172: Character Creation

Character Creation

"I can still remember my own first encounter, at a slightly older age than Miles' but no less formative: a vast shape waiting patiently, something big and flat, something else big and lumpy, with coils and lights. Someone guided my stubby hand to a lump and helped me whack it. I got the idea and whacked it again. Then ... the machine reacted! The big flat thing changed color! I whacked some more and it was clear - a connection existed between moving my arms and these wonderful explosions of light.

"I'm pretty sure it was an IBM PC, and it changed me forever."

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*edit, I remembered what adolescence means, I am an idiot*

Interesting read, I never thought about the causal relationship being what attracts kids to technology. It makes sense though...like a monkey looking at itself in a mirror, the attraction ultimately boils down to a fascination with the self.

I dunno, the first technology I remember fooling with was a VCR. I was obsessed with 'Watership Down' when I was 4 or 5 and the tape was recognizable because it had scotch tape all over it. I'd stick it in the VCR and just press each button until it induced the desired state of 'Play'.

Looking back on the bunny genocide scene, the death-worshiping cult, and Fascist Bunnies...I guess it might've had more of an impact than my parents originally thought.

Overall, I thought it was a good article, but the paragraph near the end about the nature of kids' exposure to technology bothered me a little bit.

You express how important it is for kids to get a grasp of the low-level workings of computers, such as command line arguments. You have to remember that what YOU were seeing in the command line arguments was still just the finished product. You didn't have to know the assembly code that made the command line arguments actually DO anything. Kids today experience the same thing, except abstracted out another level. They're not seeing the assembly language code that supports the C code that supports the GUI.

If anything, it has much harder to gain familiarity with a computer. Not only do you have to deal with file hierarchies (basically all you really need to know to run command line programs), you get interesting additions such as services, the register, multiple version of multiple device drivers depending on your operating system, etc.. etc... ad nauseam.

You do make a good point that actual knowledge about computers is more valuable than the "cutesy characters" on the screen... But let's be honest with ourselves... What were you and your brother trying to accomplish by getting the laptop to work... Viewing cutesy pixellated characters, most likely :) Kids need to have a reason to learn about something. If they are fascinated by the cutesy moving characters, then maybe they will be intrigued enough to become a much needed computer scientist (or maybe that's a bad thing)!

Good read.
This article made me think of this.

It's going to be very interesting to see how the 'technormal' generation grows up.

L.B. Jeffries:
I saw watership down when I was eight... Bad experience.

"There were a basic set of decisions early on about levels and types of stimulation," says Miles' mother. "We had a 'no TV' policy in place until he was 18 months old, which I think was absolutely the right thing to do. But with some of the other stuff it's not that simple.

"Every time he sees Dad playing videogames he's fascinated. At first he enjoyed just watching characters on the screen, and then he realized they could be controlled ... we'd put him in a 'safe' section and let him move things around with the controller, just walking around, and that absorbed him. Even with such basic interaction you can see the sparks going off inside.

"In the same vein, he loves the keyboard and mouse on the computer. When he was younger and just wanted to bang any key, we found a website that reacts to any random input. He liked that for a bit, but I think he's grown into the idea of one button equaling one action. I'd open up Word for him, set the font really high and he used to like to 'type.' Now that he's older he's developed a knack for changing settings and views by himself, so when I come back to the computer I have no idea what's going on. Recently he figured out how to buy things through the Xbox and got Dad a game as a present, which led to some passwords being put in place and a bit more attention to where the controller gets left around. There's also the emerging issue of infant ninja cellphone use ...

As a dad of a one and almost 4 month old, I _so_ relate to this. I have tried to keep the tv off all the time, yet the computer is on - which I am far more comfortable with because I get a much greater degree of control over the images my daughter sees. She has already called relatives with her mother's and my cell phones as well. She has even taken to sitting in the same spot I do to fiddle with our barely functional laptop and change settings on the desktop.

I would very much appreciate to learn about the websites and programs described in this article, I would like my daughter to at least learn not to pound on the keyboard.

