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Experts Offer Tips, Cautions On Teaching Young Children

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Computer use is rising slightly in public preschools, and more significantly in grades K-3, experts say.

One of the most extensive statewide efforts is in West Virginia, where all elementary schools are using computers in kindergarten and 1st grade as part of a 10-year, $70 million effort to phase in a computer-based basic-skills program in grades K-6. The program, launched by the state legislature in 1990, also includes extensive staff training.

Some private child-care and preschool centers around the country are linking up with franchises such as Computertots, which bring in their own teachers to give computer lessons. Parents usually pay to enroll their children, but some programs are funded by schools, P.T.A.'s, or Head Start programs.

After conducting a study to evaluate the effectiveness of computer use at 11 Head Start centers that were part of a special demonstration project, the federal Head Start Bureau in 1990 lifted an earlier ban it had imposed on buying computers with Head Start money.

"These grantees have found that computers can be a useful learning tool for many preschool children,'' concluded the bureau.

The Mobius Corporation, which was involved in the study and published a guide to using computers in Head Start programs, estimates that Head Start programs make up about a quarter of the 1,500 sites using Kidware, a software package the Alexandria, Va.-based firm designed for preschoolers.

But preschool computer use is still fairly limited, notes Charles Blaschke, the president of Education Turnkey Systems, a consulting firm in Arlington, Va. Some regional Head Start offices, he says, "have yet to be convinced that computers can do anything in terms of developmentally appropriate instruction.''

Educators say such concerns were warranted in the past, due to a lack of appropriate, high-quality software for young children.

But technology experts observed at a recent conference of the National Association for the Education of Young Children that software for young children is improving and becoming more "child-centered.''

Coloring-Book Test

An N.A.E.Y.C. technology panel is drafting guidelines for using technology to teach young children; it hopes to complete the document in July.

At a technology session at the N.A.E.Y.C. conference, Charles Hohmann, who is directing a High/Scope Educational Research Foundation project integrating I.B.M. computers at several preschool and elementary school sites, said that early-grades classrooms ideally should have one computer for every three or four children. The terminals, he said, should be in accessible spots with minimal glare and low tables.

Hohmann also said that time should be set aside daily for children to work on computers individually as part of a selection of free-choice activities, as well as for group activities that involve sharing.

Software should be selected to address specific curriculum areas, he said, and new programs should be introduced in "teacher led'' activities. He also urged extensive and ongoing staff training.

For more guidance on using computers with young children, conference speakers cited such publications as an annual software guide published by High/Scope; a bimonthly newsletter published by Warren Buckleitner, a doctoral student at Michigan State University; and the Journal of Computing in Childhood Education.

They also stressed that software programs should be easy for children to use and interact with and should stimulate open-ended exploration, while instilling confidence and spurring collaboration.

In choosing software, educators should steer clear of unimaginative exercises that "you would never accept in a coloring book,'' said June Wright, an associate professor of education at Eastern Connecticut University and the chairwoman of a three-year-old caucus of technology and early-childhood experts that meets at N.A.E.Y.C. conferences.

A key question, said Daniel Shade, the past chairman of the caucus and the director of the Technology in Early-Childhood Habitats Project at the University of Delaware, is "What can a child get in front of a computer that you can't get anywhere else?''

Lack of 'Social Context'

Barbara Bowman, the vice president for programs of the Erikson Institute of Advanced Study in Child Development in Chicago, worries that too many children are learning to use computers without understanding their "social contexts.''

"Your knowledge of the social situations in which data is collected is as important to your understanding as the picture itself,'' Bowman maintained.

As with a book or story, she argued, children need to know that real people with particular points of view produced what is on the screen and that children "can be in control of technology.''

While early-childhood experts tend to decry using computers for rote drills, Buckleitner, the publisher of Children's Software Revue, cautions against "ruling out a whole body of computer activities that are effective in giving children practice'' in various skills.

While "many people would like to pretend video games don't exist,'' he also noted, educators should instead "think about how they can be used'' to enrich learning.

Citing research showing that children benefit most when teachers choose computer products that they can weave into their lessons, experts say computers should be used to supplement rather than replace other learning tools.

"Computers belong in the regular program along with paints and blocks and everything else--as a medium children should explore and use sociably together,'' said Gwen Morgan, the founding director of the Center for Career Development in Early Care and Education at Wheelock College.

She also highlighted the need to insure that outside instructors are qualified and use the best products, and warned against limiting instruction to children whose parents can pay.
--DEBORAH L. COHEN

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