Friday, 4 February 2011

How soon is too soon to start your child on computers?

TVNZ: “Parents buying laptops for students 'unrealistic
The Secondary School's Association is calling for the government to review its technology funding for schools as it says laptop computers are becoming a necessary part of meeting the curriculum.
    But Education Minister Anne Tolley says the government will not be paying for them. . .

wild-zoo-pre-school-childrens-computer-desk_0_0 How important are computers in a child’s education? Let me answer the simpler question first, i.e., how soon is too soon to start your child on computers? Answer: Any time before seven years of age.

Why? Because right up until the age of seven a child’s brain is almost literally being wired—neural connections are being formed around which myelin sheaths will be growing, forming the brain for life. What they learn and discover, and how they discover it, in those first seven years is quite literally going to be forming that brain. Children in this age group are learning via their senses, so active exploration is always going to be more beneficial than passive learning in front of a screen.

Children at this age (0-6) are in the process of 'setting up their file folders' for life; they do that by exploring their relationship with the world, and by beginning to fill those files with data from their many interactions with the world.  What they need is a rich, linguistically full environment in which to do it.

The primary means of learning at this age begins with touch, and thence through all the senses, linking touch, smell, sight, sound, motor skills and the kinaesthetic sense, integrating the data provided by all these senses.

What they lean from observing and playing with a real object is very different from the same thing on a screen. Think for example about the difference between seeing a flying thing on a computer screen and the same object in real life flying through the air -- something you can watch moving and chase and hold in your hand and weigh afterwards. Speed relative to the observer, a sense of gravity, momentum, inertia, a feeling for aerodynamics -- all of these are new data for a child that can be integrated through observation and experimentation with such an object.

None of this can be learned by sitting passively in front of a computer screen. After six, computers can become important, but not before.

Basically, what they experience at this age by staring at a computer is too arid and disembodied to do the job their brain development requires.

51W1NN Vp2L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_ In her excellent book Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds -- and What We Can Do About It, Educational psychologist Jane Healy identifies a number of developmental tasks to be mastered by the young child which may be distorted by too much electronic stimulation—particularly the important “executive function” of the brain. (These include learning to pay attention; learning to use all the senses; learning the difference between fantasy and reality, and living and non-living things; learning causality; learning to relate socially; learning to be an active learner; learning to remember, integrate and “juggle” one’s ideas; learning if-the (causal) reasoning; learning to internalise signs and symbols.)

She says,

_Quote In the case of the child under seven, there are few things that can be done better on a computer and many that fail miserably by comparison. 
    Because age six to seven represents such as important developmental milestone for the human brain, I believe it is a realistic steeping-stone into constructive computer use. In fact, for children above age seven, combining computer and manipulative activities may result in better learning.  Younger children however are better of spending time in a physically and linguistically rich environment.
   Even for children who lack this type of privileged existence, there is no evidence that today’s computer applications will make up the inevitable gaps.  Spend the money on early childhood programs.

Good advice.

So what about that other question at the top of the page: “How useful are computers in a child’s education?”  Once children are old enough for them to be useful, Healy allows they can be very useful indeed.  But she has more than a few caveats.—with some provisos:

_QuoteCan [computer] technology contribute to learning?  I think it can . . .
    If a child has sufficient cognitive skills and social development
   If technology is not substituting for important developmental experience
   If we are not expecting it to do what it cannot do
   If the technology complements a well-planned curriculum
   If it does not steal funds from more important needs (e.g., early childhood education, arts programs)
   If we are judicious in planning and selecting software and activities
   If we don’t become seduced by flashy graphics and digital legedermain
   If parents and teachers are willing to provide a human “scaffold” for technology=-assisted learning . . .
. . . then young people may profit from wise choices in this [still] emerging field.

That’s an awful lot of ifs.

Which seems to mean that for the second time this week I have to suck it in and say . . . the education minister has done the right thing.

And, yes, I really do like being able to say that.


  • If you’re really keen, you can check out Healy’s book at Google Books.
  • And this neat interview with Healy that starts with the Warning: The mind you save by not buying that whiz-bang computer could be your own child’s!

PPS: I notice that the ad presently above this post encourages you to patronise Kidicorp’s allegedly Montessori preschools by promising a “genuine program” and “licensed teachers.”  I suggest you not bother. Kidicorp’s allegedly Montessori schools are nothing of the sort, and the teachers therein are (for the most part) not Montessori teachers. Don’t be had.