On these issues - I try to expose her to everything and let her learn. I listen to other languages on the radio and tune into new ideas. I think that will be of far more benefit in the long run for her if I can help teach her effective learning skills than anything else I can do as a parent, since I can't possibly be there for her forever at any given second protecting her, I need to teach her to protect herself.

I eagerly await when she begins speaking english and using more of the sign language I am teaching her, so that we will be able to communicate better and then I get help answer those questions I see on her puzzled face as she says "Owa, gla-gla-da?"

I know she understands what I am saying to a certain degree - you know, when she wants to listen - so she knows what to do when I say things like "Hands off." "No." "Yes." "Get in your chair, its lunch time." "Go to the bathroom, time to change your diaper." "Go up." "Go down." "Don't eat paper." "Put [insert object here] in my hand." "Come here." "Lets go get your mom." "Take your arm out." "Put your arm in." "Show me your hand." "You are too close to the tv." "Bed time." "Have a good nap." "You are in trouble!" "Bravo! Good job!"

A ton of that stuff I knew she was figuring out at even before 6 months! If my experience so far with being a new dad is anything to go by, kids are smarter than we give them credit for, they will probably figure out technology even better than us.

Myself, being the rare computer-literate in a large community, I often found myself in the position of teaching the young and old about technology, which makes your analysis above quite intriguing.

Many of the problems that Miles runs into while experimenting with technology are the same that adults run into while doing the same thing every day. In order to learn, we need to experiment, and to have valuable learning, we need to be able to make mistakes. However, in order that those mistakes not be too costly for poor Miles' parents, they should have some way of undoing anything he mucks up. Unfortunately, most technology is really bad for this -- just ask any poor soul who accidentally deleted hours worth of work, or worse yet, left their computer entirely nonfunctional. Thankfully, technology does exist to mitigate problems like these: from undelete and GoBack to checkpoints in virtual machines. There is alot that can be done to mitigate the pain of making an error.

The most important thing for Miles is to use every opportunity as a learning experience. When he makes mistakes, tell him what he did and why it caused a problem. Encourage him to explore, but to be cautious about what he does. Encourage him to try researching expected outcomes before trying something (this is a great life-lesson). Technology requires a lot of analytical problem solving to learn and to troubleshoot, so the earlier he picks up those skills, the better equipped he will be to deal with technology for the rest of his life.

The most difficult thing is to strive a balance between protecting him (and you) from any damage he may cause, while allowing him to explore and learn. You don't want to shelter him too much from negative outcomes, otherwise he won't learn the potential dangers of poking around haplessly. Likewise, you don't want to protect him by limiting he ability to explore, otherwise you'll only prolong the inevitable introduction (which, considering children are much faster learners than adults, would be horribly detrimental to his progress).

Learning is a difficult, scary, and often painful experience. It's also extremely valuable. Take advantage of every mistake to be a learning experience and mitigate as many real-world losses as possible.

Welcome to the world of early-childhood education. You'll soon appreciate just how difficult a job your teachers had in elementary school!

One thing I forgot to mention -- my experiences and understanding of learning are based on those with people who I can communicate well with, but who don't understand a particular domain (in my case, computers).

It's an additional level of difficulty when you are dealing with a child young enough to not understand basic directions and to form basic theories of cause and effect. I would suggest that there is a certain level of understanding and communication necessary to teach someone in the way I have described. Just as one must learn to crawl before they can learn to walk, one must also learn to learn before they can learn difficult, abstract concepts, of which technology is amassed.

Without being particularly familiar with teaching young children, my best advice would be to focus on teaching them basics about learning and cause and effect before you let them go hog-wild on technological gizmos. The same press-button-and-light-flashes response can be garnered from many children's toys (just about anything made by Fisher-Price). This will allow children to learn the same basic concepts without being open to the destructiveness that random button-mashing can cause on a cell phone, computer, or other thingamajig. Like all things in teaching, open them up to the real world (including real world consequences) slowly.

