Linux

Linux and kids: What are the best ways to teach children about open source?

How does the open source community encourage the next generation to use Linux and open source software? Read about the just-for-kids Qimo distribution and recommend your own resources.
A lot of the news I come across is contentious -- of the Linux vs. Microsoft variety -- and then there are the lawsuits, claims and counterclaims, and forum flame-throwing that go along with it. That's why I was charmed by this little story by columnist Mike Cassidy from last week's Southern California Linux Expo about three young girls who submitted proposals for their own presentations. Sisters Saskia and Malakai Wade (ages 8 and 12, respectively) and friend Mirano Cafiero (also age 12) talked about Gimp, TuxPaint, and OLPC XO computers. Malakai showed a stop-action Barbie video that she made with OpenShot.

The girls inherited their interests from their fathers, both active in the world of open source. Cassidy writes:

In fact, the Cafiero and Wade families might offer a hint to educators and hiring managers who've puzzled over the problem of the low percentage of women working in high-tech fields. Mirano said her father's fascination with open source has inspired her. It's helped her figure out what she can do and what she wants to do.

This story made me wonder what kinds of programs and opportunities are out there in the Linux community that are just for kids. Apart from enthusiasts getting their own kids involved at home, are there special projects aimed at teaching children about Linux and open source software?

One thing I found was the Qimo desktop operating system, based on Ubuntu, and designed just for kids. You can download it here.

Qimo
It requires a minimum of 256MB of memory to run from the CD, or 192MB to install and at least 6GB of hard drive space is recommended, with a 400MHz or faster CPU. From the FAQ on the site:

Qimo was designed to be a standalone home computer for kids, rather than a networked classroom computer. The interface for Qimo is designed to be easy enough for a 3 year old to use, without having to navigate menus or manage multiple open windows. Also, Qimo will also run from a LiveCD, and doesn't require an existing Ubuntu installation the way Edubuntu does.

Have you introduced any little ones to Qimo or other Linux-based OSs? What are the best resources, games, programs and projects for children, and what age groups would you recommend them for?

About

Selena has been at TechRepublic since 2002. She is currently a Senior Editor with a background in technical writing, editing, and research. She edits Data Center, Linux and Open Source, Apple in the Enterprise, The Enterprise Cloud, Web Designer, and...

34 comments
lefrog.ca
lefrog.ca

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GCompris I've started to use that software with my daughter since she 2 1/2 years old. Obviously I started with the activities for that group age (mostly getting a hand on clicking things) but now we moved to the more advance stuff. She is now 5 and still say ask to play some games with me from time to time. She like's it and learn more and more.

sonicsteve
sonicsteve

At home my kids are using standard Ubuntu. My 7 year old learned just by watching me, I never taught him to click places, then videos to find his media. I would load it for him in the past now he does it himself. In the past I gave him a few 10sec. tutorials but I didn't sit him down in a seminar and teach him the ins and outs of Ubuntu. He just figured it out. I would bet that he couldn't find his media on a windows computer. I think that if you make them "kids" versions they won't learn computer basics. I don't see the point of such versions. Why over simplify? How hard is it to click places>videos? I believe it's far more intuitive than Windows. I know many people who don't understand how to browse a file manager in windows, or even how to get to the file manager, and likely wouldn't know one if they were starring at it. I vote let the kids at it, as is.

lgarbarini
lgarbarini

Tell the Kids its free, many people I know like to use free software because of the fact that licenses of other software costs $400. Also, instead of spending money on a Windows Upgrade to get that extra feature show them linux.

scoopboys
scoopboys

The way to get kids to learn about Open Source technologies is to make them good enough to be used in the mainstream. I wasn't taught how to use a Betamax video player because they never caught on. An earlier comment stated "kids will learn how to use Windows at school". Actually, no. My kids learn how to use Mac at school. They learn to use Windows because it is the predominant OS in the world. They learn to use Firefox because it is a good browser. I don't want to indoctrinate them, I want them to learn about useful things. If open source technologies become mainstream (Firefox has), you won't need to take special steps to teach kids how to use them. If they don't, why would you want to teach them?

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

My aproach for my little Hacker Larva is the same as in some multi-lingual households. The children will learn english at school so speak the non-english first language at home. If you have relatives who speak a third language, have them speak it tot he children. In like fashion; they'll learn Windows in school so you may as well introduce them to other OS platforms at home. They won't fall behind the other kids and will be able to sit down to any OS platform and work with it. The hope is for kids that can't use a computer because it doesn't have a Win7 or X logo during bootup. In the past I've considered Shugar (OLPC) and some other children's interfaces but have been watching this particular distribution since it popped up in the news a while back. I've actually been considering an old CF-27 notebook as it'll take a heck of a beating from the little tykes also.

Madsmaddad
Madsmaddad

One thing that I have noted in reading all these comments is that this is an international thing. It is not a case of one country does it correctly and the rest are MS Zombies. PM.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

It was a little scary to see my little one pick up the Iphone, flip between menus to where the kids games are and even intuitively know to turn it sideways for specific widescreen games. There is something to be said for a generations intuitive understanding of it's current technology. If we had a touchscreen notebook, the little one would probably have it mastered also. We're still at the stage of making the mouse to pointer connection natural.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

