Kids and Penguins Go Great Together

I recently took possession of a pair of older PCs – the natural consequence of nagging one’s older relatives to get something a little more “post-Columbian” – and of course my first instinct is to refurbish one as a Linux PC for my nephew and niece, ages 7 and 5. My nephew, especially, is computer-obsessed, and I figure that giving him a complete child-friendly, education-focused PC might encourage some more productive “play” than he gets using mom and dad’s PC.

Kid-Friendly Linux Distributions

Believe it or not, there are several distributions of Linux intended for use by children as young as 3 years old. Child-oriented Linux distros tend to have a simplified interface with large, “chunky”, colorful icons and a specialized set of programs designed with kids in mind. Some of the better-known distributions aimed at children include:

  • Sugar, the operating system designed for the One Laptop Per Child project. Sugar is a radical departure from traditional desktops, with a strong emphasis on teaching programming skills, but is very strongly geared towards classroom use. Although I’m pretty comfortable using Linux, I’m afraid Sugar might be too different for me to help my nephew and niece make use of it.
  • Edubuntu is based on the popular Ubuntu distribution. Designed to be easy to install and very Windows-like in its operation, Edubuntu would be my first choice if I were using newer hardware. With its rich graphical interface, though, I worry that these years-old PCs, neither of which have graphic cards, will lag running Edubuntu. And given kids’ attention spans, I’m afraid that would be a major barrier to getting them to use it.
  • LinuxKidX uses a KDE-based desktop highly customized for children, and is based on the Slackware distro. The only drawback for me is that most of the support material is in Portuguese (although the distro I linked to is in English), making it hard for me to be confident about my ability to help if there are any problems.
  • Foresight for Kids is based on Foresight Linux, a distro distinguished by the use of the Conary package manager. Conary is intended to make updates and dependencies much easier to manage than other package managers – in English, it should be easier to install and update software.  On the other hand, finding software packaged for the Conary installer might be a challenge, though I expect the most popular programs are being adapted by the Foresight team.
  • Qimo is another system based on Ubuntu, but designed to be used by a single home user instead of in classroom instruction. The system requirements are fairly low, since it’s designed to be run on donated equipment which Qimo’s parent organization, QuinnCo, distributes to needy kids.

Given the low specs of the equipment I”m working with, Qimo seems idea for me, but since most of these will run from either a Live CD or a USB memory key, there’s no reason not to download them all and give each a try to see what you – and, more importantly, your kids – like best.

Linux Software for Kids

In addition to the kid-friendly interface, all of the distributions above come with an assortment of software that’s either designed especially for kids or has special appeal for kids. This includes specifically educational software intended to teach math, typing, art, or even computer programming; typical productivity applications like word processors and graphics programs; and, of course, games. Of course, Linux doesn’t have nearly the range of games that are available for Windows PCs, but my thinking is, the games are good enough for younger kids, and older kids will gravitate towards consoles (my brother and sister-in-law have a Wii).

Some of the software available for kids includes:

  • GCompris, a set of over 100 educational games intended to teach everything from basic computer use to reading, art history, telling time, and vector drawing.
  • Childsplay is another collection of games, with an emphasis on memory skills.
  • TuxPaint, an amazing drawing program filled with fun sound effects and neat effects.
  • EToys is a scripting environment, more or less. The idea is that kids solve problems by breaking them down into pieces, scripting them, and running their scripts – the same way programmers do. But the goal doesn’t seem to be to teach programming but rather to provide an immersive learning environment in which kids learn foundational thinking skills.
  • SuperTux and Secret Maryo are Super Mario clones, because kids love Super Mario. You already know that.
  • TomBoy, a wiki-like note-taking program.
  • TuxTyping, a typing game intended to help develop basic typing skills.
  • Kalzium is a guide to the periodic table and a database of information about chemistry and the elements. Great for older students.
  • Atomix, a cool little game where kids build molecules out of atoms.
  • Tux of Math Command is an arcade game that helps develop math skills.

Not all distros come with all of these games, but they are easy enough to install from the online repositories if your chosen distro doesn’t come with one or more of them. Of course, most distros also come with standard Linux programs like OpenOffice.org (an Office-like suite of productivity apps), AbiWord (a Word-like word processor), GIMP (a powerful image editor), Pidgin (a multi-account IM client), and Firefox.

Linux is a complex operating system, but it’s also a highly customizable one – for kids, that means a system that can grow as they do and a powerful learning environment. Of course, children’s computer use should not be totally unsupervised – any kid can stumble across Web content that might be pretty uncomfortable for mom and dad to have to explain – but kids should have a chance to explore the possibilities of today’s technology and get their hands dirty, like kids do. And worst-case scenario – your 6-year old borks the operating system and you re-install. Wouldn’t you rather it was on the Edubuntu system, rather than on your mission-critical work PC? (Make sure you back up the /home directory regularly so you don’t lose all your kids’ drawings, poems, stories, or whatever.)

Do you know of other kid=friendly Linux distributions? Have you set up a Linux PC for your kids? Are their other games or programs you’d recommend? Let us know your experiences in the comments.

Update: Comic book writer Jeremiah Gray emailed me after this post came out to tell me about his series of Ubuntu-oriented Linux tutorials published in comic book format, Hackett and Bankwell. You can order printed copies or download PDF versions fro free from the website, and each is heavily supplemented with links to related resources on the Web. And they’re not bad reading, either! Looks like a great way to get kids (and even adults) up to speed with Linux.

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