Because computer knowledge is vital in our society today, many parents believe that the earlier their children begin to use the computer, the better. By the preschool years, most children are spending time on computers at school and/or at home. But is it healthy for preschoolers to be interacting with computers? And if so, how do parents decide how much computer time is beneficial or when it’s too much?

Advantages of Computers

Some studies have shown that children who use computers from an early age have several advantages. Computer classes are taught in most kindergarten and elementary schools, so preschoolers who are already familiar with the operation of the keyboard and mouse will be ahead of the learning curve. They may also have an advantage if they have the opportunity to play with educational programs, as many learn reading and number skills from computer software.

Some experts suggest that allowing preschoolers to have computer time can be beneficial because computer use:

  • Introduces educational skills
  • Teaches spatial and logical skills
  • Prepares children for future computer use
  • Increases self-esteem and self-confidence
  • Boosts problem-solving skills
  • Stimulates language comprehension
  • Improves long-term memory and manual dexterity

The greatest benefits, though, occur when children use computers side-by-side or when they work with adults. In these situations, preschoolers develop cooperative problem-solving skills. They also have the opportunity to interact with others, which enhances their overall learning.

Disadvantages of Computers

In spite of the many benefits, experts also point out drawbacks to preschool computer use. Some express concern for children’s physical health. Others cite psychological and developmental concerns.

Preschooler’s muscles and bones are still developing, but computers and furniture, especially at home, are rarely set up properly for children. “Most parents,” says Peter Buckle of the Robens Centre for Health Ergonomics, “seem unaware of the possible dangers of children sitting for long periods unsupported, with necks twisted and wrists overextended.” Physical problems can also result from sitting too close to the computer screen.

Another difficulty arises when the computer is used as a babysitter, as when parents put in educational games and believe their children are better off than sitting in front of a TV. Educational psychologist and teacher Jane Healy disagrees. She doesn’t believe there is much difference between the two. “Simply selecting and watching a screen is a pallid substitute for real mental activity,” Healy says. She suggests that reading together, having family discussions, or playing are a much more valuable use of time. These activities can provide as much educational stimulation as the software with the added benefit of social interaction. Healy also questions whether some popular computer games have academic value. Some, she says, “may even be damaging to creativity, attention, and motivation.”

Wise Computer Usage

To make the computer beneficial for you and your preschooler, decide on rules and time limits. Using a timer to signal when your child’s time is up helps avoid arguments.

When purchasing software for your child, look for programs that offer opportunities to try many different solutions. These help stimulate creativity and problem solving.

Setting up a separate profile for your preschooler is a good precaution. This can prevent her from clicking on things she  shouldn’t or accidentally deleting important files. Rather than leaving your child alone at the computer, stay with her. Use computer time for interaction and togetherness.

Here are some additional tips to enhance computer use for your preschooler:

  • Look for programs that support open-ended, discovery-oriented learning
  • Adjust the computer and furniture for your child’s use
  • Adjust the sound and screen size for each use
  • Supervise your child’s computer activities
  • Turn off all programs but the one your child is using
  • Limit the amount of time your child spends on the computer
  • Balance computer time with social interaction and physical exercise

Computers, used wisely, are tools for stimulating preschool learning. But it’s important to take precautions for your child’s safety and well-being. Teach your child proper computer use and monitor him to be sure his computer time is constructive and useful. But most importantly of all, focus on learning together, both on the computer and off.