high letter in a book does not mean that you should use letters of this size when working with a computer display screen. You will want to use letters that are much larger and that are created with a very easy-to-read set of characters.

Keeping It Simple

Animation has its place, but words should not move across the screen while they are being read. Reading is a hard enough task as it is, and making the words move only makes it worse. You can test this on yourself by having words move across the screen in a language you barely understand. You will most likely find that the words are a lot easier to read when they are standing still.

If your software is to be used by a child who has no reading skills, and this software is to be used by an unattended child for purposes other than developing these skills, the screen should contain no words at all—ever.

Color and sound can be entertaining, but must be used carefully. If the object is to create a passive viewing experience as a reward, this may be fine. If these features are used as a bridge between other activities in the program, they may distract the child enough to cause the thought train to be broken.

While content and display present their own special problems, the real challenge comes from input. Devices like the joystick and KoalaPad represent two alternatives to the normal keyboard, but they may be inappropriate for some applications, especially when letters and numbers are to be entered.

As for the typewriter keyboard, we have two choices: We can either change the order of our alphabet for all time into QWERTYUIOP[]ASDFGHJKL;ZXCVBNM,.? or we can take advantage of special keyboards such as the Muppet Learning Keys from Koala Technologies. Muppet Learning Keys is a keyboard designed for children from the age of three upward. Its principal features are an alphabetic arrangement of keys, an uncluttered layout with one character per keytop, and functional clustering of keyboard characters. All the numbers are clustered into one grouping, colors are clustered into a paint box, and the alphabet is clustered in a writing tablet.

Since we teach our children the alphabet in alphabetical order, it makes sense for them to be able to use a computer keyboard that has the keys in this order as well.

Graduating To QWERTY

Of course, there is the question of when a child should make the move up to the normal keyboard layout.

To me, the essence of keyboard comfort is achieved by starting children off with something that they expect—alphabetic keys. This makes using the computer more transparent to the user, and gives the child a closer connection to the software, instead of requiring continued focus on the mechanics of the computer's operation.

Once a child has reached an age where he or she is ready to learn to type, the child's first exposure to the normal keyboard should be through a typing tutor program.

At what age should the transition take place? It depends on the child of course, but you should look at the skills needed to master the keyboard (and mastery does not include typing with two fingers). Is it a skill for three-year-olds? I think not. In fact, it might be appropriate for some preteens, but not all of them.

In fact, it isn't even appropriate for all adults!