BOSTON — With one thumb in her mouth and the other cradling a mouse, my not-quite-three-year-old daughter sits on her knees on a chair, completely engrossed in the computer screen before her.
As she methodically clicks and drags her way through Living Books' "Little Monster at School," I stand by the doorway, equally captivated. Yet I can't decide if I am charmed or horrified. Here's my child doing what I (a near illiterate on computers) had only dreamed about scarcely a month ago. I wonder: Is this a healthy activity for such a young child?
Watching her, it seems completely natural. As she moves the mouse around with her tiny hands, she giggles with delight at each new revelation in the adventure. A large part of me is proud. She is becoming more independent, making decisions, using critical thinking, interacting in a way that TV never allows.
Sometimes, her artistic nature comes to the fore, and we sit together writing stories and making pictures. She's becoming more creative.
And I, ever the conscientious and vigilant mother, am helping to outfit my daughter with skills she will need for the future.
What about handwriting?
But what about in the long run? Are we setting up our kids to be so computer-dependent that they can't handwrite legibly, have no interest in drawing or painting the "old-fashioned" way, can't negotiate a library? It's still a controversial issue, and the jury is still out on definitive answers.
In my quest for coming to terms with this new electronic world that will inarguably play a significant part in my children's future, I start to read. I ask around. What do other parents, pediatricians, experts, and educators think about the computer for pre-schoolers?
I start with a respected researcher, MIT's Seymour Papert. In his engaging and informative book "The Connected Family: Bridging the Digital Generation Gap," Dr. Papert makes a convincing philosophical argument for computers in the home, maintaining that children have a spontaneous desire to learn. He believes the computer is most effective for younger children when it is viewed simply as another form of play, a way for kids to learn, and grow independently.
With both my daughters (2-1/2 and 7), I find that the most effective computer learning comes disguised as game-playing. In the experience of Sister Rosemary, who teaches kindergarten at Walnut Park Montessori School in Newton, Mass., "They're learning skills and they don't know it - math facts, matching letters, word problems.
"Children who can't read start because they want to play the game without a grown-up around. It improves hand/eye coordination and increases the attention span. The negative aspect is that they sometimes don't want to do anything else." I found that, too.
What about actually reading books? Do all these interactive projects make regular books seem anticlimactic?
While it might have that effect on some children, I was surprised to find it quite the contrary. The best of the electronic storybooks, such as those in the Living Books series, made my kids eager to read more, on and off screen.
And what about the various creativity programs? Are the high-tech results they produce making crayons, paints, and clay obsolete? Not necessarily. Seen in the most positive light, one of the best of the creativity programs, such as the art classic Kidpix Studio, simply add to the palette of artistic possibilities, and I've noticed that the professional-looking results engender great confidence and self-esteem.
Two neighboring mothers agree. "It's a different field," believes Heloisa Pedrosa, who has two young girls. "They still like to work with crayons, but with the computer, they get a sense of how to visualize and spatially distribute things in a much nicer way."
Susan Belton, also the mother of two and a professor of art at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., cautions, "The key is that these programs be used in addition to, not instead of, traditional arts materials."
That kind of "complement" versus "replace" philosophy is one I've tried to apply.
How much computer time?
And how much computer time should a young child be allowed? Harvard Health pediatrician Kathleen Caruso recommends, "Parents need to set a reasonable limit on the total amount of screen time - that includes the computer, the television and video games added all together." So, overall balance seems to be the key.
Ultimately, the best way you can find out if the computer is having a positive effect on your child - in fact on the family in general - is to roll up your sleeves and experience the computer first-hand with your kids. Explore, play games, discover, and learn.