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Computers: Preschoolers

Dad and daughter at laptop computer

The many claims made by the technology industry may persuade you that there is no limit to the educational value of computers, e-readers and even smart phones. Like other toys and tools within your child's reach, however, digital screen time is likely to serve your child best when it extends natural play.

You'll want to make sure computers, whether a desktop or a handheld version, don't encroach on developmental needs. Children need time to play creatively and to share their inventions and discoveries. They need parents and caregivers to participate in their play. Finally, they need lots of opportunities to make decisions, to take turns and to master an activity.

Although you don't want your child staring at a computer screen for hours on end, you do want him to make the most of his time there. Here’s how you can start:

6 Ways to Maximize Digital Screen Time

  1. Ask lots of questions as your child uses a computer or handheld device.
    Though it's tempting to walk away when your child is engrossed in an activity, make time to ask him about the games and activities he’s undertaking. Get him in the habit of thinking about what’s on the screen by asking questions like these: How do you play this game? What happens when you move there? Which character is talking?
  2. Don't let screen time substitute for physical activity.
    Turn off the computer as well as your own cell phone regularly and get your child playing outdoors, making arts and crafts, looking at books, singing songs, dancing to music, building forts, making up stories or exploring.
  3. Introduce your child to software and websites that fan his creativity.
    Drawing pictures, coming up with stories and making rhymes are ways for your child to convey what he may not be able to express through everyday conversation. Your child may want to share what he's made to keep it to herself. Either response is okay.
  4. Get your child playing digital games alongside others.
    Look for games and apps that have "explore" settings, which allow your child to play with others rather than compete against them. Encourage your child to play with siblings and friends; discourage him from using video games as a fallback activity when no one else is around. Allow yourself to join in, getting to know each game firsthand.
  5. Find opportunities for your child to make decisions and try something new.
    Even simple choices — choosing a character, finding a background for a picture, selecting a game — are good opportunities for your child to explore. If your child seems bored with one activity, suggest something new; this could be a different level of the same game, or a new game altogether. (Unless you point them out, your child may not realize he has other choices.)
  6. Keep one child or group from dominating content choices.
    Activities shouldn't be limited to those their friends say are "for boys only" or "for girls only." Talk to your child about the importance of taking turns using the mouse and computer.
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