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
- 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.
- Sulix is Hungarian distribution to use in school to learn use computer and other subjects. It has a complementer Suli-server for collaboration work with the teacher and pupils in the classroom.
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, 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.
AbulÉdu is a French Linux distribution, specifically designed for data processing in educational establishments. Originally based on Mandrake Linux, the most recent releases are based on Debian GNU/Linux and KNOPPIX.
ADIOS boot CD is a Fedora-based live and installation CD with support for User Mode Linux (UML) virtual machines, further enhanced by Linux Intrusion Detection System (LIDS) and SELinux (Security Enhanced Linux). The live CD, which includes the KDE desktop environment, uses a compressed loopback filesystem.
Alinex, developed by the Universidade de Évora, is a Ubuntu-based Portuguese Linux distribution designed for the students of the university. It includes an easy installation program, complete localisation into Portuguese, and all the necessary software the university students might need to develop new applications.
ALT Linux was founded in 2001 by a merge of two large Russian free software projects. By the year 2008 it became a large organization developing and deploying free software, writing documentation and technical literature, supporting users, and developing custom products. ALT Linux produces different types of distributions for various purposes. There are desktop distributions for home and office computers and for corporate servers, universal distributions that include a wide variety of development tools and documentation, certified products, distributions specialized for educational institutions, and distributions for low-powered computers. ALT Linux has its own development infrastructure and repository called Sisyphus, which provides the base for all the different editions of ALT Linux.
Damn Vulnerable Linux (DVL) is a Slackware and Slax-based live DVD. The distribution, purposefully stuffed with broken, ill-configured, outdated and exploitable software, began life as a training system used during the author's university lectures. Its primary goal is to design a Linux system that is as vulnerable as possible -- in order to teach and demonstrate a variety of security topics, including reverse code engineering, buffer overflows, shell code development, web exploitation, and SQL injection.
Edubuntu is a partner project of Ubuntu Linux, a distribution suitable for classroom use. The aim is that an educator with limited technical knowledge and skill will be able to set up a computer lab, or establish an on-line learning environment, in an hour or less, and then administer that environment without having to become a fully-fledged Linux geek.
Foresight Linux is a distribution based on rPath Linux (and its Conary package management), which showcases the latest and greatest from the GNOME project. Some of the more innovative software packages, such as Beagle, Zeroconf and Mono, together with a nice, clean default theme and artwork, are also included.
gnuLinEx is a Linux distribution developed by the Extremadura Regional Government in Spain. gnuLinEx is based on Debian GNU/Linux, a distribution that, thanks to its design, makes it easy to create other distributions that can inherit its advantages and get rid of some of its faults (for example, the difficulty of setup and configuration). By using a modified Debian distribution, the Extremadura Regional Government has benefited from the fact that there is a large amount of varied software for it.
Guadalinex is a Linux distribution based on Ubuntu and developed by the government of Andalucía (Junta de Andalucía) in Spain.
Karoshi is a free and open source school server operating system based on PCLinuxOS. Karoshi provides a simple graphical interface that allows for quick installation, setup and maintenance of a network.
KnoSciences is a Knoppix-based bootable CD with a collection of GNU/Linux software, automatic hardware detection, and support for many graphics cards, sound cards, SCSI and USB devices and other peripherals. It is designed for use in educational institutions.
Linux From Scratch (LFS) is a project that provides you with the steps necessary to build your own custom Linux system. There are a lot of reasons why somebody would want to install an LFS system. The question most people raise is "why go through all the hassle of manually installing a Linux system from scratch when you can just download an existing distribution like Debian or Redhat". That is a valid question which I hope to answer for you. The most important reason for LFS's existence is teaching people how a Linux system works internally. Building an LFS system teaches you about all that makes Linux tick, how things work together, and depend on each other. And most importantly, how to customize it to your own taste and needs.
Linux-EduCD is a PCLinuxOS-based live DVD developed by Poland's SIMP Studium Techniki. It focuses on education, graphics, office and multimedia use and is designed specifically for use in Polish educational institutions.
LliureX is a project of the Council of Culture, Education and Sport at the Municipality of Valencia, Spain. The LliureX distribution is an Edubuntu-based live and installation DVD with support for Valencian (a dialect of Catalan) and Spanish. It is intended as an operating system for educational institutions in the Valencia region. LliureX uses exclusively Free Software and is distributed free of charge.
MINIX is a UNIX-like computer operating system based on a microkernel architecture. It is extremely small, with the part that runs in kernel mode in about 5,000 lines of source code, while the parts that run in user mode are divided into small, insulated modules which enhance system reliability. Originally designed as an educational tool, the latest versions of MINIX are also targetted at embedded systems and low-power laptops. By the project's own admission, MINIX is work in progress and is nowhere near as mature as BSD or Linux. It is released under a BSD-type licence.
One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) is an initiative to build a low-cost laptop computer with a pre-installed operating system and applications designed for children in developing countries. The operating system is a Linux-based solution, a heavily customised edition of Fedora Core with a special graphical user interface called Sugar. Among applications, the system includes a web browser built on Xulrunner, a simple document viewer based on Evince; the AbiWord word processor, an RSS reader, email, chat and VOIP clients, a multimedia authoring and playback environment, a music composition toolkit, graphics toolkits, games, a shell, and a debugger.
PAIPIX is a compilation of free software, based on Debian Live, that is meant to be used in any environment, but with special vocation for educational use in the information and instrumentation technologies. It is developed by the College of Sciences at the University of Lisbon.
Qimo 4 Kids is a distribution of Linux, derived from the popular Ubuntu, customised for use by children ages 3 and up. It comes pre-installed with free and open source games that are both educational and entertaining, with many more educational titles available for download from Ubuntu. The interface of Qimo 4 Kids has been specifically designed to be easy to navigate by the youngest of users.
Skolelinux is the Debian-edu project's Custom Debian Distribution (CDD) in development. It is aiming to provide an out-of-the-box localised environment tailored for schools and universities. The out-of-the-box environment comes with 75 applications aimed at schools, as well as 15 network services pre-configured for a school environment. The simple, three-question installation requires minimal technical knowledge. Skolelinux is Debian, which means, among other things, that there are no license costs or worries, and that upgrade and maintenance of the software can be done over the Internet with the power of Debian's apt-get. The core goals of Skolelinux are localisation and ease of system administration.
Trisquel GNU/Linux is a 100% libre Ubuntu-based Linux distribution with support for the Galician language, as well as Spanish, Catalan, Euskaraz and English. Its main purpose is to provide an operating system for varied audience, including home and office users, educational institutions, multimedia workstations, etc. The project is developed by the Universidad de Vigo and sponsored by the Council for Innovation and Industry of the regional government of Galicia, Spain.
VNLinux consists of two subprojects - vnlinuxCD and VNLS (VNLinux Secure). vnlinuxCD is a Vietnamese Linux live CD based on Mandriva Linux and designed for desktop use. Its default desktop environment is GNOME and it can be installed on hard disk with a simple installation wizard. VNLS is a server oriented distribution based on EnGarde Secure Linux designed for Vietnamese users.