A child's first computer shouldn't be "fun"

My 5 year old has a phone. I've judged many parents for letting their children, even much older than 5, play with phones. But hear me out, I'm not a hypocrite (I hope). We've all see those kids at the supermarket (or the zoo!) watching videos or tapping away at some simple game while the world passes them by. Even the supermarket can be a rich learning experience and even "fun" at times, but if a child would rather look at a phone than animals at the zoo you know something has gone wrong.

And yet I gave my 5 year old a phone. Well, let's consider what apps are installed: a simple drawing program, a calculator, a camera app, and chat (google hangouts, oops). All simple but not designed specifically for kids, so no cutsie pictures or other attempts to capture attention. And she plays with it, but it certainly doesn't suck her in like watching youtube or a game would. There's plenty more interesting things to do in the world (like the zoo!) than her phone, and we've never had to put usage limits on it. Ok, doesn't sound so bad, but what are the upsides? Well she does enjoy it, but also she has a camera, she can draw, and she can play with numbers, and knows how to call her grandma on her own phone. And the cost was just $10 for an android sold by tracfone that has no service plan, just wifi. You'd pay much more just for a junky kids "friendly" camera.

But now I've gone further. Another $10 purchase (thanks craigslist), for a 15 year old thinkpad running windows XP.  What's installed? No games, no internet. But windows explorer (aka the desktop) and microsoft word 2000. Word is awesome. It might be the best learning game ever. You can type anything you like. Select it, move the cursor with the arrow keys, or even delete everything you wrote. It even tells you if what you typed is a word or not. Later on she can learn about word art, tables, etc.

Later on I might show her ms paint. Or how about GW-basic? Actually, what I'd really like is something more modern than basic. Maybe "GW-python"? Regular python would be ok, but the graphics model seems to require a lot more programming knowledge than the old MS basic interpreters did. Anybody know of a good textmode interactive programming tool (with graphics and sound output commands) that wouldn't be overly complex for a kid to pick up? I don't want a visual programming environment or some plug-the-blocks-together "programming" environment.

summary: once you introduce youtube, actual games, etc. there's no going back. Start with the creative stuff that's intrinsically fun first and see how far they get!

PS. I am plotting her first game. Zork. Well, maybe I'm kidding there, but a simple vocabulary interactive fiction game might be an awesome way to encourage her to learn to read bigger words and write sentences, work on spelling, etc. I might have to settle for eliza or a modern variant, but I'm interested in suggestions here.


Anonymous said…
You state your position well -- and clearly. And kids being more engaged by technology than real life animals at the zoo is just plain disturbing.

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