One evening last week, my five-year-old was in one of those moods where he makes unreasonable demands. “I have to have my own computer!” he said in an unpleasant tone.
“You already have your own computer,” I reminded him. He has one of those toy laptops designed for preschoolers; my uncle gave it to him for his third birthday.
“No!” he said, “I need a real computer on my desk so I can type on it! I have to type right now or I am never going to bed again!!!”
I made some kind of annoyingly parental comment about how a person who starts resisting bedtime before it’s even been mentioned probably needs to go to bed early. Both Daniel (his dad) and I acknowledged his demands for a computer with some sort of unsatisfying, “Hmmm. We’ll see.” We were trying to finish our dinner and did not appreciate the complaining.
After a while Nicholas said, “Well, at least I need a typewriter! On my desk!”
Daniel, who was just getting up from the table, said calmly, “We do have a typewriter that nobody is using.”
Nicholas was astonished. “Really? We have a typewriter?! Where is it? We have to set it up on my desk right away! And I will type!” After a quick reminder that typing time would be limited by the need to get ready for bed soon, Daniel went down to the basement to get the typewriter. (I was kind of surprised myself. I had totally forgotten about the typewriter since moving into the house; I guess it had been stored in a place where I never had to move it. Daniel apparently knew its exact location.)
Turns out a typewriter is in many ways more satisfying to a five-year-old than a computer: You just plug it in and turn it on–no cables to connect one part to the other, no need to wait for it to boot up, no need to shut it down correctly before turning off the power. When you press the buttons, things happen, and most of those things are easy to understand–no need to launch the correct application, no double-clicking or dragging that’s difficult for hands smaller than the mouse. (This is an electric typewriter, so the amount of pressure needed to strike the keys isn’t a lot.) Things happen right in the physical world, where you can easily see them; the carriage actually moves across, so you can see your exact place on the page, without the abstraction of scroll buttons and a cursor on a screen. Composing and printing are one simple step. You can use different kinds and sizes of paper. When something goes wrong, often you can see what it is and physically fix it, or at least you can explain the problem to your parent who can figure out how to fix it–no software bugs.
Before bedtime, Nicholas had experimented quite a bit and typed his name and the alphabet. He also asked Daniel, “Can you draw with a typewriter?” (the drawing interface of AppleWorks is one of his favorite things to use on my computer) and Daniel showed him how to type characters to form a smiley face; he then did several variations on that. He has worked on his typewriter almost every day since. It’s been less than a week, but he’s already written a play! (Daniel dictated the spelling of most of the words. The play is about a man killing a chicken for dinner–that’s how kids raised mostly-vegetarian rebel, I guess!) He’s also opened the case to study the inner workings of the typewriter.
On Saturday, Nicholas played with a friend who lives about 20 minutes away. The boys spent the drive from his house to ours debating whether to go to the park or to our house. Nicholas talked up the toys he has at home. His friend was vehemently disinterested in his dollhouse, disappointed that he has only one TransFormer, and not really enthusiastic about various other options, but he was intrigued by the idea of the typewriter. He asked a number of questions about how it works and what you can do with it–“But it only types, right?” “Yes, but you can type anything you want to say! And you can draw with it, too!” “How can you draw with it if it only types??” They wound up deciding to go to the park, but after they got tired there we spent a short time at our house. Much of this time was spent working with the typewriter. Nicholas enjoyed instructing his friend, but his friend (who can read a lot better than he can) taught him a few things, too.
In addition to motivating Nicholas to practice letter recognition and spelling, the typewriter gets him started learning the (illogical but firmly established) keyboard layout. It’s a machine that he can observe and tinker with; he can figure out for himself how it shifts between lowercase and capital letters (how many of his generation even know why that key is called “shift”?), how the letter gets from the key to the paper, what tells the typewriter when it’s reached the end of a line, how the tab-stops work, etc. That learning will transfer to working with other machines he’ll encounter in his life–and I’m sure there will always be some, even in these high-tech times.
Letting my kid play with an electric typewriter works for me! I’m glad Daniel heeded the urge to hang onto it in case it came in handy someday–it did! If you know a preschooler who does not have a typewriter, I bet they turn up at yard sales pretty often.