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'90s FAMILY : Do Computers Have a Place in Nursery Schools? : Education: Some say software stimulates young minds. Others argue it's a time for exploring and developing.


Jeremy Rossmann enjoys a good book--especially on the family computer where he can push a key to stop the story and play with the characters. So when his mother read "The Cat in the Hat" to him recently, the redheaded 2-year-old pressed his small finger repeatedly on the Cat.

"Mommy, click on the character," he urged. "Why isn't he doing anything?"

Jeremy's frustration concerned his mother, Joanna Hoffman, marketing vice president for a communications software company in Silicon Valley. "I agonized about this because I love books and I want to make sure computers don't distract him from reading," Hoffman said. "There is so much stimulation, you wonder how they are going to transition to books where no one is singing or dancing and characters aren't popping out at you."

Stimulating, entertaining material helped propel the sale last year of $242 million in educational programs, the fastest-growing segment of the software market. But many experts question whether the large investment in software--as well as in hardware and computer classes--is necessary or even helpful for preschoolers.

"What we know about the very young child's brain is that it is very busy constructing meaning out of real-life experience," said Jane M. Healy, educational psychologist and author of "Your Child's Growing Mind" (Doubleday, 1994). "Computers take that experience to an abstract, symbolic level, which is not the best way for preschoolers to learn. Too much computer replaces their real developmental task with an artificially engaging medium."

Many parents mistakenly associate their tots' ability to boot up a computer with intelligence, Healy said. "What adults don't realize is that they too could have followed routines and recited isolated facts had computers been available," she said.

Increasingly, computer-infatuated parents are requesting that nursery schools install terminals in the classroom, a trend that has preschool directors and teachers debating how much very young children gain from computer time in school. Not all early childhood educators are jumping on the high-tech bandwagon.

"I'm not 100% convinced that computers are appropriate as a learning tool in nursery school," said Jane Farish, acting director of Stanford's Bing Nursery School, which has one classroom computer. "In nursery school, children need to discover and explore with clay, sand, water and paints . . . they need mind-engaging activities."

Proponents argue that computers engage the very youngest children far more than videos, television or traditional educational toys. "Of the various tools and techniques to introduce letters and numbers, including books and blocks, the computer is perhaps the most exciting and potentially adventurous," said Peter Markovitz, founder of Futurekids, which trains children in stores, homes and schools. About 20% of its students are 2- to 4-year-olds.

Other experts, like David Elkind, professor of Child Study at Tufts University and author of "Ties that Stress" (Harvard University Press, 1994), see no need to send preschoolers to separate computer schools. "When parents brag to friends about how much their kid uses the computer or they see (the) computer as a way to hurry kids and give them a special edge, it puts pressure on kids and can do harm," Elkind said.

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