WASHINGTON -- Before they can even read, almost 1 in 4 children in nursery school is learning a skill that some adults have yet to master: using the Internet.
About 23 percent of children in nursery school -- youngsters 3, 4, or 5 years old -- have gone online, according to the Education Department. By kindergarten, 32 percent have used the Internet, typically under adult supervision.
The numbers underscore a trend in which the largest group of new users of the Internet are children 2 to 5. At school and home, children are viewing websites with interactive stories and animated lessons that teach letters, numbers, and rhymes.
''Young students don't differentiate between the face-to-face world and the Internet world," said Susan Patrick, who oversees technology for the department. ''They were born into the age of the Internet. They see it as part of the continuum of the way life is today."
At a preschool age, children need some grown-up help to get online, said Francie Alexander, chief academic officer for children's book publisher Scholastic Inc.
One of their favorite computer activities is writing an e-mail to a grandparent, said Alexander, author of a children's guide to the Internet.
''It's great for letter recognition," she said. ''Everybody likes to get mail, and little kids don't have great tolerance for waiting. So the whole idea that they can write Grandma and get an e-mail back a half-hour later saying, 'I got your note' -- they love that."
Scholastic has a section of its website that is intended just for children, who go online to read, write, and play with ''Clifford the Big Red Dog." PBS Kids Online has more than a dozen educational websites for preschool children, including ''Sesame Street" and ''Barney and Friends."
Overall computer use, too, is becoming more common among the youngest learners. Department figures indicate that two-thirds of nursery school children and 80 percent of kindergartners have used computers.
At the Arnold & Porter Children's Center in Washington, 4- and 5-year-olds have the option to spend time on a computer, working in small teams. They learn basic problem-solving and hand-eye coordination, but the social component of working with classmates on computer exercises is just as important, said Sally D'Italia, director of the center, which a law firm offers for its employees.
''It helps them become more relaxed, more adventurous, and more willing to take risks as they learn," she said. ''With adults, we're still afraid that we're going to blow up the computer. You never know if you're going to push the wrong button and lose all your data."
Virtually all US schools are connected to the Internet, with about one computer for every five students, the government reports. Many older students are often far ahead of their teachers in computer literacy, and they know their younger siblings are gaining on them.
Educators say such access needs scrutiny. Beyond blocking inappropriate content, schools must be certain the lessons they choose are based on research and geared to the developmental stage of the children, specialists say.
''Kids have a tremendous ability to expand their learning, and a computer is just one tool," said Mark Ginsberg, executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. The potential danger, he said, is putting 3- and 4-year-olds in front of a computer lesson that demands graphic skills or word- recognition knowledge for which they are not ready.
Still, Ginsberg said, more educators are using technology creatively and appropriately.