Teachers and parents must steer clear of encouraging young pupils to use educational computer games aimed at older children, a leading academic has warned.
Instead they should use ICT tailored to their needs and how they learn instead of watered-down versions of programs designed for a more advanced age group, according to John Siraj-Blatchford, an honorary professor at Swansea University, who is leading a project on using technology to enhance play.
Much "educational" software is not suitable for young children, he warned. "There is a lot of gaming software that encourages solitary play. It is great for adults or older children who are learning a language.
"What children need at that age is sustained, shared thinking - ironically, as the software seems to be improving, there is a loss of that interaction between adults and children."
Professor Siraj-Blatchford's research project - Supporting Playful Learning with Information and Communications Technology in the Early Years (SPLICT) - will train teachers in "the seven principles of ICT" education for early years and then move on to work with parents.
"Most developers want to make software that children can operate on their own at a younger and younger age - that is the total opposite to what we want to do," said Professor Siraj-Blatchford.
The research will follow 100 children in Swansea whose teachers and parents have had SPLICT training, and 100 matched children who have not.
The comments follow Bristol University research published earlier this month which found that children aged 10 and 11 who spent more than two hours in front of a computer or TV are more likely to suffer psychological difficulties.
But Professor Siraj-Blatchford said the study was not designed to show whether high levels of screen time caused problems.
"The research is being reported misleadingly as showing a need to cut screen time per se, but there is lots of evidence to suggest screen time can enhance children's learning if used appropriately."
Dr Siraj-Blatchford has helped to develop a computer programme, Land of Me, in which children interact with a cartoon bear, racoon and owl as they explore different lands. The activities are open ended, with no right or wrong answers, and thought bubbles pop up to suggest questions that adults can ask children.
The big seven
- Ensure an educational purpose: use arcade games only for fun.
- Encourage collaboration: webcams allow children to follow one another's on-screen instructions.
- Integrate ICT with other parts of the curriculum.
- Ensure the child is in control - eg Babyz by Mindscape gives children a baby to care for and has open-ended solutions.
- Choose applications that are transparent and simple to use.
- Avoid applications containing violence or stereotyping.
- Be aware of health and safety: three-year-olds should not use a desktop computer for more than 10-20 minutes, rising to 40 minutes by eight.