A computer for a four year old?
February 18, 2007 9:11 AM   Subscribe

I have a four year old son who seems about ready to start using a computer, but I would like to keep him away from mine, so the obvious choice is to ask his grandparents to buy him one for his birthday... Any tips on specific systems and or accessories that might be age appropriate?
posted by curiocity to Computers & Internet (26 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
can he read?
posted by rhizome at 9:33 AM on February 18, 2007

I tried to give my 3 year old (now 5) my oldest pc, but the trouble wasn't worth it. PC's are cheap, buy him a new one and be happy there are not daily problems.
posted by thilmony at 9:43 AM on February 18, 2007

I think the correct answer is 'a cheap computer.'

When I was not too many years older than that, I trashed my family's first computer by leaving a half-eaten peach on it. The computer was warm; the peach got juicy...

I wasn't notably irresponsible, I was probably taught better, but I just forgot about the peach in all the excitement.

An older Mac is probably about right.
posted by kmennie at 9:44 AM on February 18, 2007

An old Mac would be great, but make sure it has built-in firewire, otherwise it will be too old to run Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger".

Tiger's parental controls are worth having.
posted by Mwongozi at 9:59 AM on February 18, 2007

Tiger's parental controls are worth having.

At the age of 4, wouldn't *parents* be the parental control here? I would have thought that you wouldn't stick a 4 year old in front of a computer and let them surf away all alone!

Much as a love my own Mac, I think at the age of 4 a PC might actually be more appropriate, since there are all kinds of kid specific accessories you can buy. I think Fisher PRice has an add-on software and special child keyboard pack specificaly aimed at this age group, but its for a PC. The older Mac idea is better for when the kid is surfing/chatting independently of sitting on mum or dad's knee.
posted by modernnomad at 10:25 AM on February 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

Seriously, just get something cheap, new, and stable, so it won't crash repeatedly. As someone who used Windows 3.1 at the same age as your child is -- crashes make no one's life happy.

Seriously, just look at what seems to be a children's game that uses resources that are, well, average for children's games, and see if you can fit those specifications for very, very cheap.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 11:57 AM on February 18, 2007

I don't think PC vs. Mac makes much of a difference, but we are going through this with our five-year-old, and my recommendations are 1) forget about all parental control stuff and simply use the computer with your child (as mondernomad says); and 2) get a one-button Apple mouse (even on a PC). Most young children lack the dexterity to deal with a two-button mouse, and they (and you) will get frustrated quickly when they keep clicking the right button when they want left. 3) Enable a login for their account. Junior will learn quickly, and the login ensures he's using the computer only when you want. And don't even bother trying to explain the difference. 4) Create some bookmarks for things places he likes (thomasthetankengine.com, Playhouse Disney, etc.) and show him how to go to those web sites. Most of the the time that's all he'll want to do anyway, and you won't have to worry about him straying off someplace weird when you're not paying attention. 5) Budget for inkjet printer ink! Junior will want to print out his masterpieces.
posted by ldenneau at 11:58 AM on February 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

This post has many great sites for four year olds. I have a four year old and he uses my computer. He learned very quickly what and where to click. Once in a while he will reset some obscure windows setting, but mostly he just wants to play games and have me sitting with him while he does it.
posted by lee at 12:59 PM on February 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

Consider getting the $300 PC from Dell.

It's a complete system and far exceeds most children's needs. I bought one for my daughter and it has worked out for the best.

My suggestions:

1) A start/link page of approved sites you are OK with. Here is my daughter's old one.

2) Put the computer in the same room as yours. My daughters are older (11 & 8) but we have the policy of "all computers in public space" so that we set the tone against the bedroom computer for the future. Also, it will be easier to spend your own time on the computer with easy oversight of your child at the same time.

3) Do NOT use an old computer. They are a pain to keep running, rarely can handle the newer children's software, and are simply not that much of a savings.

4) Invest in headphones for your child. Children's software has a ton of music and if you value your sanity, you will give them headhphones so they can hear the music and you won't.
posted by Argyle at 1:12 PM on February 18, 2007 [2 favorites]

"Consider getting the $300 PC from Dell."

