The learning experience is fundamentally different for kids now than it was even for today’s 20-somethings — especially for elementary and middle schools. A lot of that change can be attributed to laptops.
The Covid-induced school closures that spanned 2020 cemented the cruciality of a kid having easy access to a laptop at home. Both teachers and parents were forced to make online learning work — and now that the groove has been found, a hybrid model may just be the future for some classrooms even after pandemic protections are a thing of the past.
Sheer convenience isn’t the only reason for kids to have a laptop. The importance of access to email and virtual learning platforms like Blackboard while a kid’s not at school can’t be understated (and for a lot of kids, it’s far less intimidating than talking to a teacher IRL.) Digital accessibility to school materials and other resources can cultivate a sense of autonomy and responsibility in students: The Speak Up Research Project for Digital Learning found that high schoolers who were assigned a laptop were more likely to take notes in class, do internet research, create documents to share, collaborate with their peers on projects, check their grades, and get reminders about due dates or tests.
Are first graders going to be taking notes or keeping track of their own test scores? Probably not. But as children move from elementary to middle to high school, computers are made a more integral part of the curriculum and assignments. Young kids can stay ahead of the curve by practicing those skills at home — it’s like practicing reading with your preschooler or letting your 15-year-old practice driving in a parking lot. Easing them into the responsibility of keeping a device charged can work as preparation for a cell phone as well.
As schools continue to solidify laptop-based curricula, we expect retailers to make it easy for parents to buy their kids a laptop. Shoppers saw an emphasis on affordable laptops and Chromebooks in the early month of school shutdowns, and shopping holidays like Prime Day and Black Friday will likely keep student-friendly laptops at the top of the deals list — even if remote learning has fizzled out.
How to monitor your kid’s computer activity without smothering them
Handing a laptop to your kid (and subsequently setting them loose on the internet) naturally comes with safety concerns. The already-huge screen time debate was forced into the spotlight when the coronavirus required schools to close, forcing caregivers to find a way to keep kids entertained and engaged all day, every day. Parents were told to not freak out about their kids staring at a screen while stuck at home, as the evidence connecting screen time and cognitive or behavior development is pretty meager. But if you’re worried that too much freedom will result in kids landing on an inappropriate site or going into technology zombie mode, parental control software steps in to strike a healthy balance.
What’s the difference between a Chromebook and a laptop?
A Chromebook is a laptop that operates almost solely on the internet. These laptops aren’t inherently kids’ laptops, but their low price point, cute and compact designs, and security features do make them a good option for iffy parents and kids who will be doing most of their work on a web browser (like playing on ABCmouse or typing on Google Docs).
Being locked into Chrome OS isn’t as limiting as it sounds. Actually, it provides some freedoms that regular laptops can’t. Because everything is automatically stored on Google Drive, your kid won’t lose all of their work if they forget to save a document or if the Chromebook itself crashes. This also means that kids can access their slideshow or essay on any computer where they can log into their Google account.
Kids perusing the internet might sound like a virus waiting to happen. Every web page or Chrome app runs its own sandbox, essentially ensuring that other parts of the computer won’t be compromised even if that page gets hacked or “infected.”
However, malware has nothing on Chrome. Most hackers are aiming at Windows or Mac and ignore Google’s OS (for now), making it highly unlikely for a Chromebook to get a virus. If something sketchy were to happen, the threat can be wiped out by closing the page or reverting to factory settings. Parents and teachers can get some peace of mind without constantly looking over their child’s shoulder, and children can surf the web without feeling like they’re being watched.
Laptops for younger kids versus older kids
Some criteria make sense for all ages. Young kids need something sturdy that can handle drops or bumps, and older kids need something that can handle being lugged in a backpack alongside heavy books. Long battery life makes everyone’s life easier, too.
Processing power and storage will likely be your main deciding factors, and it all depends on what the kid will be doing on the laptop. Younger kids may do some light schoolwork, play games, or watch a movie, but there’s no reason to pay for RAM over 4 GB to run a few apps for school or a fancy screen to play Overcooked! 2. Faster RAM and increased screen resolution will be important for high school or college students who need a device that can multitask with power-sucking apps like PhotoShop or software for a statistics course. Ample storage space is a must to house things like schoolwork and downloaded textbooks.
Here are the best laptops for kids in 2021: