The HeliOS Project is now.....

The HeliOS Project is now.....
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Thursday, January 13, 2011

How young is too young?

I recently received some mild criticism from a friend when I stated that The HeliOS Project provided a computer for a family with 3 kids ranging in age from 6 - 9 years old.

He said that we had wasted a computer on kids that were far too young to either appreciate the technology or use it efficiently.  I don't only think he is wrong...

I know he is.

I didn't argue the point with him...he's not an educator nor is he vaguely involved in technology via his profession.  I wasn't nearly as concerned about his criticism as I was about his attitude.

I think that exposing a child to technology should be done as soon as there is a cognizant communication ability between child and parent.

I only have emperical data to support my point.

When I decided that I wanted to live and work in the computer technology field, I was fairly late to the game...somewhere around 2002.  Of course, I began my self-education on a Windows machine and as I believe most people should, I evolved to learn outside of my knowledge base.  I began to explore Linux.

My daughter Amanda Brooke was 2 when she insisted in being lifted to my knee as I worked at a DOS prompt.  We would take breaks intermittently to play pinball games and later, Childsplay and an occasional game of Frozen Bubble or Planet Penguin Racer.  We did this for at least two hours a night, 7 nights a week and we did it for years.

She squealed with delight every time tux "ate" a fish and made the popping sound.

I didn't "push" my daughter into tech, math or science...but you would have a difficult time convincing me that early exposure to technology didn't have a lot to do with it.

In fact...I don't think anyone could.

And there isn't a week that goes by that we don't hear from parents or guardians...receiving reports on how grades have improved.  Not only grades, but whole attitudes about school and education.  In a few cases, we have seen chronic truants at the middle school or high school level begin to take their studies more seriously.

I know as well as you do that many of the kids we give computers to more than likely use them for gaming and social activity....far more than they use them for academic pursuit.

We are dealing with pre-teen and teen kids after all.

But the fact remains that they now have the tools.

Skip Guenter and I do week-long computer labs during summer vacation.  The kids range from 4th to 6th grade.  When I first intro the class. I walk among the seated children and then I point to one of them and I say:

"You are going to be the first person to walk on Mars."

I point to another and state:

"You are going to discover an herbal compound that cures diabetes."

And to a third child I point and say:

"You are going to invent the nano technology that reverses blindness."

Then I make sure that they understand one thing.  Unless they embrace and learn about the machines in front of them, none of that is likely to happen.

My youngest daughter Amanda is a senior at Crockett High School in South Austin.  Since she is bound to read this and give me grief over it, I won't be a boastful Dad and blurt out her SAT scores.  Her grade average is 3 point holy-crap!

And trust me...her intelligence is not least not from my side.

But I will tell you this.  She is being courted heavily by several major universities.  I believe she is leaning hard toward Rice.

They want her to study either sustained energy or nuclear engineering.

You go go...

While I write this, the memory wraps itself warmly around me...

The weight on my knee and the giggles as tux pops another fish.

All-Righty Then


Paul Sams said...

I agree with you. While I was a novice to linux, I was amazed when our(at the time) three year old grandson showed me things on the computer. He never used linux except at our house. He also love Tux Racer. I was amazed at how quickly he taught himself. He is now OS agnostic. He feels "superior" when his older cousins don't know what to do on my computer and he does. He doesn't think linux is hard. Add me to the start them young when they show interest.
Paul Sams

Rob Shepherd said...

Couldn't agree more - the earlier the better. My 3 and 6 year old children have been exposed to OSX, Ubuntu, and Vista/7. Both have seen all three in use since they were old enough not to fall out of my lap while I typed. It's amazing to watch how quickly they pick up on things!

Scott-Gto286 said...

right on! i dont think there really is a to young, it's up to the parental units to get them going early. i got started early from a friend & i been at it since and got good at it with windows/apple/linux etc. now i spend time teaching the linux system to friends, classmates, hell i even got my mother on linux i hear the ocasional giggle from the play time on frozen bubble :-) , far as the daughter goes.. right on,, you go girl!

PV said...

I had much the same experiences with my dad; when I was just a year old or so, my dad would be working on something in Microsoft Windows 3.1 while holding me and he would also put my hand on the mouse and let me click at different things. Those were my first experiences with a computer. Also, out of curiosity, if your daughter was 2 years old in 2002 when you starting learning Bash and she's now a senior in high school, are you saying that at age 10/11 she's a high school senior? HOLY [EXPLETIVE] THAT'S CRAZY!!!
a Linux Mint user since 2009 May 1

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more. My youngest daughter hates Windows. She has used some variety of linux since I gave her first laptop 8 years ago. She goes over to her friends home see's how slow there PC's are and then she pops open her laptop and is on the net in less then a minute. She never had a virus on her system. She is just a user of the computer, you could say a typical user, she just wants to get the task done and move on. She'll be heading to college this fall so I had to put a VM of windows on her computer, so she could do so some college work, but other then that is all linux for her. :)

Unknown said...