Seconded. I bought them for all my kids (of course, my kids are all teenagers and computer-savvy, but still) and they're rock-solid stable with XP Home and automatic updates turned on.

Also second the headphones. Get a good pair of the large, over-the-ear cushioned headphones (no ear buds or ultralights) with an extra-long cord or even wireless.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 1:40 PM on February 18, 2007

Linux: the Debian Jr. Project.

(Disclaimer: I haven't tried it; I just found it through Google and I know debian.org is a reputable site.)

Accessories... Games are obvious. I loved Paint when I was a kid, too. Typing software, and then when he has has the hang of it (and can use the shift key!) you might look into text adventures(scroll down for links about running them with Macs or Linux) like Zork. It's fun, and playing text-based games really improves your typing accuracy and speed (although they're (usually?) case-insensitive and don't use punctuation, which is why it's a good idea to start with the regular typing software). And they don't have that "educational" feel.
posted by sleeplessunderwater at 3:57 PM on February 18, 2007

Oh--maybe it should have a DVD drive (although... I'd bet that most new computers you can buy nowdays will have that) and a media player. That way he can watch movies, with the headphones Argyle mentioned, without the rest of you hearing it over and over. (Assuming he's like a lot of kids and has certain movies he likes to watch over and over.)
posted by sleeplessunderwater at 4:09 PM on February 18, 2007

...is it becoming the norm to buy a four-year-old his own computer?!
posted by IndigoRain at 5:03 PM on February 18, 2007

My son has had an old laptop of mine since he was 3. Beware of the moment when they learn how to print!
posted by selfmedicating at 7:27 PM on February 18, 2007

Oh, and for us the computer itself wasn't as important as a fast internet connection. He has games on CDs that we've purchased but by far his favorite activities are on the Noggin and Lego web sites.
posted by selfmedicating at 7:28 PM on February 18, 2007

When my son was born we stuck an old beige Mac G3 on the floor in his room. He would lay on the floor and hit the buttons, as the years went by (he is now 7) he continued to play with the computer thus expanding his range up to various games and the web. Today he has an eMac, which he got when he was 5. Neither computer had any problems. The kid beats the hell out of it and comes back for more. It has a good bit of parental controls if you want to use them. I would also recommend getting him a dotmac account for email plus all the creative tools he can play with... and he will- kids seem to live by the mantra of "press the button".
Generally, I would recommend an eMac from experience. You can pick one up from ebay for a pretty reasonable price and it should serve you well until the kid wants to upgrade. It is a great investment to get a kid as understanding the computer world is a great asset to have at a young age. Plus, it gives you something to do together, side by side, right next to each other.
posted by bkeene12 at 7:43 PM on February 18, 2007

Beware of the moment when they learn how to print!

Uninstall the print drivers.
posted by IndigoRain at 3:13 AM on February 19, 2007

It's not that small children lack the *dexterity* for a two button mouse. It's that their hands are too small. My kid started using a computer at age 3 (always, always with me right by her side). "Dexterity" took off like a rocket a few months later when s/he [gender ambiguated on purpose] discovered the trackpad on my laptop, which didn't frustrate him/her as much as a standard mouse. Kids love laptops, too, because they can get down on the floor. A standard desktop and desk chair setup is too big.

I second everyone who says *you* are the parental control. Playing on the computer (for my kid) is a special activity with dad. It's doled out like tv watching and candy eating -- a limit, a schedule, an agreement ahead of time about how long we'll be on the computer. And then I sit right next to my child and watch, in amazement, how quickly children learn what adults find completely frustrating and opaque (watch a 5 year old figure out on her own how to use the gradient tools in Fireworks if you want to be humbled). And I swear my kid's love of the computer (and desire for independence when using it) motivated learning to read at age 4, in a matter of months.

I wish they'd had these things when I was 6.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:15 AM on February 19, 2007

There have been several askMe threads in the last couple of years about great websites for kids, too. I've found a lot of good stuff on those threads, though these days it's Neopets and Webkinz, no matter what dad suggests.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:20 AM on February 19, 2007

I would suggest considering NOT providing your 4-year-old a computer of his own, but instead getting him a scientific calculator.

