Tablets are the first-device of choice for kids, because they're cheap and so easy to use that even preliterate children can master them in minutes. But no matter what Apple says, kids eventually need to learn how to use actual computers with keyboards and windowed operating systems.
There are some applications that only run on a computer and there are others that just work better with a keyboard and mouse. Many schools now use Chromebooks. And, if you're a tech enthusiast, you may want junior to take mommy or daddy's grown-up PC for a spin.
If you're thinking about introducing your child to computers, you're probably wondering just how old your kid needs to be before they can grok concepts like moving a mouse around, clicking on icons or navigating through text-heavy menus. While you shouldn't expect your toddler to master the Linux command prompt, children as young as two can have meaningful interactions with a PC.
Here's what to expect at every age.
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It probably won’t come as a surprise, but infants and computers don’t really mix. Babies simply don’t have the physical or cognitive skills to make it worth your time or theirs. The one notable exception is that they may enjoy video chatting with familiar family and friends. On the high end of the age range, they may also enjoy pressing keys and mimicking what they see parents and siblings doing.
This is when kids typically start to show more curiosity about the computer and when many children head into the “button-pushing” stage where any button or switch is fair game.
Kids at this age:
- Should always co-use with adult, meaning that adults will need to be hands-on or use guiding hands with the keyboard and/or mouse, especially when navigating menus.
- Should have minimal computer time overall, limited to a few minutes a day.
- Are able to start recognizing letters and numbers on a keyboard.
- May or may not start to show interest in using the mouse – follow their lead in terms of skills.
- Enjoy simple cause & effect games (ex: press a button and something happens)
- Should learn “gentle hands” – no banging, hitting, dropping, throwing the keyboard, mouse, monitor, etc.
Don't consider buying a child this age their own computer. Give them limited time on your PC.
By now, kids are more likely to start engaging with software and will enjoy games and activities like puzzles, drawing, matching, etc.
Kids at this age:
- Will still co-use with an adult, but increasingly enjoy taking control of the mouse/keyboard.
- Should still have time limited to just a few games or activities a day.
- Hunt & peck on the keyboard.
- Are capable of basic mouse use.
- Can use a word processor for learning letters and spelling their name.
- May use computers in school in limited ways.
- Should learn to wash hands before use.
- Will continue to work on using gentle hands.
- Need to be taught to keep snacks and drinks away from the computer.
“By the age of 4/5 most children have the fine motor skills to manipulate a mouse,” says Dawn Cunningham, a licensed pre-school educator in Somervile, MA. “If they haven't used a computer before, they will likely require a demonstration and possibly some hand-over-hand assistance.”
Preschool kids are still too young to use a computer independently, so don't consider buying them one.
At this point, kids are able to use a computer with some independence and to enjoy complex and time-based games and activities. They are able to start coding with simple tools like Scratch.
Kids at this age:
- Require an adult present, but should retain control of the mouse and keyboard.
- Will need longer chunks of computer time to complete age-appropriate activities and school work.
- Are able to use a mouse with basic comfort.
- Are likely to be using a computer regularly in school as part of their learning process.
- May be learning to type in school.
- Are able to enjoy simple games independently.
- Should start learning about internet safety and family technology rules.
- Can be expected to log in/out of accounts with username/passwords written down
Keri Wilmot, a pediatric occupational therapist in Dallas, TX, explains, “At early ages, it’s about practice and building confidence… as well as finding games and activities that are fun and developmentally appropriate, so they can build their skills rather than become frustrated by complicated functions.”
Kids in the 5 to 7 age group don't really need their own computers, but enterprising parents can consider a durable Chromebook like the Asus C202SA, which can survive 4-foot drops onto concrete. The Kano Computer Kit, which teaches children how computers work, is a great learning tool for this age group.
Not surprisingly, this can be a challenging age. Kids will start to seek more independence and privacy, but are not mature enough to always make the best decisions, especially when it comes to online interactions. They are also likely to start getting personal devices, making it even more important to emphasize rules and expectations.
Kids at this age:
- Should have an adult nearby, but generally allowed to work independently.
- Are able to use proper typing technique (if taught).
- Are likely to use a computer as an integral part of their school day (including standardized testing).
- Are able to play complex games.
- Should know all the basics of the menus – open, save, print, etc.
- Should be able to explain and follow family internet safety expectations and other computer rules.
- Will test limits.
