To babies and young toddlers, the computer is a mystical, magical busy box, full of music, noises, colors, and buttons. They enjoy chewing the mouse cord, leaving fingerprints on the screen, and banging on the keys. However, they're too young to make the connection between their actions on the keys and mouse and the actions on the screen. Unless someone donates one, there's little reason to provide a computer for babies.
18 Months to Threes
Children at this age begin to notice that they can have an effect on the pictures on the screen (though this can vary considerably among children), but they still don't have the essential eye-hand and perceptual skills to effectively use the mouse. Consequently, the software you pick will have to be responsive to when toddlers move or click the mouse or to their presses on the keyboard.
Age 2 1/2 can be a real turning point for many children when it comes to computer use. Not only can they sit for a bit longer, but many children at this age also have the fine-motor control necessary to use a mouse. Look for software with repetitious songs, a large responsive cursor, and a variety of activities to choose from.
3 to 5 Years
This is a good age to introduce the computer. With practice, children now have the ability to manipulate the mouse, and are able to use a variety of software. Electronic storybooks are a wonderful choice, as well as simple simulation programs such as the Putt-Putt series from Humongous. Children in this age group love to use the printer (they'll print out sheet after sheet if you let them) and can even launch their own software.
Ages 5 to 6 Years
By the time they reach kindergarten, children with prior computer experience are experts. They can use pull-down menus to launch programs, negotiate complex menus, and use the computer for simulations and art projects or even for reference. This is a time when solid computer activities can play a valuable role in supporting a school's curriculum.
Reader Rabbit's Toddler 2.0
Ages: 18 months-4 years
Learning value: Math, logic, reading. Children merely move the cursor (no clicking required) to an item on the screen to launch one of nine simple activities. Even babies will enjoy sitting in your lap and looking at these graphics. Features a new alphabet game. The Learning Company, Windows or Mac, (800) 716-8506.
Fisher-Price Ready for School: Toddler
Ages: 18 months-3 years
Learning Value: Visual creativity, logic, counting. Ten playful activities are nicely formulated for toddlers with or without mouse skills, in the Fisher-Price Little People Village. Activities include simple mazes, sing-alongs, dot-to-dots, painting, and identifying body parts. Knowledge Adventure, Windows or Mac, (800) 545-7677.
Arthur's Computer Adventures
Learning Value: Language, reasoning, storytelling. This electronic storybook is all about Arthur, who wants to play the "Deep Dark Sea" game on his mom's computer. As the story evolves, he breaks the rules — and the computer. In order to fix the computer before Mom gets home, he has to complete five fun activities. Brøderbund Software, ages 3-7, Windows and Macintosh, (800) 521-6263.