My Daughter’s Favorite “Gift”

“Play game, ‘puter game… play ‘puter game… gaaaame… yayyy!”

My almost-two year old has a thing for letters and numbers.  That, of course makes me delighted because from there, many more things are exciting.  I spend my professional life trying either to help teenagers find excitement in the natural world or colleagues find excitement in refining their practice.  Those two groups of people in my professional life have little in common with preschoolers.  Yet, the content carrots I have to work with there are far more thrilling than the bare bones geometric shapes and associated sounds of letters and numbers.

read \'til you collapse

Now, it is here that I must tell you (as if you didn’t know) that I am no kind of authority on early childhood education.  I have spent nearly 18 years as a teacher or an instructional coach.  However, those years have been spent working in secondary education.  I have developed a really healthy love of the process of learning itself, but I first walked to the plate in 1991 swinging a love for science.  Now that I think about it, I suppose there would be a bit of overlap in a Venn diagram of those two entities.  I have now spent less than two years on a case study of early childhood education.  How could I not?  Instructional coach + new father = easy fit.  That said, I welcome the comments here of anyone and everyone who might carry a bit fatter portfolio of educating children.  Please allow me to extend the educational technology discussion down a grade level or ten.

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So let’s get back to the leadoff quote.  Yes, that is exactly what our little beast now exclaims when either of us sits down by her with laptop in hand.  In reality, all it takes is the slightest hint.  What on Earth is she speaking of while in the throes of such excitement?  Starfall.  She is fired up about the online reading site at Starfall.com.  This is not a new site.  It was founded well prior to the “Web 2.0” boom around 2004.  If you are an early childhood educator -and computers don’t frighten you- you likely already know about Starfall.  Since this is not my largest reader demographic, allow me to point most of you in this direction.  Even if you don’t have your own larvae at home, you can certainly share this link with friends who do.  They might just thank you.

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At Starfall, you will not be blown away by slick graphics nor amazing audio.  What you will find is a rather engaging little site for curious tykes that seems to be very sound at what it does.  What does it do?  It provides a rather laid-back version of online reading instruction starting with ABC’s and moving on to various levels of early reading.  The ABC’s introduce students to the sounds of letters (phonemes).  Learn to Read teaches students how letters are combined to create words.  The simple animations associated here are quite good as the letters (always pronounced by a child’s voice) move closer together as they become a word.  The It’s Fun to Read section uses learning activities to begin simple sentence construction.  Finally, I’m Reading uses plays, myths and folk stories to increase fluency.

main links @ Starfall

How well does it work?  I honestly have nothing to compare to.  I do know that my little girlie could identify all letters by sight when she was 18 months old.  She has actually delighted in the phonemes for each of the letters, and is starting to identify simple words.  Is this website the only thing she has explored in that time?  Certainly not.  Erin & I read a fair bit.  That’s a pretty common thing to happen in our family room.  Whether we are reading to ourselves, or to the babe, we read tons…  and much of it is online.  Our little bookworm even finds little corners in the house to hide away and “read.”

hiding and reading

Will Starfall raise a child through the screen of a laptop?  Not so much.  Will it help out in the early stages of learning to read?  I certainly think so.  It is a very cool part of the puzzle.  In fact, my wife just remarked about how she also first began to actually nail down colors and numbers as a side effect of several of the mini-lessons on the site.  I guess watching mom & dad work & play on laptops influences the way a child likes to learn.  Whether you see that as good or bad, in 2008 it just is.  She gets so fired up when we let her take center stage in front of the ol’ Mac and click her own way through the site.  No physical gift or toy we have yet given her has been met with the enthusiasm this website has, and continues to deliver.  Ok, maybe Discovery Channel dinosaur flicks.

just watching... or thinking?

Check out Starfall.  Copy the link to anyone in your world with small children.  Or really-  perhaps even older kids who struggle with reading.  I would be curious about that.  Are the animations & examples too young for somewhat older kids to gain from the program?  Or is this something that might be utilized in a school setting?  As I said above, my “expertise” with early-childhood education amounts to one case study with a 23-month old princess.  If you need a “testimonial,” link back to this page. Check it out.  Check back.  Let us know what you think here.

And oh…  Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and many others.  May you all glow in the warmth of any celebration of light in the middle of Winter’s darkness.

