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800-310-5554, Monica Ray

Getting Started with Tiny Tots

When is the best age to introduce a child to a computer?  My feeling is, the younger the better.  All a baby has to do is hit some part of the keyboard with his fist to get a reaction in the AlphaTalk program.  A baby will be delighted by the response to his efforts even before he can sit up in your lap.  At that age you may not think he's learning anything useful, but he is.  His brain is absorbing the patterns of the sounds, and linking them to what he sees.

This watching and listening can lead to very interesting results.  One afternoon when Eddy was about fifteen months old, his Daddy and I were playing Scrabble during his nap.  Not being the most considerate of babies, he woke up before we finished our game.  So I picked him up and put him in my lap.  He took one sleepy look at the scrabble board, his eyes opened wide, and he started wiggling.  He pointed at the letters and said, "A!  D!  E!  D!"

But isn't it possible to start too early?  Answer:  no, it's really never too early.  A mother strings rattles over her baby's crib so he can bat at them from the very first.  He hears them clatter and sees them jump at the same time.  Soon he learns that the fist on the end of that arm is under his control.  Thus, one of the very first things he learns about his world is the presence of cause and effect.  Learning fine control of his hands absorbs much of a baby's first months.  At this time the computer is like a super-rattle, linking specific sights and sounds with the baby's random actions.  A baby's mind at this stage is soaking in all the experiences it can get.  In my opinion, as long as the baby is interested in the computer, let him play with it.  He must be learning or his attention would shift to something else.

The slightly older child, say eight months, is able to sit in your lap and hit approximately what he's aiming at.  I remember a lot of keyboard banging at this age.  My response was to gently lift Eddy's hands from the keyboard and say "No.".  It didn't work very well, but he eventually outgrew the banging stage.  (By the way, the computer survived, too.  Keyboards are not as fragile as they look.)

Even though you'll cringe at the way he approaches the keyboard, it's important to let your child "use" the computer at this age.  He doesn't act like he's learning anything, but he is.  When he gets out of hand, just stop for a while.  Remember, the computer is a privilege, not a right.  And these programs are meant to make life with Baby easier, not harder.  Five minutes two or three times a day is plenty.  Eventually he will learn to press with his fingers instead of banging with his fists.  I think it's a matter of coordination and strength.  But in the meantime, even if his technique leaves a lot to be desired, he will be listening to the sounds of the letters and watching them on the screen.

Remember the "A!  D!  E!  D!" at the scrabble board?  A fifteen months Eddy drew the connection between the letters on the table and the letters on the computer screen.  He could probably say only two dozen words, total, but at least three of these were letters of the alphabet.  He drew the connection.  And he had the language to let us know about it, too!

From his excitement, Eddy apparently had never realized that there were letters in the real world, as well as on the computer.  Why was this such a revelation?  Hadn't he ever seen letters before in the real world?  Surprisingly, the answer is "probably not".  A baby's eyes, like the rest of him, are less coordinated than an adult's.  As a result, he can't see tiny details as well.  One of the milestones in every child's life is when he first notices an ant crawling on the sidewalk.  It's not that the ant hasn't been there before.  It's just been too small to see - too small for a baby to notice.  It's the same with letters and words.  A baby's eyes just aren't constructed to be able to see fine print.  That's why the first Early Reader programs allow you to select the font size and style.  The largest sizes are for the smallest kids.

The AlphaTalk program is also for the smallest of kids.  A third grader would find it boring beyond belief, but for a baby, its' just right.  For one thing, the letters can be made huge.  They are easy for the smallest child to see.  Also, the screen is totally uncluttered.  There aren't a lot of pictures or other letters on the screen to confuse the kid.

Confuse the kid?  What's confusing about words?  Well, have you ever looked at a word written in Russian or Arabic?  The alphabets are unfamiliar.  Look at the Arabic word, look away, and try to copy it on paper.  It's impossible.  Then try again.  Still very difficult.  The little details of how the letters are made slip away from you.  And you have no names for the letters, so you can't remember how to spell the word.  That's the kind of problem babies have with letters and words in English.  Letters are, at first, so unfamiliar to them that the fine details slip away and are lost.

The AlphaTalk program cures this initial difficulty.  After a  baby sees "g" a couple of hundred times, he'll notice the differences between it and all the other letters.  After he sees that "G" in various sizes, and in different fonts, he'll grasp the "essence of 'g'".  It sounds overambitious, I know, but it does happen.  At two years, Eddy knew all of his letters, both upper and lower case.  He could read hand printing.  He could read the letters on cereal boxes, soap labels, - any kind of print.  He had grasped the "essence of 'g'".

Once a baby or young child has reached this point, the AlphaTalk program will start to lose its attraction.  You'll know when this happens because he'll start choosing the other programs over AlphaTalk.  Let him.  If he's not interested in something, he's not learning from it.  Or, if he wants to use the AlphaTalk program after you think he's outgrown it, let him choose.  If it keeps his interest, he must be getting something out of it.  In other words, give him his head; let him do the choosing.  The Early Reader series is meant for exploration, - "learning", not "teaching".

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