My son started grade 1 this week.
His mom and I took him to his first class on Monday to meet his teacher and some of the other kids. We also wanted to survey the facilities to make sure it was an environment we were comfortable with.
I was disappointed to find a couple of old clunker iMacs stuffed into one corner of the room.
It might surprise you to know that my son has very little computer experience. This is not an accident.
I’m not a supporter of exposing kids to computers at an early age.
The research I’ve read is conflicted on the matter.
Some reports say computers make kids smarter, others say they impair learning. Some say they help kids develop social skills, others say they inhibit those interactions.
Without any clear resolution on the matter, the computer is a wildcard in the early learning experience. So why even deal it into the deck?
Computers are an abstraction of reality. They present a limited, boxed-in environment that imposes a set of methaphors – files, folders, desktops – on their users in an attempt to manufacture a sense of place.
To be successful in that place, a computer user must adopt the environment’s methods and materials, and be limited to them.
Meanwhile, my son loves to do junk art. He loves to take wax cartons, paper towel tubes, yogurt pails, and cereal boxes and turn it all into spaceships, cars, farms, furniture, people, animals, or cities.
You can’t take the files and folders of a computer’s desktop and turn them into anything.
The metaphor-based world on a computer teaches kids that all there is to an object is what it is.
Reality begs us to explore the idea that things are really what they’re not, to take things and transform them.
What’s more, computing is, by its very nature, binary. It is a world of 1s and 0s, on and off switches, that continuously works to prove that something is either true or false.
Reality, however, is never true or false. We live an existence that ebbs and flows with uncertainty, negotiation, and flexibility.
Then there’s the commercial-political aspect of computers.
Mac versus Windows versus Linux versus who cares.
Folks get more heated about their computing platforms than they do about national elections.
And therein lies the rub: commercial politics drive certain platforms into classrooms.
This is possibly the worst aspect of computing for young kids: the building of a brand-based consumerist mindset.
Whether it’s Coca-Cola or Apple, early exposure to a brand, especially one condoned by respected adults such as teachers, builds a deep mental predisposition to it. It will affect the child’s consumer behaviour for life.
It’s not the place of schools to influence future brand-based consumer habits.
This is especially true when such early influences will provide these future consumers with a tendency to overlook the negative aspects of a product, like its impact on the environment.
And computers are arguably a more detrimental force on the environment than any other mass technology, cars included, ever was or will be.
Massive amounts of a variety of substances must be extracted from the earth to provide for the form of a computer. Mind-boggling amounts of energy and resources are consumed in the manufacture and use of computers.
And despite developing improvements in the after-life of a computer, more often than not they become a toxic legacy that betrays the environment once we’re done with them.
Yet, there those two iMacs sit in my son’s classroom, cute as buttons.
The students who will use them have no idea how dirty they truly are.
The long and short of what I’m saying is this: computers aren’t really that great for young kids.
They inhibit critical thinking. They impose artificial limitations through the use of an arbitrary metaphor. Their very existence promotes a materialistic-based mindset that promotes blind consumerism.
And these are things that young kids aren’t prepared to cope with. If they’re exposed to the very limited worlds of computers too early, they’ll develop an inflexible, binary mentality that will inhibit their ability to cope with the weirdness of the world.
Kids need to experience the world in all its glorious, confused messiness before they are forced to endure the tedious, abstract limitations of a computerized regime.
The computer is an unnecessary challenge to young children that distracts them from the essential learning they must experience in order to evolve as human beings.
I’m hoping that those iMacs in the corner of my son’s new classroom don’t get a heck of a lot of use.
He’s got too much learning to do in that class.
Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, September 3, 2009.