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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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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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