Reasons being:

1. Your son has his whole life ahead of him to be in front of a screen. Does he need to start being in front of one now?

2. By four, I'm sure all kids can count and soon will learn to add and subtract. Getting him started on a calculator may help him with adding and subtracting. (Calculators are no substitute for kids learning to add and subtract. But, still they can be useful.)

3. A scientific calculator is perfect for challenging him to be creative with numbers: eg. How big of a number can you get by adding or multiplying? Also, challenge him to find patterns with numbers (think palindromes).

4. If a child is exposed to calculators early in life, chances are better they won't be so intimidating later in life when they need to use them in school, college or balancing a checkbook.

Then again, I'm not a parent, so what do I know? :)
posted by achmorrison at 4:38 PM on February 19, 2007

In response to achmorrison:

I don't think a child will take to monochrome digits as well as they will to a rich interactive multimedia experience. I had a computer ever since I can remember and now I'm well on my way to a BSEE.

Answer? Get a cheap Dell.
posted by mr.dan at 10:35 PM on February 19, 2007

If the computer given to today's four-year-old was the same computer my dad brought home when I was 7, then I might agree that a computer is better. When I was a kid we had a Commodore 64 and an old unix workstation that my dad brought home from work. You actually had to learn how to use the computer to do something with it. Eventually my parents gave me a subscription to a magazine that had programs you could type into the C64 to make it do cool stuff. Now, kids have flash-based sites that they play games on or draw figures with.

My point is that the calculator could be more educational than the computer at the age of four.
posted by achmorrison at 8:16 AM on February 20, 2007

I think all this anxiety about "sitting in front of a screen" is hype. Duh, you don't let your kid play on the computer or TV for more than 30 mins, and you makes sure you don't do it every day.

My kid has absolutely benefited from early and regular exposure to the computer. I repeat: s/he learned to read, fluently, at just around 4, way ahead of very bright agemates, and I watched it happen in front of the computer. It's a balanced part of the kid's life, but an important one. It's also something my child has gotten so very good at that it is a major confidence booster. And it's been a wonderful parent/child activity which involves close, interactive learning play. Below age 2 or so is another story, but there's a lot of paranoid hippie nonsense out there about "2 dimensional" learning environments and cognitive impairment. If my kid is cognitively impaired, I am terrified to think what s/he'd be like at full capacity.

BTW, little kids find it much easier to type than to write, and thus writing, as well as reading, advances quickly with a computer to play with.
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:49 PM on February 20, 2007

1. I have no anxiety.

2. If you don't let your kid on the computer for more than 30 minutes every 2 days, then why does the kid need a computer of his/her own? My point was not to deprive kid of computer experience. I, in fact, benefited greatly from being exposed to a computer from an early age. I was merely suggesting an alternative.

3. Your child may have learned to read just as well without exposure to a computer. Your argument is specious.

4. I am not a parent, but I do deal with students on a daily basis who, although wizards at Facebook and MySpace, are terrified by the prospect of punching the 'log' button on a calculator. So I think that some of those kids might be less afraid of math (or at least using a calculator) if they were exposed to a calculator earlier in their life, when they have no reason to hate them.
posted by achmorrison at 9:01 PM on February 22, 2007

You can get calculators that can be used with a computer. And a graphing calculator might be more interesting than one that doesn't do graphs, because it's neat to come up with weird functions and see what they look like. (Or maybe that's just my geekiness showing through.)

I know TI-83s are good solid graphing calculators (mine has survived being toted around in a backpack for years and dropped multiple times) but I don't think you can use them with a computer (you can play games on it, though! They don't come with them, but you can get it from someone else who has, for example, Tetris on theirs. Just putting that out there). There's also the HP 39gs--I think we used it in one of my classes, and the site says it can connect with a computer. I think you can also program them to play songs. It might not be the one I'm thinking of, though; it's been a while. I remember they were a bit of a pain to use, also (could be just because I never got used to it).

You could also look at calculator emulators.
posted by sleeplessunderwater at 10:59 PM on February 22, 2007

Your argument is specious.

Since it wasn't an argument but an observation of the facts, it can't be "specious."
posted by fourcheesemac at 11:25 AM on March 3, 2007

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