Parents used to preen when a toddler was on the cutting edge of stacking sturdy towers of wooden blocks. But now, many wonder if they should be giving equal time to helping Junior log onto preschool Web pages.
Among the fastest-growing niches for educational software are programs that target the five-years-old-and-under set. Some companies are also churning out colorful, sturdy computers to lure toddlers. And the nationwide rush to put computers in schools can make parents feel that Net-savvy children are a top priority.
But amid all the fuss, a number of experts are urging caution - and reminding parents of more-traditional hardware: wooden blocks and other basic toys.
Early-childhood experts agree that infants and toddlers need to use all their senses to learn about their world, not just hearing and sight. The best way for them to do that is through play with real objects, in real time and real space. And given that most kids will know the Microsoft minuet by middle school, experts say, it can't hurt to postpone the introduction to the world of double-clicking.
"Blocks provide the opportunity to build with someone. Children learn decisionmaking about what to build," says Micki Corley, co-director of Preschool Experience in Newton, Mass. "They learn about similarities and differences. It's open-ended play. They can build a rocket ship, and halfway through it becomes a rocketship boat. Videos and computers are passive..., and kids get used to having something started for them."
Some experts, however, say the best approach is a balanced one.
"Computers are such a big part of our world that some appropriate introduction is not a bad idea," says David Whittier, assistant professor at Boston University and the coordinator for Educational Media Technology.
"There is something to be said for living books, interactive books. [Kids] can also learn hand-eye coordination from clicking."
Rachel Burg, who will be 2 in May, first began playing on a computer when she was 16 months old. Rachel loves the Arthur interactive books and the Barney home page, says her mother, Jill Burg.
"My rap on the whole thing is that if you use a computer as a babysitter, that's not a good thing," says Mrs. Burg of Hartsdale, N.Y. "It's a problem if the child is unattended and alone. But working with a parent or caregiver, it can be wonderful stimulation. There are programs that can enhance visual and spatial skills."
Nevertheless, computers pose a key problem: Most toddlers have not yet mastered the coordination it takes to direct a mouse or a trackball. This can lead to frustration, particularly in toddlers who can't voice their wishes very easily.
In addition, most preschoolers won't sit still for longer than a few minutes. Because of this, it's best in general to wait until a child is about 4 before introducing her to the computer, says Julie Wood, lecturer and director of the Harvard Literacy Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass. At this age, kids have enough patience to spend about 15 minutes with a program, and can point and click their way through the software.
Some parents and teachers worry that computers could hamper a very young child's social skills. But others point out that the short attention span of most toddlers is a safeguard against long hours in front of the screen.
"No two- or three-year-old will spend the time on a computer it would take for their social skills to lag," says John Speight of Nanuet, N.Y.
Mr. Speight and his wife, Liz, allow their two-year-old daughter, Isabelle, to play occasionally with the computer. But the Speights feel that while some exposure to computers is positive, there will be time enough for them when she is older.
"I do get concerned about introducing computers too early," says Ms. Corley. "I think at this stage the seeds for growth are just starting. Computers are two-dimensional, and they are socially isolating."
Playing with blocks or in the sandbox, on the other hand, can teach preschoolers how to deal with disappointment. They learn what to do when someone has the red shovel they want, or how to join the three kids already busy building a castle.
That's not to say kids won't feel the lure of the computer. Take young Sonya Levine. "I like crayons," says her mother, "but Sonya would pick the CD-ROM over 'burnt sienna' anytime."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society