ALAN CHENG ignores the caged rabbit, his classmates, and the colorful clutter of his classroom to focus on a large computer screen. He dons a pair of oversized black headphones and palms a computer mouse only partially covered by his diminutive hand.
Within seconds Alan is singing ``Eensy Weensy Spider'' aloud, his head bobbing up and down along with the cartoon characters on the screen. When he bakes a computer cake, the spider cracks a one liner: ``This cake is delicious; I think I'll give up flies.''
The humor wins over its audience. ``I like the computer,'' Alan says, ``because it's funny.''
Alan, a five-year-old kindergarten student at P.S. No. 1 in lower Manhattan, is one of a growing number of children age 3 to 6 nationwide who are learning on high-tech interactive computers. He clearly enjoys the machine, a sentiment which some educators feel can give it a revolutionary role in teaching the very young. Others are not so sure and say the computer may turn out to be just an overhyped tool.
In any case, interest is booming nationwide. There are now 600 educational software programs aimed at children age 3 to 8, up from about 250 five years ago, according to Charles Hohmann, whose Ypsilanti, Mich.-based nonprofit High Scope Foundation publishes the ``Buyer's Guide to Young Children's Software.''
Dustin Heuston, head of the nonprofit Waterford Institute in Sandy, Utah, which designed the software and donated the computers to P.S. No. 1, believes that computers can have the same radical effect on education that the printing press did in the 15th century. ``For the first time ... since the invention of the book, the additional available work that the education delivery system can produce will be increased exponentially rather than arithmetically,'' he writes in an essay ``School Improvement Models.''
One of the computer's great virtues, educators say, is its ability to give poorly disciplined children the kind of individualized attention impossible in a large class. For example, one child who frequently wanders away from group activities at P.S. No. 1's kindergarten class pays close attention when his turn at the computer comes up.
``Any discipline problems sort of melt away when you take kids to computer lab,'' says Jeannette Hom, a P.S. No. 1 administrator. ``It makes learning a lot of fun and really painless.''
For socially disadvantaged children, it's especially important to start computer training early, Mr. Heuston says, lest they fall behind other students and never catch up. ``The social implications are staggering,'' he says, because today ``inner-city children are losing about half a grade [of learning] a year.''
Some educators respond that Heuston and others overglorify the potential of the computer for the very young.
``They are going to get more language exposure which is certainly great, but it doesn't mean that kids are going to be suddenly reading at age three,'' says Sharon Carver, a cognitive psychologist and director of the Children's School at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg. ``They are always going to have certain memory constraints.''
Anastasia Samaras, director of teacher education at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., contends that while the computer is a useful tool, it is often wasted by untrained teachers who are unsure what to do with the machine. She says some teachers see computers as little more than electronic babysitters.
Propopents counter that computers can help give students of different ethnic backgrounds a common reference point. For example, about 70 percent of children at P.S. No. 1 are of Chinese decent. With the latest CD-ROM software, the children can further their knowledge of English through interactive games that fuse sharp video images with songs and spoken sentences.
Financing remains a problem. Waterford, funded by grants and software sales, has set up the P.S. No. 1 program and will add computers to another New York City public school and three private schools next month. Other schools turn to parents, grants, or their own budgets to buy computers.
Money is also an obstacle in software development, which means that many programs on the market lag behind educators' lofty visions. ``Most of the software they have available is not very good,'' says Avrum Weinzweig, professor of mathematics at the University of Illinois in Chicago who directs a program that trains kindergarten and elementary-school teachers to teach math using computers. ``The problem is that the money isn't there, so the really top software people'' work in more profitable areas, he says.
Financing hurdles aside, some worry that better software will mean that Johnny will spend too much time in front of a screen, isolated from his peers. ``Like everything else, it should be done in moderation,'' says Cornelia Brunner, associate director of New York's Center for Children and Technology.