@ PV

LOL...that was badly worded and I communicated poorly. She sat on my knee starting at the age of two and interacted with me as I worked. If I remember correctly, her obsession on that huge CRT was pinball. She was closer to 8 when "we" started scripting.

Amenditman said...


There is no such thing as too young.

My 21 year old son learned to read and write because he wanted to play an animated Donald Duck alphabet game on my old DOS computer. Purchased in 1985 and used until we bought a Windows 95 machine.

My 3 year old has been on Daddy's lap at the computer since the day he was born. He has had his own computer, not a toy a real one, since he was 2 years old. It runs Linux with gCompris, Child's Play, and a bunch of other fun, easy, educational games, and no Internet access.. He can use the mouse, he knows where the letters are on the keyboard, and is learning to spell the things he wants to see on YouTube on Daddy's machine.

My older son is more Web/Gaming/Social networking software savvy than you and I will ever be. The little one, well, wait and see. I won't push him into tech, but I won't hold him back either.

Gavin said...

In defense of the friend who gave you this criticism, I think that if he/she could imagine being exposed to a Linux system at such a young age, then the tune would change!

Indeed, I have found that "too old" is much more likely to be the case when it comes to learning. This is reflected in the various generations surrounding the time of general computer use. If you are 30+ and know a lot about computers, it is likely that you are in IT. If you are younger than 25, it is likely that you know a fair bit about computers just because of your age. The numbers do not lie here - the older you are, the more likely you are to be computer illiterate.

Educators have been saying for centuries that it is best to start teaching people as soon as possible! Are we to throw out this ancient recommendation simply because technology has changed so rapidly in recent years? It is important to keep in mind that technology has changed, not people.

The key here is one simple word: learning. It is one thing to give a child a calculator. It is another thing entirely to give a child a calculator and then teach that child mathematics! Likewise, giving a child a metal box is different from giving a child a sandbox for learning. We could go and on about Windows vs Linux, or even delve into the distro wars or emacs vs vi, but the point of a computer is to provide an opportunity for a young and curious mind to learn how to function using the tools of this generation. Windows 7 + Office 2010, Ubuntu + OpenOffice, OS X 10.6 + iLife '11 - whatever! Just give children something to go on here! There is more that modern children need to learn than has ever been asked of children in the history of the world. If they do not start at age 3, then when!?

Gavin said...

Well, Ken, it appears that your daughter is both smarter and prettier than you! Are you sure she is your daughter? ;)

My interloping vote goes to sustainable energy. If we (as in the world) do not solve that issue soon, bad things will happen. (Feel free to quote my very scientific and profound thoughts.)

I still cannot believe she let you put her picture in your blog, though! Either she really really loves you, or you did not ask permission. :P

Anonymous said...

There is no age too young for introducing kids to computers. Ken's opinionated friend embodies the attitude that develops from being introduced too late: fear, worry, hostility that they're "too young" to know about stuff.

Sure, we don't give drivers' licenses to 8-year-olds, but we can teach them about internal combustion, gasoline vs. diesel, even a 2-stroke mini-bike vs. a 4-stroke lawn tractor. We can teach them what they're ready to know.

And we can look it all up on Wikipedia. LOL.

Bob_Robertson said...

Me too. My two kids have been using computers since they could move the mouse. The 3 year old is playing Wizard101 for the most part, but he learned that from his sister.

She loves Battle for Wesnoth, and I realized when she was 5 she was digging through the characters, researching different levels and races, and basically really learning. A game, yes, but research is research!

She reads 5 grades ahead, and math 3 grades ahead. But then I did "homeschool" as soon as I could.

I did use Windows, due to being able to get lots of Pooh Bear, Dora, and the CDs that came with SchoolZone and Scholastic early learning workbooks. But my 3rd grade daughter is helping teach "computers" (basically Windows) to the other kids at her school.

She doesn't like Windows, she just likes some games that don't run in VirtualBox on Linux, like Wizard 101.

Never, ever, too young to play, and Linux lends itself to being played with without being easy to have a single user really mess up the machine by throwing things away! when the Mac had "Oscar the Grouch's trash can", and kids would throw away the system folders to hear the song.

lycan 762 said...

