Corey Guthridge loves to build castles with Lego blocks. She also enjoys playing games with her friends.
And she likes toying with a computer -- all activities offered at her day care center.
She's barely 3 and hasn't quite yet developed the fine motor skills needed to let her fingers fly across the keyboard. But she has no trouble pushing down the corresponding key when a letter flashes across the computer screen.
"Look, that's an 'M,' " says Corey while pointing to the letter on the screen, "for mouse."
Unable to contain her excitement, she jumps up and down. She claps her hands in anticipation of the mouse that will pop on the screen as soon as she presses the correct letter on the keyboard.
She has no trouble finding the key. Corey pushes it down and is immediately rewarded: Music plays and the mouse appears.
In another room, her older brother Jeffrey, who's almost 5, concentrates on the colorful arrows filling the computer screen.
He counts eight of them, pushes the corresponding number key, and also is rewarded for being correct: A giant "8" flashes on the screen, accompanied by a cheerful tune.
Both children attend Stonewall Day Care Center on Mountain Road in Fallston, where computer-enriched education for preschoolers is an integral part of the daily curriculum.
When Iris Crilley opened the center 10 years ago, she was convinced that computer instruction for young children was the way of the future.
At a time when middle schools and high schools were scrambling for funds to install computers in the classroom, 3-year-old children attending the newly opened Stonewall Day Care Center were having fun identifying numbers and letters on a Texas Instruments microcomputer.
A decade later, each of the 10 classrooms of the recently expanded center is outfitted with a computer -- along with dolls, trucks, books, wooden blocks and other toys favored by preschoolers.
"The computers are not meant to replace anything that's essential for early childhood development," Mrs. Crilley says. "We strictly use them as enrichment to our curriculum."
Some child-development experts have worried that using computers at an early age will teach kids to interact with symbols rather than their environment.
Mrs. Crilley disagrees. "With the age-appropriate software, children are actually gaining in skills, they are learning to recognize numbers and letters much quicker," she says.
And they are not separated from other children when they play with the computer, Mrs. Crilley adds.
"In fact, they share the keyboard, help each other identify letters, and talk about the challenges the computer poses," she says.
Sandra J. Skolnik, executive director of the Maryland Committee for Children, agrees.
"Computers are highly appropriate for young children to use. With appropriate software, technology can be very creative and powerful for young children," Mrs. Skolnik says.
But she warns that although there are many software packages to help children become creative thinkers, computers should not be used as a "drill and practice" tool and become the electronic equivalent of long study sheets that children traditionally have received in class.
"We live in a world of technology -- after all, it's 1993 -- and technology used creatively can be empowering to young children," Mrs. Skolnik says.
Corey's and Jeffrey's mother, Cynthia Guthridge, says that introducing computers to her children at an early age makes sense.
"Computers are the way of the future, children are surrounded by them everywhere . . . in the bank, the grocery store," says Mrs. Guthridge, a manager for an insurance company.
"Myself, I'm not very computer-oriented, so I'm glad to know that my children will be computer literate," she says.
But computers aren't the only reason Corey and Jeffrey attend Stonewall Day Care Center, Mrs. Guthridge says.
She and her husband, William, also an insurance company manager, chose the center because it offers their children a well-rounded and structured program.
In addition to computers, children attending Stonewall are introduced to music, art and sports -- and they have plenty of free time to play.
"I believe we are the only facility with a music, art and gym teacher," says Mrs. Crilley, 49. She says that her goal has always been to provide a positive and good early education for children -- one that will prepare them for elementary school.
Children from ages 2 to 5 are accepted at Stonewall, and class capacity is 20 children. Each class is instructed by four teachers -- two in the morning and two in the afternoon. The staff consists of 35 full-time teachers, who are often assisted by college interns studying early childhood education.
"My children have probably learned more there [the center] than they would have staying at home," Mrs. Guthridge says.
"They have not only acquired skills, but actually have learned to wash their hands when they come in the house -- something I never could get my kids to do," she adds, laughing.
Stonewall is a family operation. Mrs. Crilley is the owner. Her husband, Jim, 50, designed the building and is in charge of buying fresh fruit for afternoon snacks. Their daughter, Nicole Stolz, 27, is the center's director.
"And every room was literally touched by Uncle Harold," says Mr. Crilley.
Harold Casagrande, Mrs. Crilley's uncle, was responsible for each classroom's decorative theme. A retired sign painter who died last year, Mr. Casagrande created murals depicting fairy tale characters on the walls of each classroom.
Right now, classes are filled to capacity, except for isolated openings for 3-year-olds, says Mrs. Stolz. Though there is a waiting list, especially for 2-year-olds, there's usually some turnover and those waiting are admitted quickly, she adds.
Jeffrey might not know the name of the governor, but he can select a program on the computer. He also recognizes musical notes and plays easy tunes on the piano.
"When my young son comes home and talks to me about Mr. Brahms and Mr. Beethoven, I know he is learning and his mind is being stimulated," Mrs. Guthridge says.