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A little one shall lead the way

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Children and computer interfaces: A little one shall lead the way

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1992, The Syracuse Newspapers

Amanda is a friend of mine who knows nothing about computers. She's only 9 years old.

Until a few days ago, Amanda had never used a computer. The closest she'd ever come was a Nintendo.

When Amanda and her family came to visit, I was in the middle of a project I was working at one of my personal computers when Amanda came down to the office I maintain in my family room and asked what I was doing.

"Writing," I said. I was using a word processor that used the "WIMP" way of doing things—in other words, it used on-screen windows, icons, a mouse and a pointer. The little pictures, the icons on the screen, had caught Amanda's eye.

"I want to write, too," Amanda said.

I showed her the other computer that I have in my home office and turned it on. She sat down, ready to write.

The computer loaded with an old, familiar message on the display. It said, simply, "C," with a little arrowhead after it—the symbol for the computer's main disk storage location, called "drive C." Nothing else was showing.

Amanda looked at my screen and then looked at hers. Her disappointment was almost overwhelming.

"Can I use your computer?" she said.

"Sorry," I said. "But you can have all those pretty things on your screen, too."

It was just as if I had just told her we were having ice cream and cookies for dinner. She jumped up and down as I pressed the keys that loaded a windowing system on the PC.

she started out playing Tetris, a game that comes with the windowing software. Colored squares fell from the top of the screen as she moved them and flipped them to make a pattern at the bottom.

To play Tetris, Amanda had to learn only one thing—that the mouse did things on the screen. When she moved the pointer to the top of the window where Tetris was playing, other windows opened up—much smaller ones, in the form of menus. When she moved the mouse pointer away, the menus disappeared.

It was a little like learning how to ride a bicycle. Once you figure it out, in that first five minutes of confusion, you know how to do it forever.

Amanda wanted to move on to Real Stuff. She asked me whether she could write her name. I told her there was a special menu, up in the corner of the screen, that would show her a lot of little pictures. All she had to do was click her mouse button on the one that looked like writing.

Click! My little friend started up the word processor. Click! A list of fonts dropped down. One of them was called "ANIMAL. "Click! Bats and bears and rabbits showed up on the screen. Amanda typed one letter and a robin appeared; she pressed a second letter and sat facing an elephant.

Click! The font list dropped down again. Amanda clicked through them as I went back to my work.

Just then Amanda's mom called for her, and we had to stop for dinner. "I can write on the computer," Amanda announced to her family. She finished first hand disappeared downstairs.

When I came down a half-hour later, Amanda was standing in front of my printer, which was printing out, dot by dot, a single word, in a fancy typeface that looked like the top of the New York Times, and in letters at least 2 inches high.

The word on the paper was "AMANDA."

"I did it," she said.

The printer kept churning while I waited. She had pressed the mouse button over a menu that asked how many copies she wanted, and she choose a good, high number—"I think 20," she said.

The printer WAS running in its slowest mode—something Amanda had chosen, too, when the menu had given her a choice of "best quality" or "fastest speed."

I turned to go back upstairs, but Amanda cut off my escape. "Look," she said. The third page was about to scroll up. We watched it together—and the fourth, and all the others.

At last, they were done. Amanda gathered up the sheets and ran upstairs.

"Mommy!" she shouted.

I had work to finish—creative work, writer's work. But it would have to wait.

Another kind of creativity was calling, and I headed back upstairs.

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