Angela Youngman talked with Justine O’Driscoll of the Bedford Just Learning Nursery about making computers accessible for children in the early years.

Enabling all children to become accustomed to using computers poses three main problems for the manager of many early years settings outside of mainstream education.

1 There are few appropriate training courses or practical help available.

2 There is an assumption that every adult is comfortable with computers themselves. But, some staff members may have completed their own education before computers became commonplace, and even those comfortable with computers, may find it difficult to pass their skills on.

3 The costs involved in buying and maintaining hardware can be prohibitive, especially for smaller settings. Play groups for example may not have enough money to buy computers and the software, to maintain them and to replace them often enough to keep up to date with advances in technology.

Justine said: ‘There are no specific staff training courses. These would be useful but we have not seen any around. We tend to teach children what we know ourselves.’

As a result of these difficulties many settings focus on ICT in its widest sense – how does a digital camera work, how does a TV work, how does a kettle work? – leaving the teaching of the use of computers to the foundation stage classes at school. 

Why should our children have access to computers at this age?

Becoming computer literate from a very early age offers considerable advantages to children.

  • It familiarises them with a tool which looks likely to be a part of almost every adult’s life.
  • Learning to use a keyboard, mouse and screen helps coordination skills.
  • It can aid concentration for some children.
  • For children who come from homes without a computer, it enables them to gain the same advantages as other children.
  • For children with some particular special needs it may be the easiest way for them to play games or draw and compete with other children from a shared starting point.
  • Research shows that ‘Regardless of family income, having a computer at five made a difference for scores on mathematics and invented spelling at age six – particularly for children in the lowest income families.’ [New Zealand Council for Educational Research’s Competent Children Project (1996, 1998) cited in Adults and Children at the Computer in the Nursery, by Julian Grenier and Mary Lou Thornbury, available on www.mape.org.uk] 

What do they need to learn?

Basic skills – to manipulate a mouse; recognise and use some of the keys on a keyboard, move things around on the screen. Introduced properly it will be a fun activity.

Small group activities

Small groups enable the children to interact with each other as well as the computer; and learn to share and take turns.

 Justine commented: ‘We introduce it to groups of four to five children. They sit down around the computer. The staff member shows them how it works and encourages the children to interact with it. They may listen to a story and then the staff member asks extended questions about it.
‘The teacher explains what all the bits are – the screen, the keyboard and the mouse. The children are given a chance to hold, touch and feel a mouse. They quickly understand that the mouse can change things on screen. They may be asked to perform simple actions, like “Can you click on Tigger or Winnie the Pooh?
”’

How long should children be allowed to stay at the computer?

It is important that time on a computer is limited. No child should spend long periods of time on their own working on screen as this would limit the range of their development opportunities.

At Just Learning children are allowed no more than 10 minutes per day on screen. Even that 10 minutes is divided up. Children use the computer in pairs. An egg timer determines how long each child stays on screen – when it needs to be turned, the other child takes over the mouse and keyboard. A turn of the egg timer lasts about five minutes.

Justine commented: ‘We aim to give all children the same opportunities to use the computer whether they are there five days a week or just one day.’

Software

There may be software already loaded onto your computer, suitable for this age group. At Just Learning, like so many educational settings, much of the software is acquired through the Tesco Computers for Schools programme. If you aren’t sure about what to buy, talk to other managers and find out what they have tried and what they recommend.

 Remember that software is protected by a licence. You should never borrow, lend or copy disks – this is illegal and there would be serious repercussions if you were found out.

Alternatively, look for subjects which will link into themes or projects that are due over the coming months. Check out the programmes when you get them, and well before you want to use them, just to make sure that they are suitable and fit in with your plans.

Experience at Just Learning has shown that the most popular software is interactive. Their children like:

  •  software which includes familiar characters like Winnie the Pooh and Bob the Builder, where they can build up pictures, click on letters and do various activities
  • art programs involving the creation of pictures on screen
  • programs where they have to overcome various challenges to achieve a desired end.

Other useful types of program include:

  • jigsaw puzzles on screen, where children have to drag pieces of picture around
  • memory games are both fun and educational since the children have to remember where things are hidden, what is missing, or remember their places and click on the appropriate leaf or book or jigsaw piece
  • mathematical games, such as counting; identifying bigger or smaller shapes.
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