Young children primarily learn through play and exploration.
The sights and sounds of computers, the motions involved in typing and clicking with a mouse, and the fact that older kids and adults use them, all tend to make younger children want to explore and play with computers too.
From age 3 through 8 children develop skills that help them cope with the world around them and learn how to learn. Major areas of development include motor skills, social / emotional skills, language skills, cognitive / knowledge skills, and developing learning style preferences.
Young Children (Ages 3 to 5):
Children in preschool actively, and sometimes aggressively, try to make sense of their physical surroundings and the people that make up their world. They involve as many senses as possible while learning, and need to be in control of the materials they use to benefit from cause and effect experience opportunities. Children at this age use their whole bodies to learn and develop the motor skills needed for writing and using a computer.
They need a wide variety of activities to help them make basic connections between new situations and those they are already familiar with.
They need to learn in a social context. They may need encouragement to cooperate with other kids and adults. They must learn that cause-and-effect also applies to interactions with people.
They need to develop their attention spans and learn to focus in order to avoid distractions. They can benefit form memory games and practicing skills over and over again with variations.
Young children are ready to learn basic language skills, pre-writing motor skills, and number concepts.
Limit time on the computer to about one hour per day. At this age they benefit greatly when provided with numerous interactions with physical objects like blocks, and social interactions with adults and peers.
Preschoolers can learn to use a mouse or trackball. They can learn basic computer terms and they learn by watching others. They can benefit from opportunities of an adult to read aloud / interpret simply the words on the computer screen. They can benefit from an adult exploring appropriate discovery-based software and websites. Because toddlers and preschoolers are social learners, adults can talk about what they are doing while on the computer, answer questions, or ask questions of the child about what they are doing.
Open ended questions can be asked about social / emotional situations on the screen. Pre-readers need software or web sites with simple pictures and words. When using learning software, take into account that young children involve as many of their senses as possible, and it is suggested to avoid websites / software that are distracting to the child due to a high level of sounds and animation. Preschoolers can benefit from activities that teach concepts such as above / below, over /under, in / out; the connections between spoken and written words and corresponding pictures; how to tell a simple story; number basics and simple pattern recognition; how to identify and sort objects into categories (size, shape, color); concepts like time / clocks and days of the week / dates / calendars. Look for websites / software that provide open ended experiences, encouraging children to explore and create on their own...kids drawing programs. Print their creations when possible.
By the time kids are in kindergarten they are more ready to listen and follow directions, tell stories, experience using language more complexly, and learn basic pre-reading skills. Kindergartners need to learn and practice the language and social skills that they'll use in the primary grades. They are beginning to learn some basic abstract concepts that will prepare them for the reading and math skills of the next two grades. They work on mastering self-control and self-focus while learning and interacting with others. They are ready to learn the symbols for letters, words and numbers. They begin to link these concepts to their use in writing, speaking and pictures, and begin to use them. Having mastered basic cause and effect concepts (hot=ouch) kids are ready to learn causal concepts (if I do this, then this will happen).
Using the Web / Computers
Younger children can use age appropriate Web sites with the assistance of adults and older children. A helper can read words on the screen and have the younger child begin to learn the letter keys on the keyboard. Limit computer time to no more than one hour per day. Provide kids with numerous experiences with social, open-ended, and creative physical experiences. When choosing websites, prefer those that provide them with exploratory and creative experiences, such as drawing and writing programs. Those using a drill/practice model such as in matching games can also be helpful, but don't foster the creativity and problem solving skills that the aforementioned activities offer.
Teach young kids how to use the mouse (click, drag and drop, double click), how to open and close a program, how to leave a computer workspace (chair, mouse pad, mouse, keyboard), and how to single-finger type using a keyboard. Allow kids to show other kids skills they learn, giving them a sense of self confidence, and allowing opportunities to work on social and language skills. Talk to kids about staying safe online. Encourage them to come to you if anything they see or hear when online worries, confuses, or disturbs them.