What's the Right Age to Introduce Your Kid to Computers?

Tablets are the first-device of choice for kids, because they're cheap and so easy to use that even preliterate children can master them in minutes. But no matter what Apple says, kids eventually need to learn how to use actual computers with keyboards and windowed operating systems.

There are some applications that only run on a computer and there are others that just work better with a keyboard and mouse. Many schools now use Chromebooks. And, if you're a tech enthusiast, you may want junior to take mommy or daddy's grown-up PC for a spin.

If you're thinking about introducing your child to computers, you're probably wondering just how old your kid needs to be before they can grok concepts like moving a mouse around, clicking on icons or navigating through text-heavy menus. While you shouldn't expect your toddler to master the Linux command prompt, children as young as two can have meaningful interactions with a PC.

Here's what to expect at every age.

Infants (0-2)

It probably won't come as a surprise, but infants and computers don't really mix. Babies simply don't have the physical or cognitive skills to make it worth your time or theirs. The one notable exception is that they may enjoy video chatting with familiar family and friends. On the high end of the age range, they may also enjoy pressing keys and mimicking what they see parents and siblings doing.

Toddlers (2-3)

This is when kids typically start to show more curiosity about the computer and when many children head into the "button-pushing" stage where any button or switch is fair game.

Kids at this age:

Don't consider buying a child this age their own computer. Give them limited time on your PC.

Preschool (3-4)

By now, kids are more likely to start engaging with software and will enjoy games and activities like puzzles, drawing, matching, etc.

Kids at this age:

"By the age of 4/5 most children have the fine motor skills to manipulate a mouse," says Dawn Cunningham, a licensed pre-school educator in Somervile, MA. "If they haven't used a computer before, they will likely require a demonstration and possibly some hand-over-hand assistance."

Preschool kids are still too young to use a computer independently, so don't consider buying them one.

Elementary (5-7)

At this point, kids are able to use a computer with some independence and to enjoy complex and time-based games and activities. They are able to start coding with simple tools like Scratch.

Kids at this age:

Keri Wilmot, a pediatric occupational therapist in Dallas, TX, explains, "At early ages, it's about practice and building confidence... as well as finding games and activities that are fun and developmentally appropriate, so they can build their skills rather than become frustrated by complicated functions."

Kids in the 5 to 7 age group don't really need their own computers, but enterprising parents can consider a durable Chromebook like the Asus C202SA, which can survive 4-foot drops onto concrete. The Kano Computer Kit, which teaches children how computers work, is a great learning tool for this age group.

Tweens (8-12)

Not surprisingly, this can be a challenging age. Kids will start to seek more independence and privacy, but are not mature enough to always make the best decisions, especially when it comes to online interactions. They are also likely to start getting personal devices, making it even more important to emphasize rules and expectations.

Kids at this age:

Because they can work independently, tweens are prime candidates to get their own computers. When computer shopping for tweens, consider the following:

Teens (13-18)

Teens may still not always make the best choices, but they are capable of creating complex projects and artwork using a computer. A little encouragement in that realm can help push kids from consumers to creators.

Kids at this age:

If you're giving your teenager a computer, keep these tips in mind:

Which OS is Best for Kids?

When it comes to operating systems, adults tend to feel strongly one way or another. Kids, on the other hand, are highly adaptable. With a bit of coaching, they have little problem adjusting between a Mac and a Windows-based system. They may use a Chromebook at school. The best choice for your family is whatever OS you are already using. This will allow you to help out, model good choices, and focus on enjoying time together. Paired with your technology/media use plan, and your Internet filtering/monitoring solutions, you should be fine with whatever option you choose.

It also may seem that young kids could struggle with menus and navigation if they haven't yet learned to read. While this is a valid concern, by the time kids are old enough to take the lead, it's typically a moot point. Even kids in preschool can learn to find menu options by location and using the first letter of the word. You may actually be surprised to find that your little one can start to recognize words (just as they recognize icons) that they frequently see and hear, such as save, exit, and print.

Health and Safety Tips

No matter which age kids are, you need keep them safe by following these tips:

Protecting the Computer from the Kids

While some families have multiple computers, others may have access to just one. Learning to keep those machines in good shape is part of being a responsible computer user.

Making the Right Decision for Your Family

In the end, there is no magical age where kids suddenly are able to use a computer with ease. While basic reading and fine motor skills help, there's still a learning curve to get past. And kids who are solely used to tablets may have a more difficult time making that transition than kids who have had computer access all along. If you're interested in having your child use a computer, your best bet is to start the introduction at a young age and give them more freedom and opportunity as they get older. Not only will they have time to learn and grow, but you'll be able to emphasize healthy habits along the way.

MORE: How To Build A PC (For Kids)