Some thoughts on the arguments concerning
children and computers.

There are basically two strongly opposing viewpoints, one favouring the equipping of schools with as many computers as the authorities can afford, the other of preventing children as far as possible from using computers at school or in the home. Amongst the reasons for the latter are worries about the largely violent nature of computer games and the harmful messages they contain, as well as the effect on children's health and wellbeing.
In view of the importance, even urgency, of these and related questions and the fact that they appear irreconcilable, we will examine whether there are any aspects on either side of the argument that could be looked at from a holistic viewpoint and put to practical use for the children's benefit.

The main arguments.
The main arguments in favour of early computer education are, basically, that they present a totally new approach to learning; that people with learning difficulties or physical handicaps are able to perform well in some areas where they otherwise could not; that children who master the relevant techniques at an early age will be ready to enter the labour market well prepared, that they will be in command of skills and information needed in modern life, that they enjoy having ready access to these powerful tools, and that they learn the necessary skills easily and with enjoyment. Set against this viewpoint is the belief that children who come to rely on mechanical means of learning lose the skill and enjoyment of using their individual and human potential for doing so, that they get out of touch with their own cultural roots and lose their imaginative powers; that they come to confuse actual reality with virtual reality; that they are wasting their valuable childhood years in which they could be developing their human and intuitive powers and discovering life for themselves.

I believe that all these views are valid. There is little doubt that 'I.T.' is a technological advance which can be seen as an outcome of human development and evolution. A number of useful studies on computers in education and as entertainment have been carried out which, as might be expected, produce widely differing results. The National Children's Bureau ran a series of seminars in London in 1995, in which specialists in various fields presented papers, and it published these in 1996 under the title 'Electronic Children - How Children are Responding to the Information Revolution' .

Whether its eventual effect will be to the overall benefit of humankind, or to its detriment, is in the hands of responsible people at this very minute. It is too powerful a phenomenon for us to allow ourselves to neglect, waiting later to reap its consequences, good or bad. The advent of this tool has changed civilisation irrevocably and its likely implications and applications need to be discussed now at every level so as to gain a better understanding of it, and to find ways in which it may be harnessed to greatest advantage. If they seize the opportunities open to them even at this late stage, it might still be possible for parents and teachers and others concerned, to have an influence on the way the trend develops because it is to a considerable extent consumer led.

Some ways of preparing children to benefit from present developments. Because there are an enormous number of ways in which computers are affecting life in society, I will in this article focus on a specific aspect, namely on ways in which some of the beneficial uses of computers by children may be maximised, and the possible damage minimised. It is in this area that observations and experiences of adults and children involved could be of great value in forming future developments.

Time spent on the computer.
As one of the generally acknowledged detrimental effects of computers on children is excessive time spent looking at its screen, both schools and parents could ensure that children do not do this for more than a given time. Depending on their age, starting at eight, perhaps 15 minutes, not more than twice a day. This could increase in stages, the maximum time from age 15 upwards being 90 minutes in a day, in two or three sittings, not more than 45 minutes at a time.

Of perhaps even greater importance is the content of the programme. In the opinion of older teenagers with whom I have discussed this, they regret not having had the opportunity to learn the mechanics of arithmetic,because they learnt on machines too early and had become dependent on these and lacked a basic understanding of the underlying principles. As these machines become more sophisticated and more widely used, so the human element in understanding of the principles and the key to problem solving, evaluation, estimating and other mental skills, diminishes. In this way human capabilities atrophy . While adult users of advanced programmes can achieve truly wonderful results, most of these people will still have a basic understanding of principles which they learnt when they were young.

Some basic principles; Investigating, exploring and developing the creative potential of the computer;

a) The Importance of Puzzling.
The kind of learning that leads to an understanding of basic principles contains an element of puzzling; of seeking solutions through challenging intellectual effort; an invitation to the intuition, a teasing out of the intangible, - or a kind of ' brain game'. It is a great joy to children of all ages and should be an important ingredient in any learning programme. While computers eradicate the tedium of repetitive mechanical operations, they can at the same time cut out a vital spark from the mental process and eliminate a certain challenge and discipline. In order to counter-act this, children's programmes, both educational and entertaining, should engage their fundamental curiosity, challenge them to tease and search out information for themselves. It is well known to many teachers that we learn more through questioning than by being fed information. Asking the right questions and searching for possible solutions through puzzling and personal effort is one of the intellectually and spiritually most important and satisfying activities in childhood. This involves the imagination, visualisation, invention and intuition. It leads to creative thinking and originality and brings with it that essential ingredient for healthy personal growth and development, namely a sense of achievement, leading to self-esteem. With the loss of opportunity to experience and exercise this vital attribute, humankind is deprived of a source of wisdom, its very essence; and becomes a robot of its own making.

b) Loss of inhibitions
Some people find that the computer has the effect of loosening inhibitions when writing, producing graphics, numerical configurations or sound. A likely reason for this is that results are immediate, and one is aware that errors can be eradicated with ease. This can produce an easy flow, boldness and the exploration of new possibilities and lead to real creation. However, if discernment and self-discipline are lacking, the resulting work can turn out casual and of a low standard or shoddy. Users need to be aware of this and , and while enjoying the freedom gained, should scrutinise their results thoroughly.

Practical application of the principles.
The principles discussed can be applied in the home as well as school. It is under present conditions not easy for children to find enough to do to fill their leisure time away from the screen, which can leave them with a feeling of emptiness and dissatisfaction. This creates problems for parents. If time at the computer ( and TV) is limited, as suggested, children, and probably their parents, need to find alternative occupations for some of the time. Depending on the age and number of the children in the home this will vary considerably. However, the underlying principle suggested for educational computer programmes can be applied in the home; namely by finding challenging and demanding occupations which fulfil the needs discussed. Some of these may not involve as much intellectual challenge, love of puzzling or searching for solutions, however, the exercising of the imagination is present in many games as well as in domestic occupations like cooking or decorating one's room, providing good facilities for pets, designing clothes or even such mundane occupations as repairing a broken table leg. To these add the enjoyment of craft work, music, dancing, singing and the other arts. Being actively involved with and handling a variety of natural materials stimulates awareness of their physical properties, texture, weight and substance.

Computers can be used for designing, picture making, music making, story writing, producing magazines and other creative work. Such uses are challenging and can be combined with the kind of activities discussed. For instance, decorative patterns made on the computer can be tried out in various media and textures, and either combined or compared. Stories written on the computer can be acted out in real life; tunes made on the computer could be sung or transposed to other instruments, and so on. In this way the two-dimensional, texture-less and weightless screen images can be transformed to take on substance and real life. Children and adults will gain a deeper understanding of the qualities of the different mediums and able to assess the suitability of each for its chosen uses.

If creative and intellectually challenging principles on this basis are introduced into school and home, the new opportunities offered by the computer are put to good use, and a counterbalance to the danger from an overdose of mechanical or technological influences will be set up. This benefit may be absorbed into attitudes to life and the values adopted and can strengthen people to resist the shoddy standards in much of today's entertainment and they are helped to keep in touch with actual, down to earth reality. They are less likely to lose their sense of living humanity when they encounter virtual reality. Some of many issues arising from virtual reality will be discussed at a future date.

While much of the work described can be done in school and home, a great deal does also depend on educational policy set by governments, and on local communities and local government in providing sufficient suitable space and opportunities for children and young people to fulfil their creative potential and to gain maximum benefit from technological developments in education and leisure.

Contributed by:
Elizabeth Stutz - email:

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