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Sean Nash

District Online Learning Coordinator (eCampus) in a large public district of over thirty individual schools. Most recently, a district instruction coordinator. Biology instructor since 1993. Find more about my passions and my work at http://nashworld.me

9 Comments

  1. OK, Mr. Nash, here’s the clue….

    “Erin & I read and read and read. That’s pretty much what happens in the family room. Whether we are reading to ourselves, or to the babe, we read tons… ”

    Read that again.

    I can claim a tad of authority–board certified pediatrician, blah blah blah, but you already know what matters.

    She’s lovely, but get her away from that monitor. Her brain’s as plastic now as it will ever be, and the monitor’s limited to visual (and, OK, aural) stimuli.

    I don’t doubt she’s a genius. If she doesn’t come up with the Unified Theory of the Universe before 2032, I’m going to blame you and your puter.

    Really.

    • @Michael Doyle, – You know, my wife’s brain is gosh-dern’d plastic at times as well. heh.

      I hear you. I also respect not only your credentials as a pediatrician, but as a naturalist, and pretty much all around swell guy from what I know. In somewhat of a defense, however, I would have to let you know we don’t slap the crayons out of her hands, the dirt from out of her fingernails, nor the earthworms out of her kissing lips. This is my little naturalist first and foremost.

      If she ends up unifying physics for us all, she’ll have to have a ton of mom’s head for math… and then some. But you are right, there is no way to perform that kind of mental gymnastics without a strong sense of the abstract world in all its sensual values. I really just hope she turns out to be a loving and happy person.

      Then again, since you mention a computer screen as being limited to “visual and aural stimuli”… I wonder- what then does a book have to offer? Does the fact that this is pretty much the same profile as a book mean a book is the same brain-stealer as a computer screen?

      This kiddo of mine would spend an hour each day on that screen playing with letters… if we let her. Mom is a perfect screen nazi (especially for the boob tube). Beyond that- I don’t think there are really magical “fireworks” to be afraid of here. The computer is just one media in a world of many. Perhaps if we used the screen to babysit -as opposed to allowing it as an occasional learning tool that does some things far better and more rapidly than a book- then I would worry more.

      So if we could turn this thread into the perfect “how much exposure to learning games on a computer is too much and too early” …am I correct in assuming you’d come down firmly on the “any amount is too much” side?

      As far as Sesame Street killing education goes though… I’ll just have to assume you are kidding. I watched SS. It didn’t kill me, nor my education and more than my teachers requiring me to copy down terms and definitions from a glossary did. I’ll take SS over that any day.

      If I had to nominate something to have “killed education,” it would likely be lack of parental supervision and involvement. Many unfortunate kids come home to empty homes after school because both parents are busting their humps to chase after a similar economic standing to their own parents. Debating that would likely bring in more politics and economics than this little blog has yet seen.

      I hope I didn’t come across as some sort of scary-competitive parent in that post. I asked two before posting. Something you said made me think that was a possibility. I was really just going for “hey- I have a cute kid that likes to read” -holiday kind of post.

      I appreciate your hairs standing straight up on this one. It really is a crucial cause in a world that might not understand moderation very well. If I were raising her with a different mix of activities than I am, I would consider this to be a call to action like no other. I think far too many parents would fall into that category from what I see. So thanks.

      ps- I won’t refer to you as “too cranky” until I hear something like “you kids get off my lawn.” Now that would be cranky, Mr. Doyle.

      And hey- you forgot: “Merry Christmas!”
      😉

      Sean

      • @nashworld,

        Wowzers, I don’t even have to type “@nashworld”!

        @Sean,

        Sorry about being curmudgeonly there. She’s a love, the post was wonderful, and I should have left it alone.

        A few things, though we could write a book going back and forth on the issues raised here.

        Your analogy of the monitor to a book is a good one, and part of me thinks that too much bookiness is also a problem–too many words can be detrimental to anyone’s health. So can too many pints of Guinness–I’m not about to give up either. Still, computers and books do have some slight differences.

