Which computer games are good for my 2-year-old?

Michael RichMedia expert Michael Rich, MD, MPH, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston, answers your questions about media use. Last week, he discussed whether American Girl dolls are a better choice than Barbies or Bratz.

Here’s this week’s question:

Q: I’ve introduced my 22-month-old son to a computer program designed for babies that makes shapes and plays a sound every time a button is pushed. Lately, I’ve noticed that he is becoming more thoughtful about it. He used to just bang at the keys, but now he pushes one button at a time and watches what happens on the screen. For his birthday, I’ve been looking for an age-appropriate game that involves more thought. I have found a few games that are marked for 2 years and up, but they seem mostly targeted at kids closer to age 3 than 2. Do you have any suggestions?
Craving Computers in New York, NY

A: Dear Craving Computers,

I applaud you for how closely you’ve been watching your son’s reaction to the games and how much investigation you’ve done into software designed for kids.

Your child going from random banging on the keyboard to touching a single key and watching to see what happens shows the important development of both better fine motor skills and the beginning of his understanding of cause and effect. However, there’s nothing unique that the computer contributes to this. This development could be equally well done with, say, an electronic piano keyboard that makes certain sounds by pressing certain keys, or by dropping a ball on the floor and seeing it bounce, or by pouring water into a sand box and seeing it turn to mud. The computer is just one kind of environment where your son can learn these skills.

The reason that the software geared toward two year olds seems better for 3 year olds is that it is better for three year olds. The most important developmental task of children around your son’s age is not to learn fact (which is what computers teach) but to learn how to learn. Computers really only provide tasks with right and wrong answers and thus don’t encourage the kind of problem solving and logical thinking necessary to build flexible learners. Instead, they teach kids to memorize and to be afraid of being wrong. That fear is a problem because you want your son to take risks in learning. You want him to try things out, say new words, and play with toys in new ways. He needs to build that creativity and love of learning far more than he needs to learn his ABCs two months earlier than another child.

For a birthday gift that encourages him to learn how to learn, I recommend open-ended, creative play options. Try modeling clay, markers, paper, books, musical instruments (like maracas or tambourines), a sandbox, or a building set that allows him to build free form things. From what we know about brain development at this age, these toys will help build stronger, more flexible brains than any electronic toy will.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician

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