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Computer toys can enhance social skills in children

* 6 March 2003 *

Computer toys can enhance social skills in children

A way in which computers can encourage social skills among young children has been observed by researchers at the University of Sussex.

The findings come in the wake of a Government report this week, which blames computer games for the decline in language skills among primary school pupils.

Dr Rosemary Luckin, reader in computer science and artificial intelligence, in collaboration with Dr Lydia Plowman at the University of Stirling, led a study that found that children, aged between four and six, who used a digital toy connected to a desktop PC interacted more with their peers and the researchers than those who used only a PC.
The toys, in the form of a cuddly bear or doll, moved, spoke and responded to a child's touch. They could be linked to a PC and used to encourage and prompt children when working with compatible software games.  When the toy was absent, the children could use an on-screen icon of the same character.

"What came out of our study was quite unexpected," says Dr Luckin.  "We were looking to see how children sought help through the computer, but we found that, for the children who had the toys, there was a significant increase in socialisation in their help-seeking behaviour. The children who were working in pairs were twice as likely to talk to each other. The children who were working alone were three times more likely to seek the help of researchers."

She added that the toys, based on the children's cartoon characters Arthur and DW, were not particularly sophisticated and are now no longer on the market.  "They were awful," she says. "But something better designed, something that did something more than give words of encouragement, could be a very useful tool to go with computers.

 "This increase in social interactions around technology is an appealing contradiction of the popular belief that technology leads to reduced socialisation."

In a study by the Government's basic skills agency, teachers claimed that half of children now start school unable to speak audibly and be understood by others.  The report suggests that parents were largely to blame through leaving their children to play with computer games rather than spending time talking to them.

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