I have to agree with you, and that exposure to learning tools early on helps kids completely. I remember my family's first PC back in '96. My brother and I quickly picked what we could, and it's influenced my interest in tech. I feel that when I have kids that they will be able to surpass my skill set early on, and I only want to encourage them to do more, bigger and better things.

JeffHoogland said...

As an educator and a tech-head I cannot agree with you more. Technology is essentially in both the classroom and at home. The current generation doesn't react well to technology, they often crave it.

This is a craving that should be satisfied as I do believe it leads kids to be more capable in the areas of math and science.


Alfred said...

The title should be changed to "How young is too old." Until brain development is complete at about age six,chidren have what has been described as a "rage to learn". During that time they will learn about half what they will learn in their lifetime. The more they learn during that period, the smarter they will be.

Unknown said...

@ gavin

She provided the second picture upon request in minutes after asking.

and of course she really loves me. I'm going to put her through college. ;-)

Anonymous said...

I introduced my grandson to Linux before he was three. By the time he was three he demonstrated mastery of the mouse and a few keys on the keyboard. Within a few months he new all of the planets and their major moons in order beginning with Mercury. He then discovered sharks and within a couple months could identify sharks by name and correctly describe all external anatomical features. Then, arachnids caught his interest and he learned the difference between them and insects. He can identify most major spiders. Spiders lead to Spiderman, of course! :-) At four and half he now has his own laptop, which he uses to peruse educational videos and games, under his father's supervision, and he has his own iPhone (sans contract). He is a master at WII and recently was one strike short of a perfect game. His bowling average is in the mid 200s. He beats grandpa at golf, baseball and bowling all the time. Digital technology is just a tool for him ... a mind expanding tool.

Ponter said...

As someone glued to a computer, I'm certainly not anti computers. But I think the question of computer use by children is a bit more complicated. There are some studies suggesting that certain uses at certain ages are appropriate. Further, there might be some ways in which computer use during childhood development might alter brain development in some negative ways. Here are just a few (there haven't been many studies yet -- no funding?) of the studies that have been done.

By the way, I like your blog and applaud the work you've been doing for those kids.

Alan Moore said...

I can't believe anyone would think a 9 year old was too young to appreciate a computer. My kids have been using computers (running Linux) since age 4. A few words of advice based on my experience:

- Be careful overloading the system with games. Prefer games or software that let kids express creativity, like tuxpaint, or games with editors (my oldest practically lives in the supertux level editor)

- LXDE makes, IMHO, the best desktop for kids. Simple, fast, and hard to mess up, and a good implementation of the traditional desktop metaphor.

- Don't underestimate the ability and interest kids can demonstrate for computer programming. Scratch is a great programming tutor for kids, but my kids enjoy doing simple things in the python shell.

- Overall, give your kids a computer that teaches them that computers are tools create and produce, not just toys to be entertained with. This is the number one reason my kids' computers run Linux.

kbt said...

I don't think there is a minimum age. Kids don't know there are limits, so why impose this one on them. I've setup Linux PCs for my 6,3, and 2 year olds. They love it. They get tons of free games and drawing programs. Gcompris, tuxpaint, etc. I setup an OSX machine for them and their first words were, "Where are all the games and stuff?". They may be a little too young to understand the concept of opensource software, but they can see the difference between what they get with these 2 types of systems. They don't think Linux is hard. They thought OSX was a little weird at first, but they learned their way around pretty quickly. Given the opportunity, I think most kids will surprise you with what they're capable of.

Anonymous said...

Pardon me if my comment would be considered innapropriate, I just want to say that there is an young project dedicated to kids starting 2-3 years of age, helping them to learn basic computer skills (mouse movement, clicks, keboard) and, as they grow, consolidating reading and writing skills, math and logic skills as well. The name of the project is DoudouLinux and is based on Debian, including the apps designed for kids (GCompris, Childsplay, Pysycache, etc) and some tools as simple text editor Gedit, few games. The system runs as LiveCD, not touching the data already present onto harddisks, and the Epiphany Internet browser has DansGuardian embedded. If this comment will be approved, your readers will be able to find more from DoudouLinux website, written in 7 languages. Thank you, marianvasile, DoudouLinux team

Unknown said...

Anyone who thinks that a child who can see and has enough motor skills to move a mouse on the screen is too young for computers does not want that child to succeed in today's world.

Heroid Shehu said...

I don't think there is _too_young_ when it comes to computers, im almost 17 and i started using a computer with windows back in 2001, my fathers friend taught me everything, then i changed to linux 3 years ago, and now im more Awesome then my professor, i tried to convert him several times, as for my children (when i grow up) i'll teach them how to computer after their mother cuts off their milk :)

BenAlabaster said...

