Click into place

Shayla Brown, aged two-and-three-quarters is standing beside a chair next to the computer table, waving her hands in the air. "It goes round about and round about and then zip, it bounces out everywhere." She moves the computer mouse and clicks on a bird on the screen.

"It's flying everywhere, turning into a bird, see." As it flies, she continues, "click and see. " She clicks. "Look it just flies everywhere." Turning her attention to another object on the screen, a glass on top of atelevision, she asks, "Want to see this thing, it's going to break," which it does when she clicks on it.

Shayla is part of Techtots, a pre-school and early years programme on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, that adopts a child-centred approach and uses multimedia computers and the Internet as a core component of everyday learning. Like most countries, Canada does not usually expose children of this age to technology, but Techtots uses multimedia computers and the Internet daily.

The school was set up three years ago by Dave Allan, a retired primary head (he started teaching in 1956) of a school which was an Apple centre for global innovation. Here he had adopted a way of teaching with a group of children which involved allowing them to direct their own learning with the aid of mentors - teachers whom they chose to help them. "But the school system couldn't embrace that kind of dramatic change," he says.

Located in three portable classrooms, the school is funded by parents' fees, though some of the children are subsidised through the welfare system, so it is not a middle-class enclave.

The school's aim is to use technology to find "others and their worlds through telecommunications". It caters for children aged between two-and-a-half and seven, which includes the first two years of compulsory schooling in Canada. The children have at least one half-hour computer session each morning and afternoon, and those not napping can use the machines at lunchtime as well.

The computer room has eight computers - and toys, crayons and paper - and the aim is to use the computers as they would anything else. "We give children Plasticine, crayons, paint and let them use it. We give them a computer to do the same," says teacher Clare Forbes.

Initially, new children tend to watch the others using the computers but "within three or four weeks they'll be fighting to get on it", she adds. The room is a colourful mix of activities with, say, one child sitting on the floor reading a book, others looking through a "living book" together on the computer, another "drawing" on the computer screen using "KidPix" and another playing with Plasticine on a table beside the computer.

Eventually, says Dave Allan, "they become extremely familiar with the technology; they're miles ahead of other kids when they start school." Claire Forbes agrees: "they use the same programs as they will in the school system . . . then they're a challenge to the schools. It will change teachers as they may now have a number of students who know more than the rest".

The programs enable the pupils to read and play stories with pictures and text, make cards, draw pictures, and to add words and music.

The computers are all networked and linked to the Internet. In a recent link-up with a pre-school in Sweden the children sent each other computer pictures of spiders they had drawn. Some understood the long distance connection and some had no idea, Dave Allan says. "One pupil wanted to know the transmission speed. "

At this age, he argues, children are particularly receptive to learning - "by three, you walk and talk and then slow down". Computers appeared in some areas to accelerate learning. "We've seen what flexible programs can do with kids who read." Now he hopes to see the effect of using them in all other areas. "So, for example, if they learn a language, can they learn to use telecommunications and interface with pupils in that language?"

As yet, because it is early days, Techtots has not formally followed up its pupils to see the effect of technology on pre-schoolers, but teachers have been in touch with those schools to which former pupils have transferred, and report that children appear to be transferring very successfully, says Dave Allan.

The school's future is dependent on parents' fees and Dave Allan's energy and idealism, but he has enough faith in the future to have recently negotiated the use of eight more computers. These will be used by teachers to pull down, say, 10 sites from the Internet, store them and give children access to those sites on one of the machines.

Vivi Lachs is an advisory teacher in IT and multimedia in Hackney. She has recently returned from North America which she visited on a Winston Churchill Fellowship

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