Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Fostering Independence: The Computer

Children with Down Syndrome are often smaller than the average child and they also often struggle with motor skills and other issues that make using a computer a little more difficult (at least when they are young). However, we were able to start Gess using the computer at a pretty early age with the helps of a few tools we found.


Computer Mouse - When Gess was about 3 years old she really had a hard time getting her little fingers in a proper position to use our adult sized mouse. They actually make mice for children that are not only smaller but very cute. We however opted to just run down to the store and pick up a micro-mouse that was made small to use easily with a laptop. It wasn't very expensive and it fit her hand rather well. It took me some getting used to, but I really actually liked it once I did.

Large Print Keyboard - Then we got a large print keyboard. Gess has had trouble with her vision and even now with her glasses she has trouble reading smaller font and text sizes. So we went to look for a large print keyboard. Again, you can get one of these designed specifically for children. Crayola has a really cute one for that.

However, we decided to go with an adult large print keyboard because the child's keyboard doesn't have the short cut keys to control things like volume and it also doesn't have the number pad on the side. Since Gess and I were sharing a computer I was not willing to give up those functions when I was using it too. So instead, we got a large print keyboard made for adults. You can find them with black keys and white lettering but I really liked how this one made the keys stand out and thought it would work best for Gess. She really took to it and it was so great when she was finally able to start using it to actually type.

Headphones - While children's websites are often educational and fun for kids, sometimes parents are not interested in hearing them too. We found these headphones for Gess this year which are not only great for the computer but also in the car when she is listening to her MP3player.

KidsGear headphones are perfect for children. Because they are made smaller they fit more comfortably on their head but they also come with an adapter which controls decibel volume to one that is safer for children. In other words they can't make it so loud that it will damage their hearing. Gess loves wearing them.

Learning Computer Skills

Now that she had the tools she needed to be on the computer we needed some software to help teach her the skills. Knowledge Adventure has some of the best early educational games I have ever come across. They are called JumpStart and they even have a game for toddlers.

In the JumpStart Advanced Toddlers game you learn basic computer skills which allows the child to play even before their motor skills are fully developed. In one game you just look for what is behind the leaves. To remove the leaves you simply move the mouse around. As you move mouse the leaves disappear. Children therefore quickly learn that moving the mouse does something on the screen. This was a favorite game of ours when Gess was really small and it wasn't long before she was able to do much more on the computer.

We used the JumpStart games for several years, we went through Jumpstart Preschool, Jumpstart Kindergarten and Jumpstart 1st Grade. Then they came out with JumpStart World. We became members for quite awhile until we realized that the educational aspect pretty much disappeared. There are some things you can do to learn now, but mostly it's just fun and games so we decided to not pay a monthly fee for that. Still, their early games are very good. Another problem we began to have was that the games were often "timed" so while Gess had the skill, she was not able to do it fast enough to win the game. Because many games are timed we are having a hard time to find "educational" games she can play now.

Tools for Surfing the Web

Sqworl - Now that Gess had both the tools and the skills it was not long before she was trying to surf the web. Before Gess had her typing and spelling skills up to par we found this handy little page that providee her with a visually appealing, kid friendly way for her to find her favorite spots on the web. It is called Sqworl. You may have noticed I have a link to Gess' user page on here so others can see some of the resources we use on the web. Basically all it is a bookmarks page that shows a picture of the homepage as well as just the name of the link. Here is a video that shares it works.

Sqworl Screencast from Caleb Brown on Vimeo.

And here is a link to the page Gess uses. The amount of pages sure has grown over the years!

Readability - I know I have shared this on here already by telling you how we use it for our daily bible reading, but I want to be sure to mention this really helpful asset for special needs children. Readability is a program you can download as an add-on that will help not only increase the font size and color of the text, but will make the entire page easier to read by taking all the busy distractions away.

A website can be very helpful and have lots of information but it can also have so much stimulation that it's really hard for some people to stay focused on the information they need. This handy tool helps take all that distraction away and sets up the font to the size and coloring that is easiest for you to read. It's so nice that I find myself using it sometimes. They also have a video showing you how it works.

Readability - Enjoy Reading, Support Writing from Arc90 on Vimeo.

Parental Controls

If anyone has followed me here very long you may have remembered my funny post about how Gess made a purchase on Ebay. Jumpstart was of course one of her favorite things to do on the computer and when she began to spell and type it on her own she would do so in the search bar. Low and behold she clicked enough times to find and purchase a Jumpstart game on Ebay. Thankfully we got it for around $5 rather than the $80 she had bid on it! That made me aware that I had to really be careful about logging on and off my stuff when she used the computer. For awhile we just made her a separate user that didn't allow her to download things, but the more she learned to spell, the more she started to see on the web.

Gess loves Mario video games and often "googled" Mario. Well, unfortunately people have made some pretty sick videos and websites about Mario. So now we were at the point that we needed to get some parental controls.

I am cheap and hate to pay for anything I can get for free, so I first began looking for an open source option. While I found one in FoxFilter, I don't think I will be able to use only the free version for long. While FoxFilter is working great for us now, each time it blocks a page it has a link right there that says to "add an exception." Once Gess realizes that by clicking that she will get where she wants to go we will have a problem again. Still, it is only $9.99 - $14.99 for an entire year, so when I have to pay for it, I certainly will choose to stick with FoxFilter.

These are some of the ways we have helped Gess to learn to independently use the computer. She certainly has learned well. Our next goal will be to teach her how to type correctly. That will be one daunting task, I am sure!

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