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Kids At The Keyboard: How Young Is Too Young?
Tips on when to get them started
plus dadmag's software guide.

Sharon Goldman Edry

Before your baby was born, you probably figured your computer was sacrosanct, a friendly refuge. The keys were intact, the monitor fingerprint-free. Raffi didn't jangle out of the speakers. You didn't know who Raffi was.

Life a little different now? One thing that's very different: the huge number of fast-selling baby and toddler software titles out there, propelled by parents who think it's never too early for a kid to meet his mouse. Fortunately, a lot of experts think you should take your time before making your child a full partner in your computer universe.

Two-and-a-half to three years old is considered by many to be the earliest parents should plop their child in front of the monitor, goes the general consensus. Babies and toddlers are primarily sensory-motor-based creatures: they need to touch, feel, taste, bang, listen, and shake everything in sight. While there are software programs that can turn your thousand-dollar computer into a responsive busybox, there are many other, more stimulating objects you can choose. "If you want to throw away your money, that's fine, but you're better off buying a pet rabbit or some Playdough," says Warren Buckleitner, an educational psychologist and editor of the Children's Software Revue (
Sadly, most children's software packages often promote passive behavior and may not be educationally appropriate for under three. "Kids at that age don't need to learn to rhyme, to spell, to make meaning out of the alphabet," says James Oppenheim, a children's software expert and technology editor of the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio. By age three, children's gross motor skills have usually developed sufficiently to begin to control the computer mouse, and kids are able to understand what the computer does. But there's no need to rush what will eventually be inevitable. By age six, your child will probably have cluttered up your desktop with his projects and have you browsing Circuit City for a second computer. Get used to it.

Ready to get your child started at the keyboard? Here are some tips before you take off:

1. Watch out for squirming.
Don't expect your preschooler to sit silently at the computer for any length of time (as if!). Your three-year-old might be interested in a five-to-ten minute session, while a four-year-old can probably last 10-15 minutes.

2. Let your child drive the activity (is there any other way?)
Your child's interests and motivation should help you decide what and how much to do at the computer. If he's into the game, great. If not, let him go; he'll be back, eventually.

3. Remember, it's their game.
You may have bought the latest and greatest piece of software, but your daughter just wants to play and click on your old unplugged keyboard and pretend it's a cash register. At least you won't have to worry about her spilling juice on your keyboard or putting a piece of American cheese in the disk drive.

4. The goal: Instant feedback.
In the preschool years, software should be highly responsive and child-controlled. The second you click, something should happen: the cat meows, the dog barks, the cow jumps over the know what we mean.

5. Research carefully.
The vast number of children's software programs use one programming format, called Macromedia, and stick to four familiar types of games: jigsaw puzzles, connect the dots, coloring books, and match games. Why? Because they're so easy to write into the software. So with many packages, you're basically getting the same toy over and over again; the only thing that's different is the licensed character. Look for variety.

6. Don't bother with a special keyboard.
You may be tempted to try to save your own keyboard from a horrible fate by getting a special one for your child. But children's keyboards are mostly just colorful versions of the adult ones, and plugging and unplugging keyboards is both annoying and bad for your computer. So unless your child has his own computer, you might need to learn to share.

There are some terrific software titles on the market that are appropriate for preschoolers, if you choose carefully. Here's what DadMag recommends:

3D Cruiser (KBGear $49) Ages 3 - 6. - a steering wheel, attached to your computer, especially for kids.

Sketchboard Studio (KBGear $59.99) Ages 4-12. -- A drawing "pad" lets children paint and animate on the computer. Comes bundled with Disney's Art Studio 2.

Tonka Power Tools (Hasbro $49.99) Ages 4 & up. -- A gadget/software combo that comes with a toy power drill with a light pen inside that can be used to control the action on the screen. The drill can be turned into a virtual nail gun, sander, wrench, and power paint brush by a simple twist of a knob.

Lego My Style Preschool (Lego Media, $9.99) Ages 3-5. -- Interactive activities take place in a world full of familiar Lego DUPLO animals.

Freddi Fish's One Stop Fun Shop (Humongous Entertainment) Although designed for ages 3-8 it's really a better bet for the younger end of the range.

Clifford Reading (Scholastic, $19.95). Ages 4-6. A fun reading and letter game for your four-year-old; type any letter or word and the computer illustrates it.

Sharon Goldman Edry is a New York City-based freelance writer who has written for such publications as Parenting, Child and American Baby.

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