How children grow to love computers... and how to protect your computer from them

GOOD SOFTWARE for toddlers can help children as young as 18 months develop hand/eye co-ordination, learn to use the keyboard and mouse to affect what happens on the screen.

Don't be tempted to buy a computer for your toddler. If anything, buy it for yourself with a view to "skilling up" for their future (and your own).

A computer should be one of many opportunities you give your child to explore, though it should never take away from real-life experiences. Keep things in perspective. There may be children of nine months who show an interes, but it is more likely that this will start as late as 18 months old.

l By letting them sit on your lap while you are using the computer, you have the opportunity to set the scene and demonstrate a careful and respectful use of the computer.

l Be patient - both adults and very young children find it difficult to control a mouse for the first time. If your child is really struggling, then place your hand lightly on top of theirs, and let them try on their own again.

l Let your child control the mouse and play your part by giving clear directions about where it needs to go - always point on the screen to the desired destination.

l It is important to spend time with your child as they play with software, moving through the simplest level of the program. Give them time to explore and only increase the level of difficulty as their confidence grows.

l Give your child the time to explore and experiment on their own so that they can experiment, play and discover, then show you what to do!

l Always stay with your child at the computer and encourage lots of chat about the activities.

l Familiarise yourself with the software before your show it to your child. Learning the ropes may be slow and frustrating and they can quickly lose interest.

l The best piece of software is full of things to do, has a nice balance of fun and learning, is bright and colourful and is best enjoyed by parent and child together.

l Vary your software purchases - don't expect everything from one title.

l Choose software you might enjoy using with your child. Your interest and involvement is vital.

Jacquie Disney has adapted this from PIN's Software Starter Pack for parents, which offers a section on early years and reviews of relevant titles. To receive the Software Pack, call 0870 6040231. It costs pounds 19.99.

DO YOU cringe at the thought of your treasured PC falling prey to the wooden spoon and high chair routine? Allowing children to have access to your home computer can require bravery as well as faith. Will your system be robust enough to handle dribbly fingers and the occasional slurpy kiss?

The makers of "early years keyboards" would have you believe that young children need expensive keyboards and alternatives to the mouse in order to play with a home computer safely. However, buyer beware! These "activity keyboards" usually work with a very limited range of specially produced software.

They may also encourage your child to develop bad computer habits. How can a toddler learn to be careful with your computer when they are presented with an "activity centre" keyboard that invites fiddling, bashing and poking? There are certainly cheaper alternatives that make access to the computer safer, so let's take a look at some of them.

Under pounds 30 To make your computer that little bit more child-proof, you could just buy a second mouse. Let your child choose one from the range of inexpensive coloured mice in various shapes that are readily available, if necessary put a sticker on the left hand button to remind them that this is the one to click - and off you go. When the marmalade strikes, this one will not cost too much to replace.

You can also buy a "lower-case letter" keyboard for under pounds 30. Even very young children soon seem to pick up keyboard skills such as finding numbers and the letters that spell out their own name.

You can buy stickers to put over your capitalised querty keyboard or you can just buy a lower-case keyboard so that your child can recognise the letters on it more easily.

Under pounds 70 Microsoft's Easyball, more bath toy than gadget, is a lap- based mouse alternative for very young children - or children with physical disabilities - which is great for enabling them to sit comfortably while playing.

Under pounds 120 SEMERC's Roller is a large red ball mounted in a solid case that sits firmly where it's put. It's ideal for young children, but also for older children with disabilities, because it doesn't look toy-like.

Alternatively, Big Keys is a keyboard with great big letters. Cleverly, you can arrange the letters in alphabetical, querty or any order, just by opening the casing. Again, this is suitable for young children or older children with disabilities who need simple access that is age-appropriate.

However, there are plastic keyboard covers available for cheap, dribble- proof protection if an alternative is too expensive. No gadget will be totally marmalade-proof so, in case you need a replacement, affordability is an important factor. These devices all cost less than an activity keyboard and may suit your family's needs just as well.

Jacquie Disney

The writer is director of the Parents' Information Network

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