When and how to give my kid a computer?
July 17, 2006 4:35 PM   Subscribe

I'm a dad now, and recently I've been wondering when I should give my son a computer, and how it should be set up.

Although he's only 15 months at the moment, he really seems interested in helping me when I'm on the PC, so I have started to wonder about it. I guess I won't try it until he's at least talking and showing interest in actual using a computer (rather than mashing the keys).

I had thought that I would probably use a Linux system as it is probably somewhat easier for me to limit it's functionality. However I've more recently considered that doing so may limit the number of education applications available to me.

I'd love to hear more about when others have introduced computers to their kids, and how they went about the specifics of it. What to look out for?
posted by sycophant to Computers & Internet (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
My parents introduced me to an apple IIe at about the age of three or four. I had a program called "Gertrude's Secrets" that I figured out all of the programmer's backdoors to by the time I was 4; my dad tells me that he came home from work one day and I said, "Daddy, watch this!" ... hit a bunch of keys in combination, and it went directly to the "YOU WIN!" screen.

Software availability makes a huge difference. Don't lock yourself into something. To be honest, you should probably leave the computer disconnected from the network completely until you're sure you can trust him; an approach that I like very much that my GF's parents have taken is that each kid has a computer in their room to do homework on, and they're all tied in via a network to a central laser printer, but the only computer with an internet connection is in an extremely central location in the house. So if their youngest daughter wants to get on MySpace or IM with her boyfriend, she has to submit to her mother idly wandering by and glancing at the screen.

I'm now a computer pogrammer for a Big-12 university, if that helps with your decision at all, and she graduated summa cum laude from the school I work for and will be a doctor of veterinary medicine in a few months.
posted by SpecialK at 4:47 PM on July 17, 2006

That should've been: Don't lock yourself into something, i.e. a platform, that won't have software available to it. Both PC and Mac will work fine without an internet connection; just get Norton Ghost and if he blows it up, re-mirror it.
posted by SpecialK at 4:48 PM on July 17, 2006

Perhaps you should look into age-appropriate sites and programs? My friends' kids love Boobah.
posted by k8t at 4:50 PM on July 17, 2006

Um, my son is 3 and has his own laptop-my inlaws pay subscriptions to Disney Blast and some other "educational" website he plays every once in a while but like to use Paint more than anything.
posted by hollygoheavy at 4:51 PM on July 17, 2006

Lifehacker just made this post about Babysplat, a program that makes neat shapes and noises when the baby hits the keyboard.

My 2-year-old niece loves to watch slideshows of pictures of herself... just take a folder of pics in Windows XP, right-click, and choose View as Slideshow. I'm sure even some of the standard XP screensavers could fascinate a little one for a while.

There are all kinds of educational programs for toddlers, and there are even mouses (the correct plural for the computer peripheral) and keyboards made for children. (A few more.)
posted by IndigoRain at 4:55 PM on July 17, 2006

My kids started playing with the computer when they were about 18 months and were mouse proficient by the age of three pretty easily... now he's six my son can pretty much touch type. Being able to use computers has been a big motivating factor in helping them learn to read (ie they want to read what's on the web page). There is a lot of good software out there.

I just set them up with a separate user account on all the home computers (we have a desktop and a couple of laptops) and showed them how to launch things from the dock (OS X). That's all it took.
posted by unSane at 5:05 PM on July 17, 2006

We never explicitly allowed our son, now three, to play on the computer but he's worked out on his own how to open iTunes and skip forward to the song he likes, and turn on the visualiser. We have They Might Be Giants' album "No!" which they made for kids, and it has some simple computer activities when you load it on a PC -- he loves it. Our local library also has a range of games for preschoolers (Blue's Clues, Finding Nemo, Thomas the Tank Engine) that he can muddle through with help from a grownup, but most games are still complex when they're not big on sitting and listening to instructions.

We ran Babysplat, mentioned above, for a while when he was about eighteen months and he loved it, and also looking at slideshows of photos of family members.

We have an iBook and he works the trackpad well, and a PC which he's less familiar with but can work the mouse. At his age, finding and typing out his name with the keyboard is fun and useful, too -- sometimes he'll ask us to spell out a word and he'll type it.
posted by tracicle at 5:15 PM on July 17, 2006

My older daughter is 3.5 and a master mouser; her 2 year old sister is close behind. They play games online at Noggin.com and Nickjr.com, as well as some offline educational games.

I do most of my work on my laptop, so the kids mostly use our desktop--it's set up so they can't god-forbid erase our music or pictures.
posted by padraigin at 5:17 PM on July 17, 2006

Best answer: From my experience, you don't need to worry alot about protecting the computer software-wise.

My daughters both started on the computer probably around 2 years old (they are 8 & 10 now). Windows has the most children's software, but Mac is not bad either.

YMMV, but how it worked for me was they wanted me to start the games for them. Once the game was running, they wanted control, but viewed anything else as my (or my wife's) role.

As they got older, they learned to swap CDs and launch the games, but would ask me to help with installs or other questionable stuff.

There is a ton of good stuff for kids on the net and I built them a launch page that is the home page on their computer. To them, this was the internet and basically controlled their choice since they didn't know about anything else. You can look if you want, the graphics helped pre-reading.

The most important suggestion I will make is to have a child's computer in the same room as the adults. For several years, my computer and theirs were next to each other on the same desk. That way I could see what they were doing at all times, and help get them out of problems without going from room to room. And you will want a computer for the kids, they love desktop backgrounds and lots of game icons. :)

Only now at 10 years old is my daughter actively googling and visiting Youtube. I have the safety filters set on and haven't had any problems. There is a online kids safety page/test they like to do that teaches about not talking to strangers, but I can't remember the URL.

