JACKSONVILLE, Fla. "Help me catch three purple fish," asked Lucky the Dog, peering over a bathtub of colorful guppies.
Emma Coleman and Ashley Smith waved their arms and sang along with the cartoon pup on the computer screen. Fellow 2-year-old Brandon Bowers clicked the mouse, and a purple fish obediently leaped into Lucky's net.
Then Brandon decided to turn the mouse (which looked like a ladybug) upside down and poke its underside with his tiny index finger.
"Can you catch a purple fish?" instructor Patty Ottenstein gently asked. Brandon clicked the mouse. Out jumped a fish.
At age 2, these three children are already learning to use a computer while exploring colors, counting and shapes.
But when, and whether, young children should start using computers remains a contentious issue among educators.
Some national children's advocacy groups in recent years asked day cares, preschools and elementary schools to stop using computers, saying they aren't used in a developmentally appropriate way.
But others said children can learn a lot from a computer if the software is geared to their age and doesn't replace interaction with a teacher or developmental activities like playing in the sand or building with blocks.
The National Association for the Education of Young Children accredits preschools and day cares that meet its standards. It takes the position that computers can be good for kids, but it advises parents to learn how their children are using the devices.
"Computers are a tool like any other," said communications director Alan Simpson. "They may be used really well, or not."
Many researchers don't recommend computer use until age 3 because young children learn through physical activity, according to a 2000 report funded by the U.S. Department of Education. But the report also said computers can make an impact on young children if teachers work with the kids, use computers to teach ideas and allow kids access and control over the devices.
Ottenstein is an instructor for Gigglebytes, a program of The Whole Child Learning Co., that teaches enrichment computer instruction in about 65 Northeast Florida day cares, preschools and private schools for $7 a week. It works with children ages 2 to 12 in groups of three to five.
Gigglebytes has a curriculum and lesson plans. The instructors work on concepts like critical thinking, math, classification, phonics, spatial relations, shapes and colors, said Daniel O'Donnell, Whole Child's director of franchise operations.
But it isn't for everybody, O'Donnell said. If a child doesn't want to sit still for the computer activities, instructors will recommend the parents try the class again in the future, he said.
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