Level up.. You gain -5 sleep, +10 caffiene and +5 baby

interesting article, being in my early 20s i know that it's like growing up with evolving technology. some of my first memories are watching my dad playing super Mario world on the SNES. I've been with and involved in computing my whole life, to the point where i'm in my honors year for a computing degree. now there's been maybe 5 years of my life where I've not had a sibling be less than 4 years old, and I've always played with them on my consoles. of course i screen the content, keeping it to things like Mario cart and games with more cartoony feels. and so long as you don't expose them to any things that you know would mess them up (usual drugs, sex violence shenanigans) they they'll turn out fine, heavens knows i did.

in brief i think that it is a shame that kids don't experience the 'nuts and bolts' of computing like i've had the chance to do, but just because younger and younger kids are techno-savvy these days i personally don't think is a bad thing.

Good article, I think, and something that hasn't really been heavily explored before - so kudos for that. It reminds me of something I read about how the younger (and future) generations can be defined as being "digital natives" because they grew up with it all around them. Whereas the older generations are "digital immigrants" because it is something which often has to be thoroughly explained to them, since they didn't grow up around computers, mobile phones, the internet, etc.

Very interesting article - it made me think about a potential baby-filled future, which was scary as hell.

I have no idea how my baby years affected me - I guess no one really does.

I do remember, though, watching Aliens at a young age (much too young to be watching James Cameron action flicks), which caused me to develop a paranoid fear of aliens in the closet. That fear lasted 6 months, I believe.

Thanks to everyone for taking the time to read and comment - as with most of my Escapist pieces, I ended up trying to cram half a book's worth of argument into a v cramped space. I wonder (and hope?) whether 'getting serious' about early childhood education in the context of technology could eventually lead to a complete reconstruction of how these things are approached...

I don't know which scares me more, the thought of having to make these decisions myself, or watching the whole thing from afar with a World of Warcraft laptop in hand :-)



Interesting and insightful article. Having a baby brother of my own, I tend to be strongly in favour of granting children the freedom to play with technological devices that they encounter. I never would have been anywhere near as proficient with computers had I not been given the opportunity to learn in my formative years, so I'll be helping my brother through the fields of technology, just as I plan to teach him the wonders of reading at an early age.

My brother loves to press keys on a keyboard - I suppose it's that interaction with the screen, a feeling that his actions are doing something to the computer, that he's interested in. I'd let him loose on my own laptop, but I run Debian Linux on it. Not exactly a good operating system to be volatile with.

We're a pretty technological family anyway - we have nine computers, seven of them in the house and five belonging to me. We've got five television sets as well, but my brother doesn't seem as interested in the television as the things he can properly interact with. He'll play with computers, telephones and even the occasional game - little will he recognise it, but I carefully orchestrated it so that his first gaming experience would be a game of Space Invaders.

A Very good article that made me stop and think, as a father-to-be. Nearly all of my friends have young children and they all like to interact with the computer/cellphone/console/whatever whenever possible.

Young parents should check out the Comfy Easy PC.

I've been letting my lil girl play with our less than spectacular laptop some more, especially with Phun, and if there is one thing I knew how to change to make the thing more rug rat friendly, it would be disabling the windows key so she stops popping out of safe programs and into the properties of the task bar or running a search for random letters and symbols.

@CanadianWolverine, some great first games for babies and toddlers:

BabySmash for PC at babysmash.com
AlphaBaby for Mac at alphababy.sourceforge.net
Kneebouncers online at kneebouncers.com

These are all made by parents more talented than me but my baby enjoys them well enough!

Thank you very much Tynnyri!

@CanadianWolverine, some great first games for babies and toddlers:

BabySmash for PC at babysmash.com
AlphaBaby for Mac at alphababy.sourceforge.net
Kneebouncers online at kneebouncers.com

These are all made by parents more talented than me but my baby enjoys them well enough!

Thank you very much Tynnyri!


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