Imagine cuddling up with your small child to look at a picture book that is interactive, musical, responsive, and talks to you. This is the experience people have when they engage in that relatively new pastime – playing computer games with babies.
JumpStart’s Knowledge Adventure calls it “labware,” Kiddies Games’ logo is “Hop on the lap and tap.” Sesame Street’s “Baby and Me” opens with an animation of a baby monster hopping onto the lap of a Daddy monster to play on the computer. Playing computer games with your baby is promoted as a fun activity that a child and their caregiver can share. And rightly so, because whatever the activity, physical, loving closeness is an important ingredient that infants need for healthy intellectual, emotional, and physical development.
Reading a bedtime story to a small, eager child is a tradition in many homes. As the children age, this may be replaced by watching TV together. Our parents’ families listened to the radio together. Playing on the computer with a small child may become a new family tradition. Home computers and the Internet are making their way into more and more homes. Some parents use the computer in their work and are delighted to share it for a fun activity with their kids. Other parents want to make sure their children become computer literate. Well-designed, interactive, educational computer games engage small children as much as television. They are more educational than TV because they invite the child to interact and think rather than passively watch and listen. These are the reasons for the increasing popularity of toddler computer software. However, a relatively small industry, software for infants, has been cited as a very fast-growing one.
What computer software is available for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers? There are free games on websites, and there is download and CDROM software that you can buy. Most software for this age group is games, but computer storybooks also exist. Wonderful websites that offer free matches, of which many are suitable for preschoolers (preschoolers can do directed clicking with the mouse), are:
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Great free sites for babies (whose skills tend to be more limited to banging the keyboard) are CDROM or download software that you buy, which is usually better than free internet games. The games are generally superior (more graphics, music, and involved games for older kids). The software takes over the entire screen, which is more appropriate for young children who click anywhere and everywhere on the net. Some of the well-known producers are:
Computer game software for this age group makes conscientious efforts to be suitably educational. To judge their effectiveness for your child, try them out with your child. If your child finds it fun, then it’s probably educational. For a baby, fun usually means that the game responds in some way to random keyboard presses and mouse clicks and continues positively even when no input is forthcoming from the baby. A preschooler will need more of a challenge or more educational content, but the game should be designed to be always fun, reactive in a positive way, and self-resolving when the child does not get the correct answer. At this age, it is more important that computer games contribute positively to self-esteem rather than conscientiously correcting incorrect answers about educational concepts that the child will master when they’re older anyway. The KiddiesGames.com software is meticulous about adhering to these rules.
What types of skills are learned by playing toddler computer games? Computer software is unsuitable for practicing gross or fine motor skills. However, there are many types of educational concepts that computer games can help a child master, including shapes, sounds, cause and effect, identifying and naming things (such as objects and colors), increasing vocabulary, language concepts, the forms of letters, and numbers, counting, pattern recognition, detail observation, and word construction. At KiddiesGames, we strive to offer out-of-the-ordinary games for small children, such as foreign language exposure and practicing the positions on the telephone for dialing emergencies. The reactiveness and interactiveness of computer software are, of course, superior to that of books and can be superior to toys, especially in language. Infant computer games are also cited as excellent resources for children with special education needs because such games are simple, happy, brightly colored, patient, controlled by the child, and allow the child to make things happen.
An official recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics is to “Discourage television viewing for children younger than two years, and encourage more interactive activities that will promote proper brain development, such as talking, playing, singing, and reading together.” This has been taken as advice to avoid exposing those young children to the computer. However, well-designed infant software encourages those great activities of “talking, playing, singing, and reading together.” By carrying out the play activities proposed by the computer game, the caregiver is prompted with a framework or script for carrying out those “talking, playing, singing, and reading” activities with the child.
Experts now say that while computer games for infants should not replace toys, blo,cks, and books and should not be used as an electronic babysitter, they are yet another valid toy resource. For example, a summer 2004 Hawaii State Health Department newsletter encourages playing with labware. The emphasis is not on acquiring measurable skills or getting correct answers. Still, it is an open-ended exploration on the part of the child – which is another way of saying “having fun.” Children are programmed to learn and practice what they learn by playing and having fun.