        Reading requires setting up constructs that much of monitor-viewing does not. Yes, lots of wonderful things can be done by the puter that books cannot do, true, and please understand that I am working through this myself. My gut (ever-expanding from things like Guinness) tells me there are differences that my cortex has yet to define. So I am about to spill some ill-formed thoughts here. Correct me gently, I am listening–I need help formulating these ideas (ain’t blogging grand that way?).

        When I am reading a book, I am more aware of what is around me than when I am staring at a screen–I don’t know why, but I don’t think it’s limited to me (though it may be limited to my generation). This may be too subtle a distinction to get excited about, and may reflect the way my brain is wired.

        I would love to see what is happening to our brain wave patterns while we read a book vs. while we read on a monitor. Maybe it’s been done–I need to research it.

        The old Luddite argument that I can read a book outside is losing luster…I’ll let that one drop (though will say that nothing beats reading by a pond as the sun sets in June).

        I know your children are exposed to the world. I worry about many (most?) other parents seeing the well-rounded young adults your children will likely grow up to be and say “See? It didn’t hurt them!”

        Meanwhile, I am actually having to debate with other science teachers that a “real” lab beats computer simulation.

        (Meanwhile, I can’t follow my own train of thought here because of these dang tiny blogger boxes.)

        Sesame Street deserves its own special place–most would place it in heaven, I think otherwise. Sesame Street relies on incredibly fast screen changes for much of its power. BANG! concept BANG! distraction BANG! BANG! BANG! The CTW used high tech production values to teach, not necessarily a bad thing, but I believe it (as well as the zillion or so imitators) have created a generation of children less capable of self-directed learning.

        It’s bigger sin is not its fault–parents who would not plop their kids in front of Saturday AM cartoons will plop the same kids in front of Elmo for hours.

        Television mesmerizes kids. So do computers. (OK, so do books–but try plopping a two year old in front of a book 10 minutes after both parents (or a single parent) just got home frazzled from work. Can’t be done. Parents need to read to two year old before she gets attached to books.)

        A cat will watch television or a puter screen–never saw one watch a book. (OK, anecdotal nonsense, but there’s something there–which is why I’d love to see an EEG study comparing the two.)

        Socioeconomic status and parenting have a huge influence on a child’s abilities. Sesame Street in a home such as yours is like ale in mine (or so I hope). Small daily doses in good company may indeed be beneficial. Too much of either can be destructive. The difference is that some folks think of Sesame Street as some educational nirvana. (Same folks might frown on stout in the home.)

        Too many words, too long a post–thanks for bearing with me.

        • @Michael Doyle, – I know. Fancy new threaded discussion, eh? It has it’s ups & down though. It makes your bloggus interruptus post look like the past one. Maybe its just me. “Awareness of ignorance is as devout as knowledge of knowledge.” Know who said is that way? I’ll let you guess a bit if not. I think many of us less cocky-folk inherently know that fact- but I like the way he puts it.

          I know what you mean about “blogger boxes.” I hate it. I must say that your last comment now sits to the right of this box- pasted into a MS Word document for easy referral. I never let these electronic boxes beat me. Though you being miffed about it caused me to actually fix the probably I also encountered a comment ago. 😉

          Guinness. Even at your most curmudgeonly, you continue to endear yourself to me.

          I agree with your suggestion that reading requires setting up constructs- visualization, etc., that monitor viewing does not. However, I think you are coming at this too much from your current perspective. I would have done the same thing two years ago. However, now I realize again that not one single children’s book in this home consists of a white page littered with letters and words only. Children’s books come complete WITH one appropriate construct. Think about it… they are littered with more images that words.

          I think one of the things I like most about Starfall (unlike most kiddie books), is that it highlights the letters… and then the words… allowing the parent to help nudge a construct for the text. No- our babe doesn’t usually handle the keys herself. She merely tells us which ones to tap and when.

          The fun little edspeak term for this is “scaffolding.” I generally hate edspeak. However, it makes sense here especially. Kids simply will not stare at letters on a page. They will, however, listen to me speak in an animated voice (think of my profile image) as I tell a story. Linking few words with tons of images is the first step toward scaffolding a world where kids can read… as well gain a sense of storytelling.

