You're never too young to log on: The newest toy for two-year-olds has a screen and a mouse. Helen Fielding on the birth of computer totware

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Indy Lifestyle Online
'I CAN see the market for five- to six-year-olds. But the thought of a two-year-old sitting at a computer is difficult to imagine. It's a bit frightening to me.' This was no technological ingenue speaking, but the editor of What Personal Computer? magazine, trying to answer the question, 'Are you ever too young to log on?'

The world of computer totware, apparently, moves too fast for adults to keep up. Computers designed for three-year-olds, but actually usable by bright two-year-olds, will be on sale in the UK next summer and is already the top-selling toy in Japan. The Pico, from the Tomy company, is not a toy in the sense of an imitation of an adults' machine but a proper, functioning computer, retailing at around pounds 170 with a 16-bit unit inside (the same component that makes a Sega Megadrive work).

Already, most of the country's nursery schools have an adult computer available for pre-school children to use. The first generation which is computer literate before it can read is in incubation.

Computing toddlers are actually more alarming in the imagination than in reality. At the Margaret MacMillan Nursery School in north London, a large PC with a keyboard and a mouse is left out for the children - aged between two years 10 months and five - to use, along with the clay, the water, and the sandpit. Seated on a tiny chair in front of the screen, three-year-old Xanthy was clicking on the mouse to find a cartoon bear hidden in a cupboard.

A small crowd of other toddlers were gathered around, egging her on. 'Well done, it says,' a four-year- old boy was whispering. 'What's it doing?' 'Loading, please wait, it says.' 'I want Helen the hittopotamus.' 'Go on, it says.'

'They can't change software, we do that for them,' deputy head Hannah Fitzgibbons says. 'But they pick up how to use the programmes from each other . . . Philip, if you can't be sensible I'm going to find something for you to be sensible with.'

The programs, many of them designed by teachers, are brightly coloured and pictorial, and often based on stories the children already know. The aim is to teach basic skills, but some of the skills seem far from basic. 'We took the children to the National Gallery to see the Impressionist exhibition,' says Ms Fitzgibbons airily, 'And then the children came back and created their own Impressionist paintings with computer graphics.'

Electronic toys for children as young as six months, produced by companies such as Tomy and V- Tech, are already beginning to prepare hapless babies for the way computers function.

'I don't think anyone knows where this issue of children and technology is going to end,' says Jeremy Shaw of Tomy. 'Everyone accepts that computers are a part of life. A child today has a hell of a lot of things to wrestle with that we didn't have to wrestle with. I know mothers whose two-year-olds operate the VCR for them. As soon as they get to nursery school or primary school, they're going to be faced with a computer. They need to be prepared.'

The new Tomy Pico computer is a brightly coloured, sturdy plastic affair which works in tandem with a normal TV monitor. It has no keyboard - a QWERTY keyboard is a nonsense at that age, apparently - and is operated by the use of a cursor and a pointer. It has an astonishing range of stories and games aimed at showing the child the basic principles of computing and teaching them to spell, count, draw and make up stories. The child can even create an animated cartoon. 'It's a child- friendly, mother-friendly computer that fits in with everything a three- year-old does,' enthuses Shaw.

So how soon before the computer replaces books, paints and the crayons. 'The computer doesn't replace any of the other activities for the kids - they're no more keen on it than books, or the Wendy house, or the building blocks,' says Hannah Fitzgibbons in the nursery school. 'It's an addition, not an alternative.'

Jeremy Shaw says: 'There is an intrinsic magic for kids in computers, but they only come into their own when the child has learnt some basic skills by other means. You've got to remember that kids will always be able to find the best value in a cardboard box, and the main thing that a baby needs is love.'

You watch, though. Give it a couple of years and some computer expert will be declaring emphatically that a baby really is too young to log on in the womb, and all a child really needs at that age is placenta. Six months later someone else will be proving him wrong.

(Photograph omitted)

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