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Too young for the Classmate?

My 6-year old was thrilled to have the convertible Classmate back in the house this weekend. It had been with a couple of coworkers and their small children to see just how it would stand up to the pre-school set.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

My 6-year old was thrilled to have the convertible Classmate back in the house this weekend. It had been with a couple of coworkers and their small children to see just how it would stand up to the pre-school set. My youngest is obsessed with the Nintendo game Animal Crossing and has taken to looking for real pictures online of the fish he catches in the game. The little Classmate, being just his size, is easy for him to use and he carried it between his brothers, my wife, and friend visiting for the weekend, showing us pictures he had found of coelocanths, football fish, tuna, and dorado.

In a house with 5 geeks (including him, of course), a computer that he can call his own and that really suits him is a valued commodity. That was Intel's point: the Classmate is designed for kids to use in a 1:1 setting. Obviously, they can be shared on a cart or in a lab situation, but they are still such a size that kids relate very well to them.

I was curious, though, how well they would stand up to really young kids and at what age kids were simply too young to get any benefit from them. My test subjects were teachers' kids; both teachers are among my power users and are fairly savvy, so they were eager to let their kids play, too. Two of the test kids were 4 and the other was two.

Not surprisingly, the 2-year old demonstrated how rugged the Classmate was, but clearly didn't get anything from using it. With or without the touch screen, stylus or fingertip, she lacked the motor coordination needed to navigate the operating system. It simply became a key-banging fest for her. One thing I wonder is if some software for the very young, optimized for touch, might not be of value. Picking colors from two large squares, for example, or conducting other activities requiring shape recognition might be helpful, particularly for kids with special needs. Anyone with actual expertise here, please feel free to weigh in. I'm inclined to believe that there are plenty of non-technological tools, though that would meet these needs for far less money.

The 4-year olds, on the other hand, had really positive experiences with the computers. Although the particular test Classmate I'm using doesn't have any early childhood software on it, the kids used it to access websites with fun, educational activities. They carried the computer around happily by the handle and, aside from some difficulty removing the stylus from its holder (and making the touch screen remarkably grimy when they weren't using the stylus), navigated quite well on the Classmate.

So little kids can't break them and by the age of 4 not only like them a lot, but can actually use them pretty well. So what's the value? Is there any at that age? Educationally, I'm inclined to doubt it. Pre-schoolers need stimulation and play from lots of sources, especially people. Handing them a Classmate, no matter how much they bond with it, doesn't accomplish that.

That isn't to say that pre-schoolers shouldn't get a Classmate. For parents interested in providing their young children with Internet access and early childhood learning software, the Classmate is a remarkably good choice. They will be hard-pressed to break it, it's inexpensive (especially in its clamshell form versus the tablet), and it fits small hands very well.

This simply needs to be a parental choice, though. You won't notice me putting these into our pre-K classrooms anytime soon. However, if I'm ever wacky enough to end up having another child, I just might buy one for him or her to use at home. I'd rather have her playing Pajama Sam, after all, than watching Barney.

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