September 18, 2003

Girlfriends, Keyboards, Literacy

by Scott Rettberg · , 10:38 am

Back home in Chicago a few weeks ago, I played Girlfriends with my niece Kayley. Maybe Disney isn’t all bad. Kayley’s four and half years old. The experience of playing this game, designed for girls six years old and up (sure she’s an overacheiver) was interesting for several reasons — not just because my goddaughter is always a pleasure, a giggling joke-telling, nonstop kinetic force of nature. It got me thinking about literacy, and about how computers are influencing the way that the current generation of post-toddlers are learning to read and write. Kayley, for instance, can’t yet read. They’ll cover that next year, probably. But she can install a Windows program (in this case the Girlfriends CD-ROM), can distinguish the Next button from the Previous button, and can agree to an End-User License. With no coaching at all, she was able to install the program, and to complain about the fact that she’d already installed it, but that the Windows box was buggy, and that the password interface was a big pain.

The program, once installed, however, proved to be a smart if flawed piece of software. Along with an aleatory fortune-telling game (Play Fates and Friends with Jasmine) the software socializes children to participate in various web-building and internet communication activities (Create an address book with Ariel, Keep a daily journal with Belle, Post personalized Web pages and e-mail friends). In other words, it teaches them to email, instant message, and blog. The program includes a simple WYSIWIG web page editor. I had a sort of moment of petty epiphany as I watched Kayley build a Web page. I don’t think she was thinking about, or even understood the concept of posting it to the Web — she was just screen-doodling — but it’s sort of amazing that before she can properly read and write, she can put together a Web page. The strange part here is that the progression of her technological skills, encouraged by software such as this, precedes the progression of other skills we might have previously associated with childhood (such as handwriting, shoelace-tying, etc.). Functionally, training in Web-building and Internet communication are preceding, or coming at the same time, as basic literacy itself. The girls of Kayley’s generation are learning how to instant message at the same time as they are learning how to read. The interface of the software was not particularly good (it involved an awkward network interface and a sort of stupid literalized “desk” metaphor), but overall I’d describe it as “empowering” — a far cry from Barbie dolls.

A more simple, and in my opinion, more ingenious part of Kayley’s computing experience is the “Little Tykes KidBoard” from KB Gear Interactive (a company which has apparently gone out of business since my brother bought the keyboard). There’s nothing particularly complicated about the keyboard — just a brightly colored, full-sized, extra-durable, spill resistant keyboard. The smartest thing about it, however, is that each letter key includes a corresponding icon (an Apple on the A, an Ice Cream on the I, and Elephant on the E). This proved very useful as Kayley and I were working on how to type out her friend’s names for the “Jasmine Friends” game. Again, the thing I found fascinating about this was the radical shift in skills acquisition — I remembered the typing class I took in highschool as I watched Kayley, not yet five, hunt and peck for icons — she is learning to type at the same time as she is learning the alphabet itself.

I suppose critics of computer play might have some things to say about the problems of children replacing traditional play with networked interactivity (and Kayley’s parents are very aware of the need for outside and physical playtime — she tumbles, dances, swims, and is now learning karate — the kid has a busier life than I do and after the karate lessons will doubtless be more dangerous as well), but it sort of staggers the mind to think that many children of Kayley’s generation will have memories of being socialized on computer, and learning to write on the computer, contemporaneous with their memories of riding a bike or learning to swim for the first time. Hopefully they won’t all suffer from RSI by the time they reach adolescence.

I ran across an interesting 1999 paper by Maggie Rhodes. “Computer Interfaces for Young Children” on this topic.

3 Responses to “Girlfriends, Keyboards, Literacy”

  1. Jill Says:

    My seven-year-old’s officially learning reading this year at school. She’s learnt to read by herself already, mostly, though her slow decoding of unfamiliar words sounds a lot like a computer text-to-speech generator. Anyway, the ABC book they’ve been given at school is brilliant: you open up the cover and it’s like a Bronze Powerbook (yes, a couple of years out of date, but I’ve still got one). The inside of the hard cover is the screen (with a popup window saying “You’ve got mail! Read it? yes/no”) and the adjacent page is the keyboard. Aurora types out her name on the keys and plays most happily with this paper powerbook. Mind you, even at the tender age of two she’d pick up a book or a small folded mirror from my handbag, open it and pretend to type, telling me it was “her powerbook”.

    I’m not sure if it’s thanks to her practice in her reader, but she can pick out short emails on my actual Bronze Powerbook, too, even though it’s so old and beaten up that the letters are worn off most of the keys. She already has a cheap digital camera of her own (she asked for one for her birthday) but she won’t start her own photo blog though, though I’ve asked her a few times. The web’s not a social space for her yet, because her peers aren’t using it. Emails are almost only sent to adults in her family, not to other kids. I doubt she could install a program, either. This may be because I hog the computer… Perhaps I should buy Girlfriend to get her more thoroughly wired.

    The Little Tykes keyboard sounds brilliant.

  2. Scott Rettberg Says:
    Kayley’s on the Ball
    “kayley on the ball” I just posted an entry about playing a computer game with my niece at Grand Text Auto .

  3. jill/txt Says:
    learning ABCs
    When we picked up Noah from the airport a couple of weeks ago, my daughter and I took her ABC book so we could do her reading homework on the airport bus. On the way back from the airport, Aurora…

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