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Linux for Children

Linux for Children

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.

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    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.

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    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:

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    • 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.)

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    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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    Last Updated on July 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

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    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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