Computers for Young Children: Gold or “Fool’s Gold?”

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Since computers were first introduced to young children almost 20 years ago, there has been a certain amount of fear and controversy voiced over technology’s “harm” to this young population. In the 1980’s many critics thought computers would isolate children and affect their social skills in negative ways. Today the criticism is even more profound and, through the Internet, publications about computer use are reaching a wide audience. This article will review and compare two such publications, Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood (Cordes & Miller, 1999) and Children and Computer Technology (2000), a recent issue of The Future of Children journal. Both publications make general statements and claims about child development and each takes a stand for or against computer use with young children. In reviewing these writings it is noted that, although research studies are cited to support some claims, many statements stand unsupported.

Despite all we have learned over the years about the positive effects of computers on young children, many are still skeptical about the benefits of technology. The most recent criticism has been voiced by a large coalition in early childhood known as the Alliance for Childhood. In their recent publication, Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood, the Alliance focuses on the negative effects they fear computers are having or will have on young children. Although they claim that research shows many negative effects, no actual studies related to their claims are cited in their publication (available as a pdf file at their web site, ). Fool’s Gold makes several claims about computers and children. The Coordinator for the Alliance for Childhood begins by stating that the focus is “on children in early childhood and elementary education, for the data seem clear that computers offer few advantages in these years.”(p. 1, Cordes & Miller, 1999). In the Executive Summary, the editors, Colleen Cordes and Edward Miller, discuss three main questions stated as claims about computers and children.

The first question is “Do computers really motivate children to learn faster and better?” The editors provide an answer that they claim is based on “30 years of research on educational technology.” This statement itself is flawed since the technology that was available to children 30 years ago, which certainly was not on a wide spread scale, is not the same technology available today. The authors claim that the only link between computers and children’s learning has been found with drill and practice programs that have improved children’s academic scores on tests. Although drill and practice was the main type of software being developed in the 1980’s, there are many other types of software available today which offer constructivist, interactive experiences for young children. Most early childhood technology specialists would not recommend drill and practice software for young children and would not recommend isolated use of computers. The Alliance’s argument against computers also states that software appropriate for older students may not be appropriate for early childhood. This seems to be common sense, since no experienced educator would use the same books or other educational tools with all ages of children.

The second question asked by the Alliance is “Must five-year-olds be trained on computers today to get the high-paying jobs of tomorrow?” The authors answer this question with a statement about the health hazards and developmental problems that computers pose for children. They claim that computers are stunting children’s imaginative thinking. Again no research is cited to back up these statements. “Do computers really ‘connect’ children to the world?” is the third question. Again the authors discuss the damaging effects of “trivial games, inappropriate adult material, and aggressive advertising.” However, this is not the type of computer use seen in most early...
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