My wife and I have agreed that computers will always be in a 'public' space in the house so that we can always see what they are doing. When they are old enough take the laptop into another room to hide, we probably can't stop them anyways...
posted by Argyle at 5:49 PM on July 17, 2006

Great suggestions from everyone else. The only thing I might add is on the OS front. Perhaps, if you want to set him loose on your computer hardware but are afraid of what he might do to your install, you could consider running VMware Server (free download) or other such virtualization software. You run the software and inside it install another OS (Windows or Linux) that you can then set up for your little guy. It's a computer sandbox of sorts. They even have a pre-built version of Kid Safe Desktop that you can download.

Or perhaps a Linux LiveCD such as Wizard's Kid-Safe LiveCD (review)?
posted by exon at 7:05 PM on July 17, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great info.

He's pretty focused on learning to walk at the moment, so I think computing might not be foremost on his mind, but in the not so distant future I will see about introducing him to some of the things mentioned here, and in due course he will get his very own PC to play with.
posted by sycophant at 7:46 PM on July 17, 2006

My parents introduced me to an apple IIe at about the age of three or four. I had a program called "Gertrude's Secrets" that I figured out all of the programmer's backdoors to by the time I was 4;

I remember in grade school finding out that hitting CTRL (or some other metacharacter) -A on the Apple IIe MECC games got you into the teacher's menu. Good times.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 8:14 PM on July 17, 2006

I started on a Commodore 64 when I was about three. Having a language (a BASIC interpreter) built right in was immensely educational. I pretty much learned to read playing Zork and going through the BASIC manual.

Whatever you go with, make sure you have some kind of way available for the little one to start programming on it. "Introducing" kids to computers without some way to actually learn how to program one is a travesty.

For example, 'express' editions of Microsoft programming environments are free.
posted by blenderfish at 11:16 PM on July 17, 2006

Might I suggest that you actually purchase an old 8-bit computer? Many of the folks here will have fond memories of C64s, Apple ][s or Atari 400/800s. Classic computers can still be found and a range of software is still available from assorted places (1, 2.)

As the IT Manager for an international college, I've found that students' fundamental understanding of computers is somewhat undermined by never having used anything other than Windows. (As is their concept of "slow".)

You could compress the history of home computing for him by purchasing a slightly less old computer every couple of years.
posted by krisjohn at 12:28 AM on July 18, 2006

i manage 2 computer labs and teach computer resources at an elementary school in SC. i see every homeroom for an hour a week. i have kids as young as 5 and 6 using the Internet, playing online games. by fifth grade, they are using excel and access. they start typing courses in kindergarten. i have plans to introduce HTML and java scripting this year!

here's what i suggest:

get an old model desk top and optimize it. i have an old Compaq 650 megahertz that's running winxp. unless youre doing something labor intensive, you'd never know it was 10 years old. do not allow youre children on your work machine. my first year in the computer lab, i underestimated the savvy of the children, and they had my computers choked with viruses named after Disney characters. no matter how often you explain virus policy, there will always be one child who clicks a pop up with a pretty picture. the older computer will save you a lot of money.

i use an online learning program called Easy Tech. this is the best learning software i've ever seen. its online based, its flash based. an unimaginative guy could teach an entire computer course directly from this program. i gave my kids homework as young as kindergarten. they could access it online at home with their parents. each lesson is well thought out. i cant offer enough praise for this program.

my son is 6 months old. i saw the babysplat article and decided to give it a try. he LOVED it. its a fun program, but its very very simple. i would recommend a program i use in my labs: Kid Pix. This program is like Crack for kids. LOL. really, its like babysplat in that its a graphic arts program, but it also has hundreds of cool games. Even Internet addicted 5th graders chose to spend their free play time playing this game.

it will work for your child as young as 2 or 3.

My school uses Successmaker in our labs for personal assistance time. it teaches and evaluates reading and writing. the program tracks your kids progress on reading, writing and mathematic work and increases the level as they progress. it can be used up til 8th grade. i plan to get my son on it as early as 4 or 5. i'll assign him 30 minutes a day after school. 15 minutes of math, 15 of reading. then i will keep track of his progress reports. this program can be used to identify reading comprehension problems as well as math issues. the course can be set as short as you like - mine are 15 minutes - and the reporting scheme is extensive. once my teachers realized what i could get from these reports, they started demanding reports for every class. i've just started emailing reports after every class. now our school district has made it mandatory for lab managers to send comprehensive reports every 9 weeks.

i have more ideas, but i'm running out of space.

Good luck. and do not underestimate your child. i have children in the 2nd grade who cant spell their own last names but can find addictinggames.com!
posted by Davaal at 4:41 AM on July 18, 2006

My two year old son loves the activities on the Sesame Street web site, and also enjoys having us find him pictures of things (via Google Image Search these days). He's always happy to flip through our digital photo albums as well. I've been thinking about setting up a computer for him with a child's keyboard and mouse, but this is on the back burner at the moment.

My first exposure to computers was via a BASIC programming class when I was seven or eight years old. A few years later I was given an Atari 400, later replaced by an 800XL. I was writing elaborate programs on these long before they started exposing us to Logo and The Oregon Trail in school. I believe that learning to "think like a computer" back then was extremely beneficial for me in terms of comprehension of other disciplines, and I want my child to have these opportunities as well. I'm curious what are the best useful kids' languages these days. I'm sure we'll play around with Logo, but what can kids use to write real software before moving on to Java, Ruby, Python, etc.? Maybe it's best to climb the mountain the same way the big kids did and start with C or Lisp or something ...

One more thing: how old do you have to be to get a handle on Sketchup?
posted by Songdog at 6:28 AM on July 18, 2006

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