ICT innovation funding is helping parents to learn about computers as their nursery children learn to love books, reports Douglas Blane
It's bad enough when teenagers are more proficient with computers than their parents and teachers. It could be really embarrassing if three-year-olds were confidently tapping the keys and clicking the computer mouse while mum and dad could only watch in amazement.
At Knightsridge Nursery school in Livingston an innovative project is saving blushes by allowing parents to work at the computer alongside their children.
"We wanted to promote parents as primary educators of their children," says headteacher Morag Stewart. "In fact, it's our number one aim." So her staff spent a pound;1,600 innovation award from the National Grid for Learning Scotland on a Macintosh iBook laptop and a collection of talking books educational software.
"We planned at first to spend the whole award on software," says Ms Stewart. "Then we realised we'd be excluding some parents by assuming they all had computers. Also, the laptop is ideal because parents and children can use it to read together on the settee or at bedtime and they don't have to be stuck at a desk. It's very versatile."
Unexpected problems arose as soon as the software arrived because books are no longer supplied with the CDs. "I have a really resourceful clerical assistant," says Ms Stewart, "and between us we managed to beg, borrow - no, we drew the line at stealing - all the books we needed. My own children suddenly 'lost' a book called Grandma and Me."
The new resource was never intended as an end in itself, she explains, but as a tool with one specific application in mind - at least in its first year of use - which was to enhance the children's interest in reading and writing. Ms Stewart was in no doubt that the best way to achieve this was by using the computer along with, rather than instead of, the relevant books. (Computers barely feature in the nurser curriculum, being mentioned in passing in only one section of Learning and Teaching Scotland's Curriculum Framework for Children 3 to 5, whereas the word "book" occurs 50 times and on almost every page.) The talking books are immensely visual and interactive. The point, says Ms Stewart, is not to teach reading but to help foster pre-reading skills such as recognising words and making connections between the written and spoken word. "And maybe most important of all at this age," she says, "is to help parents and kids have fun together."
In the early days of the project, the nursery staff were unsure of their ability to use the new resource. "We took it in turns to take the computer home and get familiar with it," says Ms Stewart.
The parents, too, were apprehensive. "We showed one group how to use the iBook and software, they talked to their friends, and we got more and more volunteers for our training sessions."
There was a worry that the computer might get lost, broken or sold. "But the parents and children have been really careful with it and we had a big, in-your-face sign engraved on the front saying Knightsridge Nursery School."
The system of lending the computer out took time to perfect since half of the 70 pupils were in school in the morning and half in the afternoon. But once the system was working smoothly the talking books proved immensely popular, Grandma and Me being a particular favourite.
"At one point in the book you can click on a white picket fence," says Ms Stewart, "and the fence comes down and plays a tune. Then it hits Grandma on the bottom and she goes 'Ooo'." She chuckles. "It's lovely."
Morag Wishart, whose three-year-old daughter suddenly acquired a great interest in computers, says: "For her, the appeal was bringing the computer home with books on it such as The Cat in the Hat that we'd already read.
"As a parent, it's not hard work at all. It gives you quality time together."