By Raising Children Network
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did you knowQuestion mark symbol

  • Studies show that the earlier children start with screen-based experiences, the more they tend to rely on the screen for entertainment later in life.
  • Over 90% of Australian households with children aged 0-15 years have a computer.
Computer games and programs can be great fun for preschoolers – and can be educational, too. But they do have some negatives. You can help your preschooler get the most out of computer time by choosing appropriate games and programs.

Computer time for preschoolers

Most child development experts recommend limiting children’s daily screen time – no more than an hour a day for children aged 2-5 years, and no more than two hours a day for children over five. Screen time includes TV, DVD and computer time.

This is for the following reasons:

  • Young children thrive on being with other people. This develops their relationship and language skills.
  • Children need to explore the real world, developing their imaginations and creativity. But some research suggests that using video games and phones (either real or toys) opens up some interesting possibilities for pretend play - ‘I’m mummy going off to work with my mobile and my laptop’.
  • Lifetime habits are formed in the preschool years. Children can become too reliant on computers for ‘something to do’.
The time preschoolers spend playing computer games and watching TV should be balanced with activities that are good for their development. These include physical activities, creative play and playing with toys and reading books

Making the most of computer time

The first step is choosing from the many age-appropriate computer activities and games.

Preschoolers are likely to enjoy typing letters or words on the screen using word processing software. They might like to draw pictures with a simple drawing program. Your preschooler might also enjoy some of the entertaining and educational games available for this age group – for example, Reader Rabbit or Spot and His Friends. The ABC 4 Kids website includes games based on TV shows.

When you spend computer time with your child, you can help with what’s happening on the screen, and show that you’re interested in what your child can do. Most preschoolers will need your help to access programs and save or print their work. They might also need help understanding what to do next in a game. Your participation will help your child develop digital literacy.

Asking questions about your child’s computer activities and games gets your child in the habit of thinking about what’s on the screen, rather than just passively taking it in. Questions could include, ‘How do you play this game?’, ‘What happens when you move there?’ and ‘Which character is talking?’

Software and websites that foster creativity can be good for preschoolers. Many computer games allow children to draw pictures and make up stories or rhymes. For preschoolers, this can be a way for them to express ideas and feelings they don’t always have the words for. Games that give children simple choices – for example, choosing a character, finding a background for a picture, or selecting a game – help your child make creative decisions.

Games with ‘explore’ settings let your child play with others, rather than competing against them. Encourage your child to play with siblings and friends.

Talking with your child about how much screen time is allowed and what computer activities are OK teaches her to think, plan and make choices about her computer use. You can give your child a list of games and activities and let her choose how she wants to get her fill of screen time.

Safe and healthy computer use

These tips will help you make sure your child stays safe and healthy while using the computer:

  • Keep the computer in a shared space so you can see what your child is doing and viewing. This also lets you join in your child’s enjoyment and help your child get the most out of computer time.
  • Use the Australian Government film and computer classifications to decide what your child should be allowed to play. Games rated G are generally suitable for preschoolers.
  • When it comes to the internet, it’s probably best to limit your preschooler to using simple games. If you do choose to introduce your child to web-browsing or messaging programs, it’s best to be around while he uses them. You could also consider installing filters or parental control software on your computer. You might also like to read our article on keeping children safe on the internet.
  • Avoid computer games that make violence look ‘cool’, or that show violence as a way to get what you want. If children see heroes being rewarded for violent acts, they might want to copy the violence. Also, it can make them less sensitive to violence in the real world and can make them more anxious about their own security.
  • Some studies have linked too much computer use to an increased risk of obesity, seizures and physical problems like hand injuries, eye strain, and back and wrist problems. If you limit your preschooler’s total screen time, she shouldn’t be sitting for long enough to expose her to these physical risks.
  • Last updated or reviewed 06-07-2012
  • Acknowledgements Article developed in collaboration with Australian Council on Children and the Media (incorporating Young Media Australia), Australia.