Smart play stations liven up learning for Toronto pre-schoolers

Pre-schoolers at a Toronto daycare clamour for a turn with a large, colourful, plastic play station. They quickly overwhelm the small plastic bench and start tumbling to the floor, as a supervisor shouts “one at a time!”

It’s a typical scene at a daycare centre, but this is no typical play station – it’s a KidSmart Early Learning computer station donated by IBM. WoodGreen Community Services and its chain of daycares across the city have been lucky enough to snag 19 of them – a donation equivalent to about $58,000.

It’s not just another play toy, says Elaine Levy, the director of childcare services at WoodGreen, but a valuable teaching tool.

“The different skills they are able to learn with these is remarkable,” she says. “Not only literacy around numbers and letters, but also computer literacy.”

IBM’s KidSmart program is nothing new. It’s been operating since 1998, according to David Robitaille, manager of corporate citizenship at IBM Canada. Designed for children ages three to seven, the goal is to help bridge the “digital divide” – or the lack of access to technology for some children.

“We’re very concerned with the declining enrolment rate at the post-secondary level in areas of applied science and technologies,” he says. “As a result of that, IBM has put together a program at all educational levels to drive awareness of that.”

The program has become a worldwide effort. It has a footprint in every province of China. In Vietnam all early childhood education teachers are being trained on the computers, and the program is also run in Africa and the Middle East. Totally, more than 42,000 colourful units have been installed in 21,000 childcare centres around the world.

The stations look like a typical kid’s play house. Large and brightly coloured plastic fixtures are used to dress up the familiar computer peripherals. A flat-screen monitor is at the heart of the centre, protected by a tough transparency in case any child should be compelled to draw on the screen. The QWERTY keyboard is built right into the unit, the buttons a type of membrane that is hard to break and easy to press for children.

All of that extra design explains why each unit is valued at about $3,000, Robitaille says. IBM partnered with Little Tikes to create the stations.

“The donations are to ensure that kids have access to technology at a younger age and are comfortable pursing it as a career in the future,” he says.

The stations also come pre-loaded with educational – but fun – software from Riverdeep and The Learning Company. In one game, children must match the time on both an analog and a digital clock. In another, a cartoon sandbox presents patterns that need to be completed.

Teachers at the daycare centres spend time learning the games so they can assist the children, Levy says.

“They’re just here as part of the learning environment,” she says. “Kids can go and do games and different activities, and they love them.”

Children are able to progress at their own pace and are presented with different skill levels by the programs, so they are continually challenged. The large bench also seats up to three children, so they can get some help from a friend.

WoodGreen received a similar donation from IBM about a decade ago. Those computers proved to be a valuable resource to prepare pre-schoolers for a classroom environment, Levy says. Now the community services group is thrilled to get a serious hardware upgrade.

The computers are Windows-based, Robitaille says.

“Looking at all those children in the classroom today, IBM hopes a number of those children will go into technology as a career and become IBMers of the future, or become IBM’s customers or business partners of the future,” he adds.

Children who are already in school could also use the stations to work on assignments. But nobody’s shoving for a turn to get that job done.

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