Concerned that the multi-billion-pound computer games revolution has so far eluded the average toddler - the "dribble market" in marketing parlance - manufacturers such as Europress, the UK's leading supplier of infant and pre-school software, now intend to direct their marketing effort towards the professional carers based in day nurseries and village- hall play schemes across the country.
But a number of the nurseries and playgroups that have already received mailshots from software suppliers - some of them offering to stage demonstration sessions, others using the inducement of free software - say that they do not even possess a computer, and are very wary of children barely out of nappies becoming a commercial target in this way.
Pat Dench, training and quality assurance director with the Pre-School Learning Alliance, representing 18,000 pre-schools, believes that while computers have their place in a modern nursery - "although most playgroups can't afford them" - it is wrong to imply that IT education "can in some way take the place of water, sand and paper" for the average toddler. She expresses concern that children as young as three are being "treated as failures" by their own parents because they prefer playing in the wendy house to learning letters and shapes on a PC, and she urges parents to be discriminating when it comes to buying toddler IT. "I do think computers are a valuable learning aid when loaded with appropriate software for this age group," she concedes, "but I'd hate to see pre-school education being reduced to how many computers you've got."
According to Don Lewis, Europress's marketing director, the nought-to- four "edutainment" sector offers "healthy profits" for software manufacturers looking to bring younger consumers into the pounds 1.2bn UK software market. But he also recognises that it is guilt that often prompts parents to buy: "It's true that parents in a sense feel bullied into buying the very latest software product for their child, just as they feel obliged to buy Heinz baked beans or Nike trainers. But all that means is that computer software nowadays has the same snob value as the latest trainers or soft drink; and surely aspiration is what successful marketing is all about."
While Europress, like other well established firms in the nursery software field, makes rather sweeping assertions about the benefits that IT can have for toddlers - "turns your child into a bright and quick learner" is the bold claim on its Nursery School CD-rom box - the Parents Information Network (PIN), an independent advice service for parents on IT issues, is unconvinced: "Many of the claims on software boxes are rubbish, and much of the software is rubbish - destined to be put away in a cupboard and never looked at again," says Jane Mitra, the home-school co-ordinator for PIN.
"A computer is by no means indispensable for pre-schoolers, and for many parents the sorting and sequencing skills that can be learned on a PC by a three-year-old can just as easily be replicated by letting a child lay the table or by talking to them about what you are going to do together next."
She adds: "There is a danger that parents will use so-called educational software to force their child to read and write before he or she is ready; that would be totally counter-productive."
Cendant Software, which produces educational CD-roms on behalf of Fisher- Price - among them, the "Jump Ahead Baby" series launched in October for the nine-months-to-two- years market - stresses that "lapware", as it terms software for toddlers, is specifically designed to be used for short periods at a time.
Says Lucy de Lancey, brand manager for educational products at Cendant: "We are well aware of the arguments about turning little children into goggle-eyes and that's why we recommend that our products are used for no longer than 10 or 20 minutes at any one sitting.
"Our Jump Ahead Toddler series for 18 months to three years has already sold 25,000 units in the UK and is proving a firm favourite with parents. Of course some parents don't want to buy this sort of product, but then some parents don't want to buy books either. At pounds 19.99, our products are accessible to most people."
Don Lewis, whose firm's products include the "Funschool" series, which has so far sold more than 2.5 million copies, and Get Ready for School, which helps parents prepare their children for the new Baseline Assessment Tests carried out in reception classes, believes that the biggest problem attached to pre-school software is the sometimes bogus "educational" tag. "We have seen lots of US software that purports to be educational, yet which makes no concessions to our accent or to our National Curriculum, and we have also seen domestically produced software which claims to be based on the UK curriculum, but which patently obviously isn't."
Pat Dench advises: "Ignore claims regarding software being educational and make your own judgement as to whether a programme is genuinely interactive or whether it simply tests rather than teaches.If your child is having fun, it probably has some value."
For VTech, one of the UK's leading manufacturers of pre-school electronic toys and "learning aids", including Baby's First Computer for children aged six to 36 months, computerised learning can start as early as three months. "A baby of a few months old can learn 1, 2, 3 and ABC from one of our baby lap-tops, and when they get to two years old, many are ready for a machine that teaches them the whole alphabet phonetically," says the marketing manager, Lyn Davies.
"Everything that we produce is based on the National Curriculum and has an educational element and needless to say, we talk constantly to parents and schools to keep up with the latest thinking," she adds.
To many parents, the notion of hot-housing a baby who has only recent learnt to sit up may sound exploitative, but to Ann Kent, deputy headteacher of the Comet Nursery School in Hackney, parents "have nothing to fear from computers but fear itself". At the Comet, the two computers on offer have, she says, been "invaluable in teaching pre-readers how to perform basic tasks on the computer" and have even helped children unable to write to gain confidence by "writing" and printing out their own names.
Adds Kent: "Much of the software aimed at pre-schoolers is either too hysterical or too dull - and there may be a danger that some people will use their computer as a babysitter rather than supervising their children on it. However, aside from those issues, we are quite keen on the idea."
Slightly more cautious is Don Lewis himself, who says that on a personal level, he worries about the whole notion of tiny tots being sat down in front of yet one more screen: "When it's rainy outside, I see no reason why pre-schoolers shouldn't play with some of the better toddler software now on the market, but when the weather is good, I like to imagine small children playing in the sunshine, not hunched in front of a PC."
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