Emma figured out how to use the mouse by the time she was about Bridey's age. (Note to self: schedule Bridget some alone time on the compy so she can learn, too.) Much as we may like to extol the virtues of giving our kids no electronic toys or screentime until they're Much Much Older, in our house it just Ain't Gonna Happen That Way. (We haven't even succeeded in getting people to stop giving them toys that make noise, much as we would like to. Heck, we haven't even really stopped ourselves, we'll occasionally buy one.) These kids grow up knowing technology and understanding it almost instinctively-- if there's a button to push, they figure out how to push it, if there's a sequence to follow it they learn in two seconds what takes older people several repetitions to remember, and if you take their picture they want to see it right away-- these are children of the digital age.
So once we've given up on the tech-free lifestyle, the problem becomes how to placate them in their love of all that beeps, plays movies, or otherwise has technological bells and whistles without them messing up our stuff. The phone issue is pretty much solved by locking the cell keypad, letting them make the occasional call (but not teaching them how to use the one-touch speed-dial) and giving them toy cell phones that sing and make annoying noises (you learn to tune out the noise after a while and, besides, the small annoyance is usually worth them not calling Italy.) The camera can be used with supervision-- it's not a waste of film since digital photos are easily deleted-- and important photos on the flash drive "locked" for protection. But then there's still the issue of the computer. Ah, the computer.
We have several ways we let our kids enjoy the computer. First is good old-fashioned (well, not really) YouTube. Now, before you flame me for letting my four year old navigate around YouTube, she doesn't do it willy-nilly. She does it while I'm in the room (or at least within hearing distance and walking by frequently); I start her off with a Sesame Street video (or whatever), she may not get on by herself, and she can ONLY click on links to other videos that are either pre-approved or she asks about (I have to approve anything before she clicks on it), and when I say a video goes off she knows that means navigate off the page NOW, like before I get there, or she will not be allowed on the computer for the rest of the day, if not longer, no arguments and no fuss. Our thinking: it's better for her to learn these "internet safety" rules and procedures now on this relatively safe site than have to learn them when she's more argumentative. (I say "relatively safe" because we can immediately see or hear if something is not appropriate, unlike a forum or chatroom where it would be harder to monitor; she can't read yet so even if there's an inappropriate word on the screen, she doesn't know it yet. These rules give us a foundation to build on when she gets older and CAN read and go on forums and such.)
The second is Starfall. Oh, how the kids love Starfall! And it's educational! 'Nuff said. Starfall is great. And it's hard to go astray from Starfall (though, you have to be careful about them closing the window and messing up your desktop, as I've learned the hard way. And teaching them to use the "back" button on the browser is useful if they tend to get "lost" from the content they want sometimes.)
Third, "Watch Instantly" from Netflix. Again, not allowed to choose a video without getting approval, but since they came out with this we've really gotten our money's worth from it; this is how Emma discovered The Wiggles, among other things (and boy was I glad when they took the monthly limit off-- that meant I could watch movies myself without worrying about hitting the limit and then not being able to let Ems watch!)
And the one that prompted this post: the Fisher-Price Easy Link Internet Launchpad. I got it on clearance from Toys R Us, and it was well worth the money. (We also got two extra character sets-- Barney and The Wiggles, and Clifford and Arthur. Emma wants Bob the Builder and Thomas, but we're not sure if we'll ultimately get them or not.) Man, this thing works just the way it claims to! It locks the kids out of your files, desktop, out of doing anything other than navigating to the allowed sites and, I guess, doing a hard shutdown of the computer (they could if they really wanted to-- but they never want to.) The software that comes with it (one time installation) is fast to set up and doesn't try to install ten gazillion add-ons (at least not that I remember); it allows you to put a timer on computer use, and requires a password to change that or other settings (such as allowing or disallowing printing) or to exit the program once it's started. Even when the USB cable to the Easy Link is unplugged (thank you Bridget for testing this), the software does not allow you to exit until the password is entered. Nice. Neither does the website shut down if the character "key" is removed while in use; you just can't navigate to another website until another key is entered. And the websites have no objectionable content other than a few ads; even the shows that contain the occasional "stupid" (a word not allowed in our house) do not have it on the site. The only two problems I have with it: there's no in-program volume control, so if I want to change the volume my only options are to either exit the program, change it, and re-enter the program, or to use the external mute on the speakers, and the software is not downloadable. The problem with that is that we have a broken CD drive on one computer, so in order to install it it has to be put on the good computer, copied to a USB flash drive, and then installed from there. And what if I lost the CD and wanted to re-install or install on another computer? They should really make it available for download. Other than that, it's great, though! The games are suitable for a wide variety of ages and abilities; Emma loves the "painting" pages and some of the sorting and matching games, while Bridey loves the sequencing games. The hardware is easy to use (though it still requires a bit more force and finesse than Bridget is used to to insert the keys, she's getting the hang of it); the only things you need are a computer, the console itself, and a mouse to play. (Bridey broke Abba's wireless mouse by removing and sucking and chewing on the USB part repeatedly, but they have both learned to use the touchpad mouse on the laptop since we haven't had the spare cash to replace it, as well as the regular mouse on the "big" computer.)
The only option we know of that we haven't tried is keyboard basher programs. You know, programs that lock the keyboard out from other functions but bring up letters or educational activities when the keys are pressed. There are several I know are available for free download or free trial periods, but since we're doing so well with what we're doing so far, we have never tried them. If any of you have used them, or used other options, I'd love to hear all about them! My tech-savvy kids will thank you.