          Think of it this way… periodicity. How on Earth do you deliver that? I can promise you, that to deliver those concepts in a palatable way for kids you have had to scaffold your butt off. In reality, most of the problems I have encountered in the classroom over the years can be traced back to that… expecting kids to jump in to a very abstract third-story window from the ground. With a slow and trusty scaffold, this could be done. But jump too early- and you are greeted with blank stares. I know, I know… NCLB has now created an environment where it is VERY tough to find the time to appropriately scaffold for our kids as they need it. Ah, the joys of “accountability” from folks who have never succeeded in teaching a single day.

          Are brains wired differently in the Internet age? Oh hell yes. Check out the article referenced in my post entitled: “Blogging: Building Bridges Within the Brain” ( http://nashworld.edublogs.org/2008/10/18/blogging-building-bonds-within-the-brain/ ) Here’s betting we find a million other scholarly works on this subject in the next ten years. As a biologist, I worry about that a little. Then again, I guess I see it as a careful opportunity. Perhaps it is like nuclear power. With awesome power comes awesome responsibility. It s the responsibility thing that I don’t think we do so well with just yet.

          Nothing does beat reading by a pond. Well- especially when St. James Gate has something to do with it. I too worry about the general state of parenting as it pertains to life in the United States today. You and I (I was likely on the tail end of this) played outside all day long in the summer… until the streetlights came on… or at least until my dad’s train whistle of a calling resounded throughout the north end of town.

          Kids today are divorced from nature. Again- check the Richard Louv book in my post about seedless oranges. Heh. You really would love that book.

          Kinesthetic labs beat simulations any day. This is a post for another day. You couldn’t be more right on this one. But it is tough to bring the beauty of the ocean to Missouri without simulations or actually going there. I have taken the first solution, though we look at others until then. And no- dissecting dogfish do not equal the “beauty of the ocean” though we do still do this in my wife’s zoology class.

          Allow me to back off my defense of Sesame Street and the like for just a second. SS is generally a passive experience. Starfall (and perhaps others I have yet to play with) are not. They are interactions with a screen where the child chooses the next step. TV comes at you at a blinding pace regardless of your wishes. I think we really need to sit and listen as well as watch a child’s eyes as they interact with something before making a value judgment. Most TV would wire a kid’s brain for MTV and ADHD… and nothing more. Starfall is quite simply self-paced. The screen doesn’t move until she (or we) click the button.

          On the cat… I beg to differ, pal. Allow me to enter this gigantic fact into evidence: http://www.flickr.com/photos/phantomkitty/259379993/sizes/o/ What now, huh?? 😉

          I agree with your thoughts on moderation. We don’t do sesame street here. Too little punch for the minutes lost on that one. Similar to Barney. Though we do knock on the gate of St. James in moderation. Sigh.

          Final thought- feel like taking on a project this summer? I’ve been thinking about your book comment from before. Perhaps a pediatrician-turned-biology teacher and a biology teacher-turned instructional coach have something unique to offer the book-reading public. (?) Perhaps you should start formulating chapter topics, eh?

          Sean

          • This is the 3rd time posting this–if I fail again, I’m waving the white flag.

            Yes, we need to write together–not sure any publisher would be interested, but the exercise will be useful.

            I happen to live with a real writer–sekrit to a successful marriage is living with someone brighter than yourself (not sure what her sekrit is–maybe live with someone crankier than yourself).

            You can thank her for Galway Kinnell.

            I don’t like most fiction. Even fiction Leslie recommends. But she knows her writers.

            I discovered Neruda a couple of years ago. So much good stuff out there. Makes mortality all that much more trying.

  2. OK, I’m going to commit bloggus interruptus…sorry about the multiple posts.

    Still, one more thought.

    Sesame Street KILLED education–not necessarily a bad thing, but still….bring Madison Avenue into your home and you’re going to get children expecting fireworks every time they blink.

    (Yep, I’m cranky….)

  3. @Sean & @Michael I know it sounds silly, but I agree with both of you!

    It just doesn’t seem right to use a screen to teach my son to read (I have always been a bookworm – of the paper variety).

    But my 10month old learnt to crawl 2 months ago and will barely sit still for 2 minutes for a paper book (or any toy I purchase). So, I thought I’d try starfall. All it took was the letter ‘a’ sliding onto the laptop screen and he was giggling.

    He sat still for longer than a paper book, and was laughing. If that’s what it takes for me to share my love of reading with him, then I’ll do it.

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