Everyone knows that babies crawl before they walk, and that tricycles come before two-wheelers. But at what age should children get their first cellphone, laptop or virtual persona?
These are new questions being faced by 21st century parents, and there is no wisdom from the generations for guidance. You can’t exactly say to your teenager, “When I was a boy, I didn’t have an unlimited texting plan until I was in high school.” Some parents eagerly provide their children with technology. “My four-year-old has been on the Web since he could sit up,” says Samantha Morra, a mother of two from Montclair, New Jersey. “My six-year-old has an iPod and wants a cellphone, although my husband and I aren’t sure who he’d call.”
Others, like Christine Jorgensen, a mother of three from Flemington, New Jersey, are more cautious. “I’m not a huge fan of flooding my children’s lives with the latest gadget,” Jorgensen says. “My children go online for schoolwork, but our computer is in my sight, and protected to the teeth.”
Photo by: Jupiterimages India
What’s the right approach? Studies of child development offer some middle ground. Long before the invention of the first microprocessor, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget identified four stages of cognitive development by watching his own children. His theories bring some logic to the debate about how to support your child’s growth with thelatest technology.
Ages 0-2: Babies and toddlers cannot use a mouse until at least two-and-a-half years old, and flat monitors do not offer much in the way of stimulation in Piaget’s first stage, “sensorimotor”. To work at this age, technology products must act like a busy-box, with lights or sounds that respond to a child’s actions. Toys like the Laugh and Learn 2-in-1 Learning Kitchen ($71, www.Fisher-Price.com), which has doors and switches for a baby to explore and a crawl-through doorway, fit well with this stage. But even these activities should take a back seat to real experiences. It makes sense to stick to materials that squish in a child’s hand. Invest instead in a camcorder to catch those first steps.
Ages 3-5: “Preschoolers today are growing up in a digital world, and they see their parents using devices like cellphones and computers,” says Sandra Calvert, director of the Children’s Digital Media Center at Georgetown University. “They like to play with pretend cellphones as if it were the real thing.” This pretend-play is actually an important part of the Piaget “preoperational” stage, when children first understand that they can control the events on a flat screen.
This is an age when they can take real pictures with cameras such as the V.Tech KidiZoom ($60, www.vtechkids.com), and explore versions of their favourite shows on PBS Kids (www.PBSKids.org) or Nickelodeon’s Noggin (www.noggin.com). For $10 a month, Noggin removes the ads, and the activities adjust to achild’s level.
A TV can be made interactive with the growing number of TV toys such as ClickStart: My First Computer ($60, www.leapfrog.com), or video game consoles running games such as Go, Diego, Go!Safari Rescue ($40, www.take2games.com, for Wii and PlayStation).
Portable game systems that can make it easier to wedge a wriggling preschooler into a car seat include a Leapster ($60, www.leapfrog.com) or Nintendo DS, running software such as Scholastic’s Animal Genius ($30, www.animalgeniusds.com).
All of these are well suited to this stage of development.
Ages 6-11: At the age a child can ride a bicycle comes the ability to search the Web, and the whole digital world starts to open up. Suddenly they are hooked on favourite video games and watching funny videos on YouTube. But Piaget labelled this stage “concrete operations” because children still have trouble with abstract ideas. Prof. Calvert reminds parents that electronic devices should be used to “supplement rather than replace real experiences”, and encourages them to “make sure there’s an overall sense of balance” in activities during this stage of life.
This is a time when parents need to keep an eye on the screen and steer children towards good sites, such as Club Penguin (www.clubpenguin.com), which introduces the notion of chatting and the online stand-ins known as avatars. It also teaches them that there is no free lunch online, and that paying members ($6 a month) can have a fancier igloo. While video game consoles such as the Wii and PlayStation have fewer gimmicks, they have been known to eat up large chunks of a childhood if used unmonitored in dark basements. Fortunately, the number of games with redeeming qualities is growing.
Age 10: By now many children can start editing videos and programming with software such as MIT’s Scratch (www.scratch.mit.edu), a free download for Macintosh or Windows. Scratch lets children drag and drop routines that take the form of jigsawpuzzle pieces.
Ages 12 and up: Besides being much harder to wake up, middle- and high-schoolers are reaching the cognitive functioning of an adult.
They have entered Piaget’s “formal operational” stage, able to juggle synchronous streams of information from phones, MP3 players and laptops. Communicating with friends is on par with breathing, to the delight of your wireless provider.
In fact, cellphones are now more or less mandatory for children at this age. Besides providing a social advantage, phones can reduce parental stress in a crowded mall, get children in touch for homework help, serve as a call to dinner — and be withheld as punishment that really works.
Giving college-bound children their next digital prize, a laptop, while they are still in high school gives them time to set up their MP3 players, learn how to find Wi-Fi zones and write papers before they are on their own.
They can also create portfolios on Google Page Creator (www.pages.google.com) to show off their accomplishments to college admission offices or future employers.
If he were alive today, Piaget would probably advise parents that for a young child, everything—whether it has batteries or not—is a discovery waiting to happen.
But toys work best when they are matched to a child’s level of development.
©2008/The New York Times