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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 February 25, 2020

    Face Adversity with a Smile

    Face Adversity with a Smile

    I told my friend Graham that I often cycle the two miles from my house to the town centre but unfortunately there is a big hill on the route. He replied, ‘You mean fortunately.’ He explained that I should be glad of the extra exercise that the hill provided.

    My attitude to the hill has now changed. I used to grumble as I approached it but now I tell myself the following. This hill will exercise my heart and lungs. It will help me to lose weight and get fit. It will mean that I live longer. This hill is my friend. Finally as I wend my way up the incline I console myself with the thought of all those silly people who pay money to go to a gym and sit on stationery exercise bicycles when I can get the same value for free. I have a smug smile of satisfaction as I reach the top of the hill.

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    Problems are there to be faced and overcome. We cannot achieve anything with an easy life. Helen Keller was the first deaf and blind person to gain a University degree. Her activism and writing proved inspirational. She wrote, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved.”

    One of the main determinants of success in life is our attitude towards adversity. From time to time we all face hardships, problems, accidents, afflictions and difficulties. Some are of our making but many confront us through no fault of our own. Whilst we cannot choose the adversity we can choose our attitude towards it.

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    Douglas Bader was 21 when in 1931 he had both legs amputated following a flying accident. He was determined to fly again and went on to become one of the leading flying aces in the Battle of Britain with 22 aerial victories over the Germans. He was an inspiration to others during the war. He said, “Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t do this or that. That’s nonsense. Make up your mind, you’ll never use crutches or a stick, then have a go at everything. Go to school, join in all the games you can. Go anywhere you want to. But never, never let them persuade you that things are too difficult or impossible.”

    How can you change your attitude towards the adversity that you face? Try these steps:

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    1. Confront the problem. Do not avoid it.
    2. Deliberately take a positive attitude and write down some benefits or advantages of the situation.
    3. Visualise how you will feel when you overcome this obstacle.
    4. Develop an action plan for how to tackle it.
    5. Smile and get cracking.

    The biographies of great people are littered with examples of how they took these kinds of steps to overcome the difficulties they faced. The common thread is that they did not become defeatist or depressed. They chose their attitude. They opted to be positive. They took on the challenge. They won.

    Featured photo credit: Jamie Brown via unsplash.com

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