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Neither computers nor television are evil. But as with TV, there is a right – and a wrong – way to introduce the computer to your toddler.
Key to helping your child get the most out of computers is limiting the amount of time you spend in front of the screen and making it an experience you share. We gathered tips by talking to child development experts Marian Diamond, a neuroscientist and professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of Magic Trees of the Mind, and Stevanne Auerbach, author of Smart Play, Smart Toys: How to Raise a Child With a High PQ (play quotient).
Hold off until your child is at least 9 months to a year old
Children younger than 9 months don't have the physical skills to interact with the computer.
Their vision isn't developed enough to clearly focus on the screen until they're about 6 months old. And most children also need to be able to sit up by themselves to enjoy staring at a program while you work the mouse. Sitting up without any support usually doesn't happen until around 6 to 8 months.
Young babies also don't have the attention span necessary to follow what's happening on the screen.
Start when your child shows an interest
Computer use is not an activity worth forcing. Wait for your child to show some curiosity.
Is she interested in your machine? Does she pound on the keyboard? Does she watch you when you're working or surfing?
If she seems responsive – smiling, laughing, clapping – go for it. If not, let it go. And don't worry that she'll lose any ground as a computer whiz. A lesson or two in kindergarten, and she'll know how to work a mouse or rollerball with the best of them.
Make computer time shared time
Share the computer experience with your child as a friend, fellow audience member, and guide. That way, you'll be there to draw your child out, just as you do when reading a book. (So, what color is Elmo's fur? How come Daisy is feeling sad?)
This helps a child build vocabulary and memory skills – and share some time with Mom or Dad. And, starting at age 2 or so, when your child starts asking the questions (Why is Peter Rabbit wearing a coat?) you'll be there to answer them, which is a crucial part of a child's coming to understand his world.
Choose programs designed for very young children
Adult games are too fast, too loud, and too confusing for a young child's brain to absorb – and they can be frightening. It's best to stick with games developed for children under 3. And if you start out with Mario Brothers, there's no going back to Elmo and Big Bird.
Make fun and computer exposure your goal, not academic learning
Ideally, a child under age 3 will view the computer as another toy at his disposal and not a task master. There's no point in drilling a 1-year-old on the alphabet, or addition and subtraction.
Instead, go for things that reinforce reading and math readiness skills. These can include listening comprehension, cause-and-effect, opposites such as big and small, and color and shape recognition. Even then, you'll maintain your child's enthusiasm for learning and computers if skill-building is incidental to a good story, song, or game.
Limit screen time
Several 30-second sessions are a good starting point for 1- to 2-year-olds. Most kids that age will lose interest if you push it further.
By the time your child is 3 or 4, you can work up to as much as an hour a day (total) if your child wants to continue, but stop there. More than that will eat into the time available for other critical development tasks such as eating, sleeping, playing, dancing, and talking with adults and other children.
Whenever you play on the computer with your child, watch for signs of fatigue. If he stops looking at the screen and starts fidgeting, getting sleepy, or crying, it's time to quit.
Choose programs with big, easy-to-see images
One to three images per screen is a good guideline, especially for kids around 1. When the image gets more complicated – a street scene with lots of characters, for example – a young child just can't comprehend it.
At this developmental stage, zany, complicated drawings are too chaotic for your child's developing brain. But as his visual skills build, you can use programs with more complicated pictures. By 3 your child may be ready for big scenes.
Choose programs with simple songs
From birth, babies enjoy songs and music with a steady rhythm, even a sing-song tone. The repetition of songs such as "The Farmer in the Dell," for example, help 1-year-olds establish patterns and start to anticipate what will come next.
If you have an 18-month-old, have fun with the sound of bells, whistles, or clocks – toddlers that age really respond to them. But avoid things with frantic noises or loud rock music. The random rhythm is confusing and even startling to very young ears.
Save story lines until your child is at least 2
Programs with short stories can complement reading aloud to your child. You can slowly work up to longer stories to increase your child's listening comprehension and attention span. But save the fairy tales and involved adventure software for older children, starting somewhere around age 2. Younger children can't follow plots and might get frustrated.
Do your homework before you buy
Look for reputable nonprofit organizations that review software, such as Common Sense Media. You may also be able to sample a program at your local daycare center or library (call to see whether they circulate software).
Friends and teachers may be able to make recommendations and even let you sample the software they like.
Visit websites that offer material for preschoolers to see if your child likes interacting with the computer before you buy something. One to try: the PBS site for kids.