There's a word to describe the parents of kids going into kindergarten: panicky.
At least that's the one Julie Evans uses. Evans, an educational computer consultant in Mission Viejo, gets anxious calls all the time from parents of prospective kindergartners.
They're worried about whether their kids are ready for school even if they meet the cutoff of 5 years of age by Dec. 1. Would they do better with an extra year to play at preschool? And then comes the question they pose to Evans: What does my child need to know about computers? Will the other children know more than theirs do?
The first thing Evans does is calm them down.
There are official California state guidelines of expectations for children entering kindergarten, and only parents know how well prepared their children are.
Under the guidelines, the children should be able to:
* distinguish separate words;
* recognize rhyming words;
* know some letter names and shapes, including the letters in the child's name;
* demonstrate reading-like behaviors, such as pretending to read and write;
* begin to demonstrate understanding of picture books and simple stories; and
* retell stories, make predictions, and connect stories to background experiences in a teacher-guided group format.
As for computer literacy, it's not so important how much the children know about the computers, but how comfortable they are with them, Evans said.
"I tell them that all we want for kids is to become familiar enough to know the keyboard and manipulate the mouse. The computer should be a playground, an opportunity for them to explore different ideas."
Similarly, Catherine Follett, assistant superintendent of instruction at the Fountain Valley School District, said her No. 1 computer goal for kindergartners is simply "to acclimate the kids to what you can do with a computer."
Still, computer programs aimed at kindergartners can undoubtedly help children meet some of these guidelines.
As Follett says, "The more students are aware of computers, the easier it is when they arrive here."
But if familiarity with the computer is good, it shouldn't substitute for hands-on interactive learning, educators agree.
Jan Warren, an early-childhood mentor with the Ocean View School District in Huntington Beach, stresses that although computer technology can undoubtedly enhance a child's learning, it should build on, and not substitute for "learning that begins with meaningful real-life experiences."
"Software that has a 4-year-old child count objects on a screen and punch in the correct numerals may be a good game to reinforce knowledge, but does little to encourage thinking about number relationships," she said.
"It's really important that if the mother sets the table, she asks questions like, 'Honey, if Grandma is coming for dinner, how many napkins do we need?' The computer can enhance learning, but it's no substitute for the basics."
Warren recommends software with familiar rhymes and songs that show the print along with the picture as the child listens to the song. She also likes programs that help children learn to write their names, but she stresses that only the building of small muscles through fine motor tasks such as cutting can prepare a child for actual writing.
Follett said her favorite programs involve word processing, in which children work with a keyboard, print out and read what they write.
Evans also urges parents to steer away from skill and drill.
"You should not sit your child down with a program and say, 'Here, you're going to learn your ABCs,' " she said.
"I look at the computer for this age group to be exposure to different concepts. I like programs where the child is in control."
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CD Rabbits and Computer Mice Tap Into 5-Year-Olds' Curiosity
There's a wealth of kindergarten-readiness programs to suit almost any learning and personality style. In many cases, you can sample and buy products at Web sites.
The granddaddy of them all is JumpStart Kindergarten (Knowledge Adventure, $30), in which Mr. Hopsalot, a rabbit, offers children a myriad of activities in a cheerful classroom setting. The program tracks your child's progress through a complete set of educational goals. And the 1997 revised version incorporates a new technology that jumps in when a child needs help (http://www.adventure.com).
CUC Software, which puts out the Knowledge Adventure line, also produces a two-disc Fisher-Price Ready for School Kindergarten ($30), set in the toylike town of Kinderville. It boasts the bright colors and comforting feel of the Fisher-Price line. It also teaches a variety of skills but seems geared to the child on the younger end of the spectrum (http://www.education.com).