We both have toddlers equal age and talked quite a bit about their excitement for our daily work tools and how much is too much and some other parenting things. Here are the answers.
Until fairly recently, I thought of myself as a computer-savvy American. I learned BASIC in grammar school, became proficient in MS Office as it grew and changed, and made chat room mistakes early. I became friends with programmers/engineers/system architects, asked questions, and learned from the answers. I was the person who first built, and later picked out the computers for my parents and less-savvy friends. Then I started working for a giant tech company, running a website that caters to users of a specific programming language. I didn’t know anything about it, but I asked even more questions, and eventually how to translate what the answers to those questions meant in Normal Person Language. I hung in there, and I learned even more. I didn’t learn how to be an engineer, because the engineers are better at engineering that I ever could be. But, I got pretty good at translating Computer People Language into Normal People Language. I was pretty sure I was a Computer Person, or at least adjacent to them.
Then I had a child. A wonderful, bright little boy who is currently three-years-old, and is proficient on my smartphone. So, here is your first lesson: If you think you know something about computers, just stop right now. If you are correct, and you have a programming background, this is not your article. But if, like me, you suddenly feel like the generational gap is widening around your laptop, there is help available. There are two kinds of folks from here on out: Them and Us. They know what they’re talking about, and we, most assuredly, aren’t even sure where to start. That can be fixed.
The second lesson is: There is a very real probability that your child(ren) will become/already is one of Them instead of one of Us. And that’s GOOD.
Being computer-savvy in the modern world doesn’t mean our kids will grow up to be nerds (though, here’s hoping, because nerds make more money and have more influence on shaping our society than just about anyone). They might become doctors who use imaging to treat patients, writers who build their own websites, or anybody who goes home from their 9-5 job to write an app for extra cash or fun. Being a “computer person” no longer means you work in tech, it has become a component of life.
In an effort to not be left behind by our own children (Who had to teach their parents how to text? Show your hands. Everyone? Good.), we’ve put together a guide to help you get and stay up to pre-kindergarten speed.
Question #1: What in the heck is Minecraft, anyway?
If you are a Clueless Parent, you’re probably here because Minecraft. Here is a pretty good overview. Go read it.
Once you’ve read that, email me with any questions, and bookmark MineMum for later. For now, you should know that Minecraft is the game all the kids are playing, and it is fast becoming a first gateway to nerdom. You should try playing it sometime, too. It’s really pretty fun.
Question #2: I want my child to be exposed to computers at an early age/I’m scared of my child being exposed to computers at too early of an age. How young is too young? And how much is too much?
Let’s tackle the big stuff first, right? The answers are: I don’t know and It depends.
To address the second question first, I’m sure you’ve read all the research headlines about screen time on developing brains. But, I hope we can agree on a difference between learning new skills via technology and letting Bob the Builder raise your offspring. Does your kid show an aptitude for visual learning? Maybe that kid can benefit from early computer games. Is s/he listlessly poking around on Google looking up words you don’t understand but frighten you? Pull the plug and get on your bicycles. But, if your child is showing a true interest in something, I trust you will encourage that as much as you feel comfortable, and then go get on your bicycles. Because, seriously, bicycles are awesome.
Now, how young is too young? That’s sticky. My three-year-old is obsessed with my laptop. It has become impossible for me to get any work done while he’s around, because he’s constantly launching sneak attacks to hit the spacebar or calculator quick key. He is in love with that calculator. If I leave the computer to get some water, when I come back it looks like I won at Solitaire. Does this mean I’m enrolling him in a toddler CompSci class? No. What does he know about what he likes? He’s three. He also likes it when I hit him with his beanbag until he falls down.
There are lots of apps and games to help develop your toddler’s squishy brain in a STEM direction, but let’s not get bogged down in big dreams of Nobel Prizes just yet, k? Learn the alphabet, play outside, figure out how not to poop during the night. These should be the toddler’s focus.
Question #3: That’s great. But where do I go?
If you want to encourage (or start) your child’s computer development, I can personally and highly recommend downloading the Magic Desktop for your little one. I’ve made my son a user account on my computer. His icon is his picture, and his password is his name. The only thing available under his account is the Magic Desktop. A lot of it is still beyond him, but he’s familiarizing himself with a keyboard, learning how to launch apps, and has a bunch of educational games he can complete on his own. There are also solid parental controls and customizable options for many ages. I’ve found it to be a great tool for both of us.
Are you more of a study/research type? Try Kids, Computers, and Learning: An Activity Guide For Parents. It will help you get hands-on at an early age, and keep control of what your kids are learning on computers. It’s a handy resource to keep in your library, especially for non-tech ‘rents who are struggling with first steps, and scared about second ones.
Do you have a little builder? Maybe more like four, five, or six, who likes to get his/her hands on the Legos? I LOVE the Kano for the younger set. Build your own computer! It is so simple for adults, even clueless ones, and is a great first project for young kids. Even if it turns out to not be their specific interest, they’ll love the satisfaction of building their own computer. Bragging rights are important.
If they Kano bored them, or they zipped right through it, try one of the Snap Circuits kits. The Jr. is their first-step system, where you and your child (if they’ll let you) can build over 100 experiments like flying saucers and alarms. Who doesn’t want to build a flying saucer? COME ON.
Did I go too far for you? Let’s take a step back and look at educational games on your computer. We utilize the websites from Nick Jr., PBS Kids, and especially our old, familiar friend, Sesame Street, which has a “Parent Tip” attached to each game, giving you an offline activity to do with your child. My son loves Dinosaur Train, possibly more than he loves me. Thanks to PBS Kids, we can watch the cartoon, play the game, and learn from the app on my phone.
Question #4: All in the same day?
No, and that’s where the real stuff comes in. More than being one specific thing, we want to encourage our kids to be healthy and well-rounded. Computers are awesome, but so are bicycles (I really love bikes). Being present while your child is learning is important, but so is letting them figure things out on their own. Using your brain is healthy, but so is using your hands and feet.
Show them some of the above programs and games, see if they like them. I can also recommend some non-electronic games that will stimulate the same sort of brain functions, like the Perplexus and Quirkle for the first school years, and building sets for kids who have outgrown MegaBloks but aren’t quite ready for Kano. Our lucky kids have innumerable options available for learning these days. And we lucky parents can present them with a variety of ways to grow and express themselves.
Two last links of advice. If you’re looking for some guidelines as to what is actually educational and what is pap with good marketing, bookmark and use Common Sense Media and the Center on Media and Child Health. These are two useful resources that research and nurture child development in a media-rich culture.
So, be skeptical, but not scared. Be proactive, not reactive. The world has changed since we were kids, and it can be overwhelming. But, we all want to encourage our children to be the best people they can be, now and later. Our computers can be incredibly useful tools toward that goal, and it’s up to us to learn how to utilize them correctly.
Now go outside and play.