Playing Baby Computer Games ? The New Parent-Child Tradition?

Imagine cuddling up with your small child to look at a picture book together that is interactive, musical, responsive and talks to you?

This is the experience that people are having who are engaged in that relatively new pastime ? playing computer games with babies.

JumpStart's Knowledge Adventure calls it "lapware", Kiddies Games' logo is "Hop on the lap and tap", and Sesame Street's "Baby and Me" opens with an animation of a baby monster hopping onto the lap of a Daddy monster to play the computer. Playing computer games with your baby is being promoted as a fun activity that a child and their caregiver can share together. And rightly so, because whatever the activity, physical, loving closeness is an important ingredient that infants need for healthy intellectual, emotional and physical development.

Reading a bedtime story to a small eager child is a tradition in many homes. As the children get older, this may be replaced by watching TV together. Our parents' families listened to the radio together. Playing on the computer with a small child may become a new type of family tradition. Home computers and internet are making their way into more and more homes. Some parents use the computer in their work and are delighted to share the computer for a fun activity with their kids. Other parents want to make sure their children become computer literate. Well-designed, interactive, educational computer games engage small children as much as the television and are more educational than TV because they incite the child to interact and think, rather than passively watch and listen. These are the reasons for the increasing popularity of toddler computer software. Although a relatively small industry, software for infants has been cited as being a very fast growing industry.

What type of computer software is available for babies, toddlers and preschoolers? There are free games on websites and there are download and CDROM software that you can buy. Most software for this age group is games, but computer story books also exist. Wonderful websites that offer free games of which many are suitable for preschoolers (preschoolers are able to do directed clicking with the mouse) are:

http://www.sesamestreet.org/sesamestreet

http://www.noggin.com

http://www.cbc .ca/kidscbc

http://www.abc.net.au/children/games

http://www.meddybemps.com

Great free sites for babies (whose skills tend to be more limited to banging the keyboard) are:

http://www.kiddiesgames.com

http://www.toddletoons.com

CDROM or download software that you buy is usually better than free internet games. The games are usually superior (more graphics, more music, more involved games for older kids) and the software takes over the entire screen, which is more appropriate for very young children who click anywhere and everywhere on the screen. Some of the well-known producers are:

Reader Rabbit software from http://www.learningcompany.com

JumpStart software from http://www.knowledgeadventure.com

Fisher-Price software from http://www.knowledgeadventure.com

Sesame Street software from http://www.encoresoftware.com or http://www.amazon.com

http://www.babywow.com

Computer game softwares for this age group make conscientious efforts to be suitably educational. To judge their effectiveness for your child, try them out with your child. If your child finds that it's fun, then it's probably educational. For a baby, fun usually means that the game responds in some way to random keyboard presses and mouse clicks, and that the game continues in a positive way even when no input is forthcoming from the baby. A preschooler will need more of a challenge or more educational content, but the game should be designed to be always fun, reactive in a positive way and self-resolving when the child does not get the correct answer. At this age, it is more important that computer games contribute positively to self-esteem, rather than conscientiously correcting incorrect answers about educational concepts that the child will master when they're older anyway. The KiddiesGames.com software is meticulous about adhering to these rules.

What types of skills are learned by playing toddler computer games? Obviously, computer software is not suitable for practicing gross motor or even fine motor skills. However, there are many types of educational concepts that computer games can help a child master, including shapes, sounds, cause and effect, identifying and naming things (such as objects and colors), increasing vocabulary, language concepts, the forms of letters and numbers, counting, pattern recognition, detail observation and word construction. At KiddiesGames, we strive to offer games for small children that are out of the ordinary, such as foreign language exposure and practicing the positions on the telephone for dialing emergency. The reactiveness and interactiveness of computer software is, of course, superior to that of books, and can be superior to that of toys, especially in the area of language. Infant computer games are also being cited as excellent resources for children with special education needs, because such games are simple, happy, brightly-colored, patient, controlled by the child and allow the child to make things happen.

An official recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics at http://aappolicy.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/pediatrics%3B107/2/423 is to "Discourage television viewing for children younger than 2 years, and encourage more interactive activities that will promote proper brain development, such as talking, playing, singing, and reading together." This has been taken as advice to avoid exposing those young children to the computer. However, well-designed infant software actually encourages those great activities of "talking, playing, singing, and reading together". By carrying out the play activities proposed by the computer game, the caregiver is actually prompted with a framework or script for carrying out those "talking, playing, singing, and reading" activities with the child. Experts are now saying that while computer games for infants should not replace toys and blocks and books and should not be used as an electronic babysitter, that they are yet another valid toy resource. For example, a summer 2004 newsletter from the Hawaii State Health Department at http://www.hawaii.gov/health/family-child-health/eis/summer2004 encourages playing with lapware. The emphasis is not on acquiring measurable skills or getting correct answers, but is on open-ended exploration on the part of the child ? which is another way of saying "having fun". Children are programmed to learn and practice what they learned by playing and having fun.

Playing computer games with your small child is not yet a family tradition. However, it is an enjoyable, sharing activity that is becoming more and more popular.

The author of this article, Emma Rath, produces free online and purchasable download baby and preschooler software, available at http://www.kiddiesgames.com.

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