Tots explore cyberspace;News

12th November 1999 at 00:00
Pre-school toddlers can gen up on ICT thanks to a Leicester school. Nerys Lloyd-Pierce reports.

A pioneering technology facility to help deprived children become computer literate before starting school has been set up at Beauchamp Community College, Leicester.

Looking like a spaceship and packed with sensory stimulation features, the college's information and communication technology (ICT) room provides an environment to encourage learning in children aged nine months to five years.

Its creator, college vice-principal Bob Mitchell, believes children from more affluent backgrounds have a head start when they begin formal education because they are more likely to be familiar with computers from an early age. He hopes the college's technology facility will help level the playing field.

"We don't want children who do not have access to computers at home to be left behind when they go to primary school and learn alongside children already equipped with ICT skills," he says. "If a child went to school not knowing how to count to 10, it would be at a disadvantage in the learning process. The same is true of a child who lacks a basic understanding of technology."

Mitchell dismisses arguments that a nine-month-old child is too young to benefit from the facility. "You wouldn't think twice about showing a child that age a book, and using an educational software programme on a computer is a lot more interactive," he explains. "The child sits on the parent's lap and plays with the computer just as he would leaf through a book. By 18 months a child can operate the computer unaided once the software has been loaded."

Mitchell, whose interest in early learning was kindled by the birth of his daughter, presented a paper on the project at last month's international Education In Union conference in Cardiff.

"ICT is going to be essential in the future so we need to develop this approach with our under-fives," he says. "To quote Gordon Brown's budget speech, anyone left out of the new knowledge revolution will be left behind in the new knowledge economy. This facility will also enable us to offer advice and support to other early learning schemes who want to develop ICT projects with their children."

The ICTroom at Beauchamp College has been well designed - only half of the pound;18,000 price tag was spent on computer equipment. One wall depicts a spaceship window looking into the solar system, while another represents the craft's control panel with a lunar landscape beyond. To enhance the deep-space atmosphere natural light has been blocked by metallic coloured plastic.

"We firmly believe that the decoration of the room is instrumental in its success," says Mitchell.

"If it was just a bland computer room hardly anyone would want to use it.

"Research has shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that environment influences learning. If children feel anxious or stressed they won't learn. Here everything has been designed from a child's perspective not an adult's. The benches and chairs are all at a child's height and we'll be experimenting with smaller mice and coloured keyboards. As music is conducive to learning we play tapes from Star Wars and ET."

Although the facility's mood is one of fun, there is no doubt that learning is its purpose. All software used is educational, and Internet, email and video conference facilities allow children to link up with pre-school set-ups elsewhere in Britain and overseas.

While adults are on hand to supervise and help out if necessary, the emphasis is on allowing children to work things out for themselves. "It's very important for kids to make their own mistakes and learn from them. We don't want them to see a mistake as a failure because that will stop them trying," says Mitchell.

The project has won unequivocal support. "I have been involved in community education for 20 years and I've never had anything like this, where people are champing at the bit to have a go," he says. "Everyone is interested, from parents to staff to other students in the college."

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