My eldest daughter has had a computer since before she was 2. Our whole family and many of our friends poked fun at us for setting it up for her. She isn't at an age or have an attention span big enough that she can do anything majore with it yet, but she does know how to use Skype to talk to our extended family who are dotted around the world.

I don't think there is ever an age where they're too young to be introduced to technology... or anything for that matter. Kids are a lot smarter than most people give them credit for. If you expose them to educational material early, you will be surprised just how fast they will pick it up.

candtalan said...

A young family member of mine was clicking a mouse optimistically before 3 years old. At three years they had their own Ubuntu (games) PC. At four years they had a cast off laptop now with Ubuntu.

Anonymous said...

"He said that we had wasted a computer on kids that were far too young to either appreciate the technology or use it efficiently."

Really, he said that? lol

Gavin said...

Ponter - "Further, there might be some ways in which computer use during childhood development might alter brain development in some negative ways."

You bring up a good point here. It is important to be cautious. Computers are not a panacea to early learning. Plopping a tot in front of a computer is no better than plopping a tot in front of a TV. (By the way, your first link is broken for me. Is it just me?)

However, the wonderful thing about studies is that anyone can find a few that support their point of view no matter what! ;) Car crashes kill thousands of people every year, yet I still drive a car. Alcohol is linked to millions of accidents every year, some of them even fatal, yet I still drink. Any one of the dozens of electrical outlets in my home could kill me in less than two seconds, yet I still use them. My point is that irresponsible use of anything can produce bad results.

And then there are the studies that are so narrow in scope that they are really only out to prove one specific thing. These are the studies that should be cautiously digested, such as your third link. While I will not deny that there are certain games that should be approached with trepidation at the very least, it is quite clear to me as a gamer that the full scope of gaming was not taken into account at all. It even almost seems as if the games that were studied were limited to console games, which makes the title misleading since those are distinctly separate from "computer games" in the gaming industry. This is akin to the fact that "personal computer" should technically apply to Apple computers as well as PCs, yet the computer industry marks a clear distinction between the two. In the gaming industry, "computer games" are played on PCs and Macs, and "console games" are played on gaming consoles such as the X360 and PSP - which are "computers" just as much as an iPod or Blackberry phone are "computers". Furthermore, the study makes only passing references to the fact that there exist games that are not detrimental to childhood development. In fact, in terms of finding a game that meets their requirements for proper childhood development, I can think of several right off the bat!

But enough of picking apart a single article - that one is too easy, anyway. Let me just say one more thing: gaming is what lead me into IT. Entering IT using that path has given me certain insights, too. I have to credit my gaming roots for a lot of my success.

Nevyn said...

Funnily enough, I used to think a bit like your friend. It's not that I didn't think they could benefit from early exposure. It's just that I felt that those early years were best spent doing things like learning some basic maths, learning to learn, learning morals etc.

However, after some time in the classroom full of kids with laptops, it's really hard to describe the value these laptops are having on their education.

Suddenly they're enthusiastic about what they feel is the most mundane of subjects and the class is for the most part quiet.

They are able to follow their own interests and they're enthusiastic to learn without the restrictions of "You aren't booked for the library" or only having the one adult resource in a class of 30.

They're communicating on a world scale and can see themselves outside of their own cultures - they fit into a much greater scheme of things. The importance of this can not be understated. The difference between middle class and lower class is culture. Plain and simple. If you can get people seeing out side of their own culture, you've put them in a position where they can consider how they fit and can change their position in the grand scheme of things.

I've become such an advocate that I'm now looking to travel around the South Pacific helping to get technology in to classrooms.

Keep up the good work Helios.

Grant Johnson said...

I must have been WAY too young, then... I started writing software at age 6. At age 9, I actually moved up to useful software (instead of pointless little games mainly for myself.)

This has permanently corrupted my mind. I am now a software developer for a living, and have been continuously for going on 20 years.

The PET 2001 has ruined my life ;)

MrCorey said...

Our son was using the PC at age 3 and navigating his way around with deftness shortly after beginning. His sister began at 2, learning from her big brother.

If they can sit upright, they are old enough to use and appreciate a PC. They are fearless and, as a result, they are not afraid to try new things, for fear of failing - its just not in them.

That guy is just new to the planet. Forgive him. He's still learning our ways.

Anonymous said...

They want her to study either sustained energy or nuclear engineering.

One poignant read on these topics is Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy. It may help her make the decision.