It was time for computer class, but Samuel McMenamin wasn't quite ready.

Red-faced and rubbing his eyes, the 3-year-old reluctantly sat on a tiny chair in front of the keyboard next to his 2-year-old classmate, John Markiewicz of Ellicott City.

As the computer's disk drive lit up and began whirring, the children sang to the tune of "Frere Jacques": "Disk is loading, disk is loading, Drive to RAM, drive to RAM.

Busy light is burning, busy light is burning.

When it's done, then we're on."

The screen filled with four bright-colored flowers, each with upper- and lower-case letters. A teacher guided John's hand on a joystick control as he attempted to pilot a bee from flower to flower, collecting the letters.

The toddlers at the Kids' Place day care center in Ellicott City may not know it, but they are members of the newest group of computer consumers for several budding home-based businesses in Howard County.

Both Computertots and its 4-month-old county competitor, Futurekids, are companies trying to introduce computers to preschoolers. They offer preschools and day care centers an offer that's hard to refuse: computer instruction, which many parents want for their children, at no cost to the center. The parents pay directly for the lessons.

Computertots, which started in the county at two Children's Word day care centers in Columbia in 1985, now offers weekly classes for $24 a month to about 180 children at nine locations. Denise Donohue, owner of the Computertots' Baltimore-area franchise, employs six teachers, all part time, out of her home in Ellicott City.

In October, Donohue began offering after-school classes at Northfield Elementary School, and she plans to offer classes at three other county elementary schools next month.

Futurekids, which started in the county in September, is emerging as a competitor, serving about 40 children in six locations. Fees range from $39 to $76 a month, depending on location and level of instruction. The new kid on the computer block also boasts its own learning center next to the Dorsey's Search Village Center.

Both franchises are part of national chains, each currently serving an estimated 7,000 children.

Also on the rise is C & K Electronic Services Inc., a Clarksville company that has hired Computertots teacher Peggy Davidson as a home computer sales consultant and a home instructor for everyone from toddlers to adults. C & K recently began marketing computer systems tailored to the preschool set.

"The children of the future, the successful ones, are going to be computer-literate," says Ken Lang, director of marketing and sales for C & K.

Starting computer training before a child is toilet trained may seem inappropriate to some, but it makes perfect sense to hundreds of Howard County parents.

"I'm a teacher myself, so I'm very aware of the importance of computer use in the schools and the fact that it will be even more important in the future," said Susan McMenamin of Ellicott City, mother of the sleepy-eyed Sam.

The Computertots program at The Kids' Place in Ellicott City has allowed both of her sons to "get the beginnings of it in a very non-threatening, enjoyable way."

At Jessup's Hilltop Day Care Center, all but five of the center's 20 children were signed up for Computertots when it was first offered in September. The five who did not participate were all under 3 years old, said center director Melody Franchini.

Franchini said she likes the program because it gives preschoolers a boost when they start kindergarten, where computers are now standard equipment in county schools.

She says she will support it "as long as they keep it as a play-type activity and it's not a real structured teacher-type activity, which I don't go for at all."

At Davidson's next half-hour session at The Kids' Place, for 4-year-olds, the pupils wriggle in their chairs and burst out with unprompted instructions and comments.

"Don't touch the shiny parts," pipes 3-year-old Eric Shipley of Columbia as a fellow classmate inserts a diskette into the computer.

"The first thing we teach the kids is to touch the keys with a clean, dry finger," one that hasn't just been in a nose or a mouth, Donohue explained.

And with the help of the hand puppet "CT," the computer turtle, the children also learn some things many adults don't know, such as the meaning of RAM, or Random Access Memory, the internal memory of a computer.

"It's really a no-risk situation for them. They just let us come in," said Future Kids county franchise owner Kathy Ruben.

An even more agreeable situation was worked out between the county Recreation Bureau and Future Kids that provides one-time free computer instruction during after-school child-care at nine county elementary schools. If enough interest is generated, Ruben said, she will return to the schools for paid classes.

While county schools make a point of providing kindergartners with computer instruction, and preschools are happy to provide private instruction services with space, the preschool educators' professional association is not ready to endorse the idea.

"I don't think they (computers) are appropriate at all for 3-year-olds," said Susan Bradekamp, director of professional development for the National Association for the Education of Young Children in Washington.

"For 4-year-olds, they can be one of many choices," but with several conditions, said Bradekamp.

What should be avoided is separating the children from their playmates and marching them down a hall for their turn at the computer, she said.

Also, "you have to be very careful about the software that you choose .

. . that it's open-ended and creative and fun to use," Bradekamp said.

"What often happens with computers is that it's a glorified workbook."

Like many of her fellow computer teachers, Davidson has a background in elementary education. When she moved to Howard County from Dallas six months ago, she intended to continue teaching and took a part-time job as a substitute teacher.

After observing a Computertots class, she became interested and Donohue gave her a second part-time job as a computer instructor.

As if that wasn't enough for one person, she met C & K's Ken Lang through her Clarksville church and the two decided that computer consulting and instruction could be a valuable part of his business.

C & K Electronics, run out of Lang's Clarksville home and partly owned by his son, Kenny, began about a year ago doing electronics repairs, and has since branched into selling IBM-clone computer setups. The company is now in the process of acquiring two repair shops, in Catonsville and Eldersburg.

The idea of home consulting, with an eye on children from preschool age on up, seems to be catching on, Lang said.

"We've gotten calls from as far away as Aberdeen" in response to C & K ads in regional child-oriented newspapers such as Kid Street News and Baltimore's Child.

The company is planning free seminars in February to introduce the idea of home instruction for all ages, including computer-shy adults, he said.

"We want to show them that there's nothing to be afraid of," Davidson said.

Afraid? In Howard County, the high-tech mecca?

"A lot of people won't approach a computer because they don't want to look intimidated by it," Davidson said. "They don't want to think that a machine is smarter than they are."

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