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Growing up digital: How digital culture is changing the way kids play

Published: Monday, May 26 2014 6:05 a.m. MDT

Updated: Wednesday, May 28 2014 2:32 p.m. MDT

Technology can help kids get an edge in the digital world. But does honing these digital skills early help children, or does it have risks parents and experts don't yet see?

Eric Gay, Associated Press

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This is the first in a three-part series that looks at the impact of technology on kids and teens. Read part two: How digital screens are changing the way we read. Read part three: How the Internet affects teen identity.

As an elementary school teacher, Warren Buckleitner was quick to embrace the brand-new, intimidating tool in his 1980s classroom: An Apple II computer.

“I saw really how powerful it was for my students,” Buckleitner said. “I had a few kids who were very hard to teach, and I was able to use that computer to help them get a good report card.”

Today, Buckleitner is the founder of the Children’s Technology Review, an online resource that reviews all kinds of technology aimed at young kids. Now 55, his focus has shifted a lot from the Number Crunchers game that came on that first Apple II, but his vision hasn’t budged.

Like a growing number of tech industry innovators, educators and parents, Buckleitner is passionate about the new and changing ways technology can help kids get an edge in the digital world. But does honing these digital skills early help children, or does it have risks parents and experts don't yet see?

Saurabh Gupta is the co-founder of Play-i, a company whose goal is to make programming tangible for children as young as 5.

If that seems young, it’s actually considered a good age to introduce computational thinking. A recent study of programming at Tufts University found that children as young as 4 could grasp and implement simple robotics programming, in some cases in as little as one week of concentrated work.

The study also found that kindergarteners could learn concepts behind engineering and programming while developing motor skills, hand-eye coordination and learning teamwork.

Gupta and a group of developers created robots they call Bo and Yana, which children control using the touch interface of a device like an iPad. While the fact that they’re programming the robot is largely hidden from the child, Gupta says they’re learning critical thinking skills that apply to development on all levels.

“A lot of people believe that programming right now is what reading and writing used to be 100 years ago. It’s almost at that level,” Gupta said. “Our goal is not to build an army of programmers. We’re going to teach them a skill that will help them no matter what they do.”

The techies are coming

But not everyone is convinced an early introduction to skills like programming is good for children. One such person is Dr. Jim Taylor, a psychologist and author of “Raising Generation Tech: How to Prepare Your Children for a Media-Fueled World.”

“It’s absurd. Parents are so worried that their kids will be left off the tech train and they won’t make it in their connected society. But these kids are digital natives,” Taylor said. “What made the Sean Parkers, the Marissa Mayers, the Mark Zuckerbergs so successful was not that they knew how to write code. They knew how to think expansively, creatively, innovatively.”

To be clear, while Taylor said he felt the emphasis on technology for small children was “misguided,” he also doesn’t want to be labeled as a Chicken Little for technology.

“I don’t want to give people the idea that the sky is falling. But I do want to be Paul Revere: The techies are coming! It’s about being alert and aware of the effects,” Taylor said. “I love technology and that’s made me extra aware of both the concerns and the benefits.”

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