- Require filtering / Internet management software as they start to explore with more freedom.
Because they can work independently, tweens are prime candidates to get their own computers. When computer shopping for tweens, consider the following:
- 13 to 15-inch laptops: If you're buying a laptop, get one that's fairly portable, but that still has some screen real estate.
- Refurbish an older PC: If you have a decent, older computer, you can hand it down to your tween and have them help you fix it up, adding RAM or upgrading to an SSD.
- Durability is key: Travel-friendly laptops, which are meant to survive a fall, are preferable.
- Invest where you can: Expect your tweens to enjoy gaming or editing videos for their YouTube channel. They'll need a machine that can handle more than word processing and web surfing.
- Pick a familiar platform: If your family has Windows PCs or Macs, get them one of those. Stick with these if your budget allows to allow for software compatibility and gaming speed.
Teens may still not always make the best choices, but they are capable of creating complex projects and artwork using a computer. A little encouragement in that realm can help push kids from consumers to creators.
Kids at this age:
- Work independently.
- Still need adult oversight through checking logs, history, etc.
- Are able to create high-end content, find information, and communicate
- Require internet safety reminders and refreshers and ongoing conversations about expectations.
If you're giving your teenager a computer, keep these tips in mind:
- Match their interests: If your kid does design work for the school newspaper, a large screen and discrete graphics make sense. If they are primarily typing research papers and using social media, a lightweight laptop is a good idea. If you have a lot of money, a gaming rig isn't out of the question.
- Build together: Tech-enthusiast parents can teach their kids about computers by picking out the parts and putting one together.
- Make it college-ready: If your teen has only a year or two left until college, consider buying a computer that will meet their needs, even after they go away to school.
Which OS is Best for Kids?
When it comes to operating systems, adults tend to feel strongly one way or another. Kids, on the other hand, are highly adaptable. With a bit of coaching, they have little problem adjusting between a Mac and a Windows-based system. They may use a Chromebook at school. The best choice for your family is whatever OS you are already using. This will allow you to help out, model good choices, and focus on enjoying time together. Paired with your technology/media use plan, and your Internet filtering/monitoring solutions, you should be fine with whatever option you choose.
It also may seem that young kids could struggle with menus and navigation if they haven’t yet learned to read. While this is a valid concern, by the time kids are old enough to take the lead, it’s typically a moot point. Even kids in preschool can learn to find menu options by location and using the first letter of the word. You may actually be surprised to find that your little one can start to recognize words (just as they recognize icons) that they frequently see and hear, such as save, exit, and print.
Health and Safety Tips
No matter which age kids are, you need keep them safe by following these tips:
- Create a family technology agreement that specifies limits, expectations, recommended behaviors, etc. Have everyone sign it. The AAP has a tool for creating a Family Media Plan that can help you..
- Encourage frequent breaks to stretch, get physical activity, and avoid eyestrain.
- Set up computers in a way that is ergonomically friendly for the age/size of your kids. They may need a booster seat to use a mouse, monitor, etc., at appropriate angles.
- Enable internet filters that allow you to block/manage your kids’ access to online content. Young kids may only need access to a few games and favorite websites, while older kids may need broader access for school projects and creative activities.
- Teach kids to never share personal information, such as full name, phone number, birth date, school, address/town, passwords, etc.
- Show kids how to avoid clicking on pop-up ads and banners. Set expectations that they will ask permission before downloading files.
Protecting the Computer from the Kids
While some families have multiple computers, others may have access to just one. Learning to keep those machines in good shape is part of being a responsible computer user.
- Use “gentle hands” – never bang on, drop, hit the computer, keyboard, or monitor.
- Keep drinks and snacks away from the computer.
- Encourage hand-washing before use, especially after meals.
- Use virus protection software.
- Reiterate the importance of not clicking on banner ads and pop-ups, of asking for help if there is any confusion, and of never downloading software without permission.
Making the Right Decision for Your Family
In the end, there is no magical age where kids suddenly are able to use a computer with ease. While basic reading and fine motor skills help, there’s still a learning curve to get past. And kids who are solely used to tablets may have a more difficult time making that transition than kids who have had computer access all along. If you’re interested in having your child use a computer, your best bet is to start the introduction at a young age and give them more freedom and opportunity as they get older. Not only will they have time to learn and grow, but you’ll be able to emphasize healthy habits along the way.