Every morning as soon as the doors open at my daughter's nursery there is a great rush - to see who can be the first in front of the computer. Small bottoms jostle and sharp elbows are wielded to get the prime seat. The reading corner is beginning to look a little forlorn.
My three-year-old, who cannot recognise her name when it's written down, has become expert at using the mouse - and adores the music and graphics on the screen. Click on the icon and you get the sound of a toilet flushing. Click again and a rich giggle is heard. It's all much more fun than a boring book.
In the run-up to Christmas, television and magazines are full of adverts for pre-school computer learning software aimed at children as young as two. One of this year's big sellers will be My First Computer (made by VTech) and the market for pre-school software is mushrooming. But the question is, 'Is this how I want my child introduced to literacy?' "Our children are growing up in an information age and the earlier they start the more they'll jump ahead, " says Janice Staynes, head of the primary team at the National Council for Educational Technology. "While many adults are still in awe of computers, children see them as a natural part of life. Most nurseries now have a computer. In a quick poll of 22 nurseries I visited recently, three-quarters had one. With the introduction of vouchers, nurseries will be inspected - and will have to demonstrate their provision for information technology." She says the council has recently had a "big boost" in the number of enquiries about installing computers in nurseries.
But, she says, it's vital that they are not seen as a form of electronic childminding. "At the pre-school stage children should be working with an adult. After all, computers can't question the child about what they're learning, and it's the interaction which is so important at this early stage. But they do focus the attention, and they make the child used to concentration." She says it is essential that parents sit down with their children to work together when using a pre-reading package - children should not be left to cope on their own.
In terms of early literacy, she sees computers as a vital tool. "A good software program can be much more effective than a static page. There are lots of good packages which introduce children to recognising shapes and colours, sequencing, learning about opposites - all the pre-reading skills. They then can move on to recognition of individual letters. The advantage of the computer is that they can then click on to an icon to get extra help if they need it." But she is in no doubt about their place in literacy development. "They are a useful tool - that is all. Books are still the mainstay of early literacy. "
Professor Ted Wragg agrees. He has developed his own literacy software under the Flying Boot reading scheme, called Max and the Machines and Maximania (Nelson). "Computer software should be used alongside traditional books, " he says. "The two are not mutually exclusive. I see nothing wrong in introducing children as young as three and four to computers. Three-year-olds pick up clicking on the mouse almost immediately. It's the adults who think young children won't be able to cope - and they're wrong. Children can use the screen to become familiar with words and letters - and learn about icons, which are a very important part of reading today."
The market for pre-school literacy software has exploded over the past year. "At first we were seeing a lot of imports from America, and that did worry some parents and teachers because of the Americanisation of the language and the different vocabulary," says Janice Staynes. But now more and more British companies are jumping into this growing market, such as Oldham-based Semerc, which produces a range of pre-school learning software.
"The three and four-year-old market has really emerged this year because of all the political attention that's been given to nurseries," says director Paul Nuttall. "Nurseries are realising the importance of information technology and they want British products that will improve pre-reading skills."
To research a package, staff will go to nurseries and talk to teachers and children about what they want - and they will test out all new products to gauge children's responses. The company also employs education experts in the designing of the software. "What we've found is that young children like bright colours, easy interaction, uncluttered screens - so they can concentrate on the task on hand. Too many of the American imports have long menus that the child can't follow," says Nuttall.
Most of the software is designed for use with a mouse - but the company also makes "touch screen" software. "We have one called Doodle, where children can actually draw on screen with their fingers using a colour palette at the bottom of the screen, and the music changes when they go up and down, or left and right."
Nuttall says that where computers score over books is that children can get instant feedback. "They can click on an icon and be told they're right or wrong straight away - there's no uncertainty." But doesn't he worry that children are being over-stimulated by computers and will find the reflective, quiet art of reading too boring? "I think it's a question of structuring the learning correctly," Nuttall says. "We live in a multi-media society, and when I watch television with my children it seems to be five-minute bursts and then whoomph - on to the next thing! Teachers need to work out a plan so there's an appropriate amount of time spent sitting down listening to stories."
Elvira Watson runs several Montessori nurseries in Kingston-upon-Thames. She installed the first computer in one of her nurseries eight years ago. "Computers enhance learning," she says. "We're preparing our young children for the world of tomorrow. Three-year-olds in my nursery can load floppy discs and CD-Roms." One of the initial packages she uses is the Fun School series. "The first uses direction keys to identify simple three-letter words, and it progresses from there."
"There is some incredible software around," she says. "Semerc has a package for infants where the child can spell out its name and then the computer will read the letters back phonetically." She reckons three-year-olds quickly get used to using the mouse, the space-bar and paintboxes.
"I'll have a three-year-old 'techie' who'll rush to the computer and whiz through the programs. Then there'll be a two-year-old standing behind who'll be watching what they're doing and taking it all in. They learn from each other. It's a vital teaching tool in early literacy," she says. The National Early Years Network is now bringing out a 'Starting Point' factsheet for nurseries in computer literacy, which tells them the type of software they'll need. But many early learning carers aren't computer literate - she feels this is one problem which urgently needs to be addressed with training programmes.
Jane Mitre from the Parents Information Network says "some of the stuff available now is stunning, but I can't see it replacing books. Books are such warm, cuddly, physical things - you sit down and cuddle with your child to read a book together. Working on a computer is a completely different experience. "
Her children, now 13 and 15, who grew up with computers, are avid readers. "They limit themselves to how long they spend on the computer, and to them it is a quite different tool, used mostly for research," she says. But the network doesn't recommend that parents spend a fortune on a computer for their toddler this Christmas. "We always say that it must be a resource for the whole family - or you just won't use it."
SWITCH ON AND BOOT UP
* Parents Information Network, PO Box 1426, Ascot, Berks.
* Semerc 1 Broadbent Rd, Watersheddings, Oldham OL1 4LB, 0161 627 4469
* Janice Staynes, at NCET, 01203 416994
* National Early Years Network 0171 607 9573
Other packages relevant to early literacy learning include
* Jump Ahead Series, Random House
Jump Ahead Toddlers (age 2-3) Pounds 19.99
Jump Ahead Pre-school (age 3-4) Pounds 29.99
Available from TAG, 01474 357350, for PC and Mac
Tizzy's Toybox (available from January) Sherston Software, 01666 840433, for Acorn, Mac, PC, Pounds 40 + VAT
A to Zap, Sunburst, for PC and Mac, from TAG, 01474 357350, Pounds 39. 95