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. . .
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.
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.)
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.
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:
Can [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.