There is no specific age that a child should start using the computer, but most people would agree that the child should be at least 2 years old. At this age, many children may be ready, but some will not, even at 3 or 4 years old. By the age of 5 years, most children are probably ready to start using the computer in one way or another. There is little research on when a child should begin using the computer, but there are a few signs that your child might be ready:
- Your child is at least 2 years old
- Your child is interested in visual stimuli such as the computer or television
- Your child attends to visual stimuli for at least 5 minutes (with or without your help)
- Your child is able to reach for items or point to desired items (so that they can touch the computer monitor or point to items on the screen) (not necessary for your child to use a computer mouse at first) (this one is not totally necessary as there are accommodations that can be made even for those children who cannot point to the screen)
- Your child can attend to and follow brief, verbal instructions (e.g. “sit down”) (for this one, it is worth trying the computer briefly to see what happens, for some children, they respond better to the computer than to verbal instructions).
How can I get a child started using the computer?
The best way to get a child started on the computer is to introduce it gradually with little demand on the child. The focus at first should be on showing the child that the computer is fun!
- Pick a stimulating program that your child is likely to love (this does NOT have to be educational – just fun for your child!) and have your child sit with you while you navigate through the program. If your child wants to grab the mouse or touch the monitor, let him, but do not give your child any instructions or place any demands on him or her.
- Once your child begins to show interest (which could be the very first time!), start placing your child’s hand on the mouse occasionally and physically prompt them to move it around and click. If you have a touch screen monitor, you can have your child start touching the screen to see what will happen. For this step, you should again choose a program that is reinforcing for your child, not necessarily a learning program.
- Now you can introduce a simple learning program (you will want to start with content that is relatively easy, but not boring, for the child). Begin with very short sessions such as 5 minutes and do several times throughout the day (2-3 times). Sit behind your child and provide extra reinforcement (e.g. praise, food, touch) to keep your child engaged. You may want to set a timer so the child knows how long they are expected to sit at the computer.
- Increase the difficulty of the learning program and increase the time gradually that the child sits at the computer (no more than 20 minutes for a young child, up to an hour for an older child).
- As your child gets more independent on the computer, you can fade your presence but it is recommended that you sit with your child for some of the computer sessions to work on expressive language and social interaction.
- To make sure it is working, you should collect data on the skills you are trying to improve.
What should I look for in purchasing software for my child?
- If only looking to entertain your child, not teach, pretty much anything will work – these kinds of programs are good rewards for your child to earn after using a learning program.
- For teaching, look for programs that are specifically designed for your child’s needs. For instance, if you have a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, you may want to purchase a program that is designed specifically for this population. Also, be sure to look at the ages the program is designed to teach. If your child is older, you will want to choose a program with age ranges that match your child’s developmental level.
- Look for programs that are based on science. Many programs claim to do this, so look at what “science” they are referring to.
- Look for companies that have done and continue to do research on their products! This one is extremely important, claiming something is “evidence-based” or “effective” without any research is a false claim. At minimum, the companies should provide a scientific framework that their products are based on.
- Identify programs that are visually interesting and have fun sounds – you will want your child to enjoy what they are doing! Most companies provide free demos of their products so that you can check out what the program looks and sounds like. Higher quality products are more engaging for most children.
- Programs that claim to be effective should provide a data collection system in the software. Having frequent progress reports on how your child is doing will help you decide if the program is working or not.
- One of the biggest issues with computer instruction is whether or not skills will generalize to off-computer activities. Programs that provide generalization solutions in the software and give suggestions for off-computer activities are ideal.
- Last, but not least, try to identify programs that will grow with the child so that you are not replacing software every month or so (this gets costly, results in loss of data tracking, and can be frustrating for your child).
Christina Whalen, PhD, BCBA
President and Chief Science Officer