Curse of the screen: PCs 'dull children's brains and should be banned until nine

Early exposure to computer screens in schools and nurseries is threatening the development of a generation of young children, a top psychologist warns today.

Dr Aric Sigman is demanding a ban on screen technology in education until children reach nine, to enable them to learn about the 'real world' first. He criticised a Government 'nappy curriculum' requiring nurseries and childminders to teach children to turn on and operate televisions and computers before the age of two.

Warning: Psychologist Aric Sigman says computers should be introduced to children at a much later age - ideally from nine years old onwards. Dr Sigman, a fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, said politicians who backed the curriculum were embarking on a 'brave new virtual adventure' with children's brains. 'The young brain needs to be primed through real world 3D experiences that place plenty of cognitive demands on it,' he said.

'Children need to hold, feel, rub, taste, see and move real things to educate their neurological and cognitive infrastructure with a basic understanding of the real world.

'While new technology may serve as a powerful tool, it must be introduced and used judiciously at much later ages - ideally at least age nine.' Dr Sigman will deliver the warning in a keynote speech today at a conference staged by the Open EYE coalition, which campaigns for reforms to early-years education.

He will warn that children's intellectual-development is suffering because they spend too long on computers at too young an age and fail to develop spatial awareness through working with their hands.

'Nappy curriculum': Dr Sigman has criticised a government initiative requiring nurseries and childminders to teach children to turn on and operate TVs and PCs 'We're pressured to believe children must start technology early and use more or "they'll lose out",' he said. 'The risk is not that children lose out from starting late but lose out by starting too early.'

Dr Sigman said screen-based technology was proving the 'flavour enhancer' of the educational world. 'Stimulating a young child through strong audio-visual sensations is not the same as inspiring or educating a child,' he said.

Dr Sigman, an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society, will highlight studies suggesting future reading and maths abilities are damaged by early screen exposure. He called on ministers to 'cordon off ' the early years of education to create a technology-free 'buffer zone'.

This would enable a child's thinking and social skills to develop 'without the distortion that may occur through premature use of ICT'. His warning will be reinforced by Professor Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a leading authority on children's play, who tells parents to steer clear of computer programs which require children to watch passively or give simple answers.

If, on the other hand, children can use the program like a 'paintbrush' to develop their creativity and thinking skills, it is a good thing. Professor Hirsh- Pasek, a psychologist based at Temple University in the U.S., will tell the Open EYE conference that a growing trend to impose formal learning on young children instead of letting them learn through play is 'dangerous'. She said: 'We are starting to push down education earlier and earlier and earlier. I don't think that is good for young children.'

Tories could halt technology for toddlers

The 'nappy curriculum' for children under five was introduced by Labour and includes the controversial requirement for nurseries and childminders to teach children aged just 22 months how to turn on and operate televisions and computers.

And from 40 months, children should ' complete a simple program on a computer' and 'perform simple functions such as selecting a channel on the TV remote control'.

Dr Sigman's remarks will be seen as a plea to the new Government to reform the curriculum, more properly known as the Early Years Foundation Stage. The Conservatives hinted in opposition they would consider overhauling the curriculum. They have already announced the demise of planned reforms to the primary school curriculum which would have both merged subjects into 'areas of learning' and given greater prominence to the subject of Information and Communication Technology.

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