Nowadays children entering kindergarten have a wide range of computer experience. Some have spent years with the machine while others have seldom seen one; some can intuitively zip around computer screens while others are hesitant to click the mouse.
Both novice and experienced kindergartners can usefully learn some basic schemes of computer processing, understanding not only WHAT happens from an action taken but also HOW it does so. Using the simple PAINT program (from the Accessories folder in Windows 95 or the similar PAINTBRUSH in DOS 3.1) pre-readers learn methods which are transferable later to word processing, spreadsheets, higher level graphics, etc. Mixing some purposeful steps with a joyful, zany, random clicking would seem to be the "best of both" computing worlds and certainly the thing kindergartners do best!
No reading ability is required for the PAINT program other than a few words the student irresistibly learns because there is a powerful incentive to recognize the words that speed up the fun. A few vocabulary terms must be learnt to be able to follow instructions but these are kept to a minimum and wordy descriptions avoided, we just let that natural enthusiasm take over and DO STUFF.
The PAINT program opens with an invitingly blank screen, sidebar diagrams of the various tools available, the color box tool and no pre-set suggestions to interfere with individual imaginations. In each class session we do a series of practices with various tools then make final free-style "masterpieces." We take time to admire each others' work, discuss what we have done, print out that all-important paper version for the refrigerator door and/or posterity and get ready to move on.
Our setting is a computer lab with one student per machine, each machine opened to the PAINT blank screen, the task tools box showing, the line tool width at a wide setting and the color box on display.
The vocabulary terms Mouse, Monitor, Screen, Cursor and Click are explained first, with the extra explanation that we only click on the left mouse button for now. (Yes, the buttons for clicking could be the mouse's eyes and yes, it is very unusual that the eyes would be next to the mouse's tail rather than at the other end but that's the way computer mice are - think about it!)
Next we begin some directed exploration of the screen contents, usually in the form of ...
Here's a lab class example, from the beginning.
Point with your finger to your cursor on the screen, it looks like a cross with a circle in the middle. Now make the cursor move around the screen - up to the corners, down the middle.
|Looking at those boxes (called task buttons) you see on the left side of the screen, click on the one with the straight line in it and the box brightens as if you've pressed a button.|
|Move your cursor to the blank screen, press and hold down the mouse button and move the mouse across the screen then let go of the mouse button. You drew a line! Make a whole bunch of lines all over the screen, some crossing over each other and some not touching anything else. (Example 1)|
Now we have enough lines and are ready to do the next step; to do something different we'll have to click on another box (otherwise the cursor will keep on drawing lines).|
Which box do you think we choose if we want to change the color of our lines? Sure enough, it's the tipped-over-paint-pot picture, so go ahead and click on it.
What happened to your cursor? Did it change shape? Look closely at the tip of the paint drip on the new shape. This is the coloring point.
How do we choose a new color to use? (It probably involves another click!) Look at that box of colors lurking there at the bottom of the screen. Go ahead and click on any color and watch the little box at the left end change from the black you have been using to your new choice.
Try clicking another color and watch what happens to that little box. Try it a few more times.
Now it's time to color! First color only the single, stand-alone lines with any different colors you wish. Move the tip of the paint drip to anywhere on the line, click and it's colored. (Example 2)
Want to change the color again? Repeat the last two steps.
Next, color the crossed-over lines and carefully watch what happens. See the color go through all crossed lines, it follows the path from one to another just like water would if the lines were pipes and you poured it in; there's nothing to stop it flowing until it comes to the end of the line. (Example 3)
Of course you can change the background color in the same way by picking a color and clicking on it, but a word of caution (we call it an OOPS! tip) is appropriate here.
Coloring backgrounds with the same color used for lines can lead to some definite "MESS-UPS" so be careful when choosing background colors. Remember how the color flows throughout connected lines? Well if you color the background with the same color as some lines, the color will flow through the lines too, the lines will disappear. At a time like this a student often decides that an irretrievable MESS-UP level has been reached and the only solution is to restart.
Kindergartners can build wonderfully on just these few instructions and so now they are left alone to draw us whatever kind of "straight lines" picture they wish. The results (Examples below) are, of course, wonderful and arrangements are made to print each one for the artist.
At the end of class each "masterpiece" is left on the screen and we take our "Art Gallery Stroll." We line up ready to leave but first we wander around the room admiring and commenting on our friends' work and maybe getting some more ideas. It doesn't hurt either to leave the creations on view and have the next class of older students see how well their young friends can compute!
Towards the end of class a tiny quiz livens up the proceedings still more. Do you recognize the signs below? What do they mean? What happens when you click on one, another or each? We'll check back on it next class.
I owe a big THANK YOU for the cheerful assistance of Jeffrey, my young friend and illustrator.
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