Engaging Young Children in Computer Activities

by Linda Robinson

As computer availability in early childhood classrooms increases, preschool teachers and support staff continue to question the developmental appropriateness of this technology for young children. Educators raise concerns about how children use computers and what factors they need to consider in planning computer activities. This article is a review of research which provides the answers to these questions, focusing specifically on what factors affect computer use, and whether a relationship exists between these factors and the child's level of engagement in computer activities. This information will help educators plan computer activities and design an appropriate computer environment for young children. Factors which contribute to engagement include developmentally appropriate software, input device, teacher facilitation, level of play, age, and integrated activities. The first two factors, developmentally appropriate software and input device, will be discussed here, while the other factors will be addressed in a later issue.

Developmentally Appropriate Software
Software which is open-ended, exploratory in nature, and allows children choices and control is considered to be developmentally appropriate for young children. A direct relationship has been found between the kind of software children use and their engagement in the activities. Educational outcomes are also related to software type. Haugland (1992) found that children were more engaged in the computer when they were using developmentally appropriate programs as opposed to drill and practice type of software which did not allow child control. This latter type of software actually reduced children's creativity by 50% and led to children becoming passive reactors at the computer. Higher levels of creativity were found in children who used less structured and more choice-making software (Johnson, 1985).

Another study, which looked at children's use of graphics programs, also found that children had greater interest in the computer when they used software that was responsive to their commands (Escobedo & Bhargava, 1991). The children were able to use the computer to manipulate and explore. When developmentally appropriate graphics programs were used, all of the preschool children, regardless of age or sex, were motivated to create symbolic representations.

Similar findings were made with interactive multimedia technology in which authoring software was used to create a program to increase children's concept of spatial relationships (Liu, 1996). Children, three to five years of age, who were given control of the program and allowed to determine what to select, spent more time at the computer than in other classroom activities and were able to respond correctly (67% of the time) to questions on spatial relationships.

Software type played a major role in a study exploring the relation between computers and constructivist thinking for three-year-olds (Brown, 1996). Out of three types of software (workbooks, word processing, and graphics), word processing was found to be most compatible with a child's ability to construct knowledge from their environment, since it allows child control and manipulation of information. The software offered flexibility and control, and made learning concepts more concrete and meaningful, all characteristics of developmentally appropriate software. A review of other studies on software confirm the value of word processing programs which allow children to experiment (Clements, Nastasi, & Swaminathan, 1993).

Scaffolding is another element of software which has been found to be beneficial to young children's involvement with the computer (Clements et al., 1993). Some programs, such as word processing, give children the support they need to be independent. A positive relationship has been found between the level of scaffolding in computer assisted instruction (CAI) software and children's cognitive development (Shute & Miksad, 1997). In an experimental study conducted in South Australia, 51 preschool children were offered varying amounts of scaffolding in software which focused on counting, sorting, and word knowledge. Those who used programs with substantial amounts of scaffolding had increases in word knowledge, whereas those with minimal assistance or no software had lower levels of cognitive increases.

Scaffolding is a familiar concept in early childhood. Vygotsky, an early education theorist, recognized the importance of scaffolding in allowing young children to move ahead in the social environment and build new competencies (Berk & Winsler, 1995). It is important to know that a scaffolding element of software can effect children's independence and involvement with the computer and lead to increased cognitive development.

Input Device
Educators often question the appropriateness of the mouse or keyboard as input methods for young children. Children's engagement in computer activities may be effected by the ease and efficiency in using a particular input method. Several studies have been conducted comparing the mouse, keyboard, joystick, and the trackball in terms of efficiency of use for young children (Alloway, 1994; King & Alloway, 1992; Liu, 1996; and Revell & Strommen, 1990). In all of the studies, the mouse was found to be the most efficient method of input. When compared with the joystick and keyboard, the joystick was second in efficiency and the keyboard was third (Alloway, 1994). When the mouse was compared with the joystick and trackball, the joystick was found to be the least efficient, with the mouse and trackball being similar in ease of use and accuracy (Revelle & Strommen, 1990). When 64 three-year-olds explored the use of each of the devices over a five day period, the accuracy rate for the mouse increased dramatically, while the effectiveness of the other devices stayed the same.

The ability of preschool children to use a particular device may be related to cognitive factors, since the method found to be the least efficient is also the method which demands more cognitive processing abilities. The refined response style required in using a joystick was beyond the cognitive abilities of three-year-olds (Revell & Strommen, 1990). Similarly, the keyboard as an input method demands more time and attention of preschoolers and requires that an abstract connection be made between an object on the monitor and the operation of the arrow keys (Alloway, 1994). No difference was found between boys and girls in their use of the devices, both being equally competent in using the different methods (King & Alloway, 1992).

Despite the fact that children are able to use the mouse more efficiently, studies on children's preferences indicate that children prefer to use the keyboard (Alloway, 1994; King & Alloway, 1992). Interview data from preschool children show that the keyboard was the preferred method. This may be due in part to children's desire to explore, since the keyboard offers more options than the other input methods. Preschool children are also less responsive to time and task achievement, focusing instead on the process rather than the end product. On the other hand, as children get older they do recognize an input device as something more than an object of inquiry. When second grade children were asked their preferred method, they chose the mouse, which was also the most efficient method for them (Alloway, 1994). Educators need to be aware of these developmental differences in order to meet young children's needs and changing preferences. By minimizing the processing skills required to operate an input device, educators can help children become more engaged in computer activities.

As computer technology becomes more advanced, educators are offered increased capabilities for customizing software to meet individual children's needs and preferences and to include meaningful content related to home and school experiences. Further research is needed on the relationship between these higher levels of interactive software, use and preference for input method, including alternate methods, and children's level of computer engagement and amount of active learning.


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