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Software for Preschoolers Makes Market Inroads

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More U.S. families than ever are expected to buy personal computers this month, in response to intensive Christmas-season marketing and growing interest. Soon, more tiny hands will be grasping computer mice and clicking on cartoon characters to make them bark or sing, or dragging letters and numbers around the screen to form words or sums.

Software for toddlers and preschool children is a fast-growing market niche, according to industry experts. And of the 10 best-selling children's CD-ROM titles sold last year, four list an age span that begins at 3, according to PC Data Inc., a market-research company in Reston, Va. One program on the list is advertised for users as young as 18 months.

A study last March found that 62 percent of parents who have home computers and children who are under the age of six had purchased educational software for their youngsters to use, according to the Software Publishers Association, a Washington-based trade group. On average, those children owned six software titles.

Mary Rogers, the chief executive officer and a co-founder of ComputerTots, has noticed the trend toward younger computer users. The tutoring network, which is franchised by the ECW Corp. in Arlington, Va., has taught computer skills to young children at day-care and recreation centers since 1983.

The starting age for the program gradually has shifted down to age 3, she said. "More recently, we have children as young as 2 1/2 come into our program."

And the proliferation of computers--which are now in 34 million homes, according to the SPA--have "drastically changed the level of [children's] skill," Ms. Rogers added. Where once a newcomer would make a tentative poke at the keyboard, she said, "those kids now come to class knowing how to work a mouse."

How Early To Begin?

The National Association for the Education of Young Children earlier this year endorsed computer activities for children as young as age 3 or 4. Experts emphasize, however, that normal variations in child development can shift computer readiness by a year or so in either direction.

Charles Hohmann, the director of technology projects at the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti, Mich., has studied technology use by children who are as young as 2 1/2. He said a telling sign of computer readiness was when a child perceives the function of the computer mouse, which generally happens after the child has the motor skills to use it.

He recommended that parents look for software programs offering many diverse activities at a range of difficulty levels, an approach that might encourage siblings to use the computer together.

Avoid programs that are merely electronic versions of books, he advised. They can be just as passive as television.

The NAEYC statement, which was directed primarily at early-childhood educators, underlined the importance of teachers using professional skills to select and supervise computer activities. For preschoolers and toddlers, most of that task must be borne by parents, Ms. Rogers said.

Experts agree that activities using blocks, paints, puzzles, and other tangible items remain the foundation for early learning. "You really need those other kinds of materials first before adding computers," Mr. Hohmann said.

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