  1. I fully expect that we will see Labour pledging to buy laptops for all school children (as promoted by Labor in Oorstraya)

  2. I agree here. Some parents mistaken that kids need to get access to the internet for learning, but that's a waste of time, because kids use it to get access to facebook & bebo which is not learning but time-wasting. These mainly come from naive or uninformed parents.

    Kids at this stage need interactive learning. I mean, some adults should be around there in the environment just to watch in case the learner (kid) asks something he/she doesn't understand, then the parent is there to help. The parent can guide or give short introduction to some concepts and then leave them to continue on exploring or say, doing exercises.

  3. According to Jane Healy are they able to watch television before age 7...... because that pastime is even less interactive than using a computer?

  4. I worry that as usual people just jump to the obvious ie all kids must use computers......

    The resources available are useful, but it's been oversold - often by teachers who don't actually understand them!

    I'm in IT, and have basic rules that my kids have to figure the PC out themselves - fix issues / load apps / figure out why they don't work, uninstall / google error messages. that in my view is where they are training their minds to analsye/logically think through issues. That is the real benefit not that they can use Word etc....

    The only bit I do is show them the insides so they get an idea what a PC is physically....

  5. You quite obviously have a lot deeper knowledge than I do on this subject, PC, but this is almost exactly my view too. I have 3 children who are all grown up now and when I get to be a granddad I will be encouraging my kids not to introduce computers to their children before the age of around 10. I will probably have a battle on my hands though because I already know primary teachers who seem to think that every kid should be wired up from birth.

  6. My son's public kindergarten provided a computer for their children (mostly 3 and 4 years old) to use. The staff saw it as part of their job to introduce the children to technology, help them learn to use a mouse, etc. It had an interactive "educational" game on it. There would regularly be two children sat at it, with one or two additionally watching. They only had the one computer though, so I'm guessing that means they didn't value the experience too highy.

    Back when I was in primary school (mid 80's), we all had regular access to computers, but it was specifically to learn about how to instruct a computer to perform certain tasks, using "turtle". I think that sort of learning would still be valuable, even from the young ages we were exposed to it. "Learning about computers" is surely to be treated differently from "learning with computers".

  7. I didn't watch much television. My earliest memory is watching the Apollo 11 moon landing and it has stuck with me.

    TV's no good for youngsters unless it's stuff like that.

  8. I really appreciate your post and you explain each and every point very well.Thanks for sharing this information.And I’ll love to read your next post too.

  9. I would love it if my children would not have had the slightest bit of interest in computers until the age of 13, as i feel they need to be kids before they discover the technology. But they all use them at school and their friends all had them, so it wasn't long before i caved in.

  10. The idea that there are special learning periods is wrong. Young children seem to pick up things like language, motor skills, more quickly than adults because they practice these things pretty much all their waking hours. If you practiced something as much you would also get good quickly.

    Computers per se don't impair thinking, but bad ideas can, and this can happen at any age. But we don't ban ideas do we? We counter then with other better ideas and anyone is capable of changing their ideas. Nothing gets permanently hardwired into a brain. Reason: we are universal knowledge creators.

    Another thing that impairs thinking is coercion and if you prevent any child who would like to learn about computers from going near them, then you are coercing that child, and that will indeed have bad consequences, unlike exposure to computers at an early age.

  11. @Brian, for someone so militantly uncertain, you do have a knack for making statements that sound very certain. Very "ex cathedra." But very, very wrong.

    The fact is that children do experience different learning periods--which makes sense, because the brain itself is not fully formed until around twenty-four (or, in the case of some followers of Karl Popper, perhaps never).

    The fact is that computers can impair brain development--for all the reasons mentioned above. You offer nothing in response other than conclusions backed by no argument.

    One thing that will definitively impair thinking however is your notion that there is nothing of which to be certain, and no way to be certain about it--and, too, your notion that children should be free to do whatever they want whenever they wish.

    Since we've had this argument before, however--each time taking the thread well off-track--and you've failed to convince me at any time of the merits of your arguments, I remind you that your comments on these threads are still unwelcome.

  12. @PC: It would seem that you are the one intent on derailing your own thread.

    By saying there are critical learning periods you are saying that learning is not determined by a child's ability to think but by his genes and you therefore deny the child his humanity.

  13. It's ironic PC would describe Karl Popper followers as not having fully developed brains.

    As far as I can tell, he has played the capitalist system far more successfully than anyone from the Austrian School.

  14. Oops forgot to mention who I was referring to in the post above: George Soros.

  15. I agree Peter - like TV, computers provide little real feedback, so it's hard to learn. Plenty of (longitudinal) evidence on the effects of TV. Effects of computers still sparse but likely to be negative in kids.


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