Some families are driving families, some are computer families, some are art families. There is usually a noticeable difference between someone who learned business versus grew up in a business management type family. I don't see it as an indiscrimination so much as being used to the general home environment. I do agree that a child shouldn't be pushed into an interest in technology and that if the parent's idea is to "add another one for our side" then they should reconsider why they are pushing there kids. Going back to the language example; they will learn English in school and through it's "market majority share" in general public. Speak a different language at home and they'll pick it up as naturally as any first language. At home, we're a computer family and having at least three different OS around the house is just normal. The one thing I would argue is your considering learning about alternative OS invalid unless the meat some retail market share threshhold. Even understanding a less popular OS can greatly benefit understanding and user of the popular ones. Good habits from one can be used on the other. I've ported good user habits from Windows to the other OS I work with as much as taking ideas from them back to Windows usage. With your example of VHS vs Beta; the differences are purely technical. There is no difference in user interface because a tape is VHS or Beta formatted; the triangle button still makes it play. By contrast, consider people that can't use Word on osX because they've always used Word on Windows and they now perceive it as different just because of the OS it's on top of. People are not going to get hung up on "but it's not a VHS, how do I insert it into the VCR?" where they will get thrown off because the desktop theme is different from what they are used too on a computer. That sort of brittle ability to use a computer is the real tragedy.

kent.manley
kent.manley

My kids have "suffered" through a migration off Windows to Mac OS X on an eMac, and now are using Ubuntu 9.x on Compaq laptop hand-me-down. I mentioned to my daughter the other day that I thought it was cool she used Linux, and her response was that she prefers it [having had experience with "all three" OS's]. I think parents likely are over-thinking this as a problem. So far, we haven't needed any special kid-friendly programs, just an occasional hand solving technical problems (Flash in Firefox, setting up with new wireless networks, and that sort of thing).

mcpudding
mcpudding

My kids have never seen Windows at home in their lives, they only saw Debian GNU/Linux. I never used any special kids version of something and my kids never cared. My kids do not really care whether they use Windows or Linux. They do use Windows at school, but for them its just another program for getting their things done. I have more or less the same experience as you. It is like a second language from home. You just speak it without knowing you ever learned it. Sometimes they have software they see at friends or school which they can not run at home. Only then I explain the difference between Linux, Windows and Open Source and then they grasp the idea of Open Source and think it is the right way to go. They even accept the fact that they will never use that piece of software only running on Windows.

Tom-Tech
Tom-Tech

There was TV show on in Britain at the end of last year called "Micro Men", about the early days of British computing with Sinclair and Acorn. Originally they were sold as kits to kids to set up and hack about with themselves, obvioudly as limited machines an instruction manual detailing everything you could do was never going to be *that* big. The point is though, originally they were conceptually the same as engineering toys like Meccano or Erector Set. To get kids involved in open source then, I think we need to start in a similar way, with versions of Linux OS's that can run inside a windows OS without requiring a dual boot system etc. Something sandboxed from the rest so they can mess around to their hearts content without breaking the family PC. I think something with a good, toy/entertainment-like application would be good, maybe along the lines of Lego Mindstorms.

mewombat
mewombat

... my 3yr old daughter uses my HTC Tattoo running Android (Linux based), my eeePC (now running XUbuntu) and my wife's Vista laptop. Admittedly not very well but she took to the KidsPaint on the mobile like a duck to water, and ususally asks for Dancing Penguins on my eee after I showed her some on youtube. More to the point, she doesn't know or care what operating system is up as long as she can do things she likes, and as she can't read yet, would have very little idea what it all meant anyway! Sorry this got a bit rambly, The Wombat

seanferd
seanferd

That's what needs to be learnt. Not specifically how to find something in a menu in one OS or app (which will change when the next version is released anyway). Just because some adults are so stuck in a rut that they cannot "figure out" an OS or app from a different source, it doesn't mean that kids growing up with them can't understand them all. Actually, they do this routinely. Consider just one semi-related example, aside from languages: They learn how to play video games with different UIs on different game systems regularly.

jay.sanders
jay.sanders

I couldn't agree more about people overthinking this as a problem. I have Ubuntu on a laptop - While I wasn't even in the room my 7 year old daughter was able to work out how to hook up a projector so she could "play games on the big screen" When I asked her how - she just said "Wasn't hard - I just figured it out" I recently bought a eeePC - the one with the linux distro loaded. The machine was delivered around lunch time while I was at work. By the time I got home both my kids (4 and 7 yr old girls) had it all worked out....they were giving me a demonstration of all the cool stuff it could do and had worked out how to make it play the installed games and how to install new ones (they had installed so many games before I even got home the 4GB hard drive was chock full) When its ALL new your not looking for things that are familiar to help you along - instead you just "work it out" I even got extra "cool Dad" credits - they had been using Tuxpaint at my kids school and I was able to install it on the windows machine, the ubuntu machine and the eeePC (not sure what that distro is called)

lastchip
lastchip

You've hit the nail on the head. There is no problem, unless you make one. In my home at the moment, I have eight computers, (including a Debian server) with a mix of Windows and Linux systems. All my family happily use any of the systems that happens to be handy. In fact, the Linux Mint laptop, probably gets the most use of all, along with the Debian machine I'm using to write this. If I break it down, I hardly use Windows, other than to directly print CD's. My son, a semi-pro photographer, uses Photoshop on a Windows XP machine, as he prefers it to the GIMP. That will be very much, a what you're used to situation, as I'm quite happy using the GIMP. But have to concede, the GIMP doesn't quite have the colour capability of Photoshop. I don't have a problem with that. It's horses for courses!

lastchip
lastchip

Elsewhere on this site, the question was asked: Is Microsoft a monopoly? In my view it is. Why? Because they have the OEM's tied up, education tied up and most businesses tied up. And this is the problem. When you expose children from a young age to the "Microsoft experience", they will never know anything else; and that is wrong. Not only in software, but anything else in life. Part of growing up is learning "differences". The difference between right and wrong, sweet and sour, life and death and the differences between software shouldn't be excluded from that. For the purposes of clarification, this is not a rant about Microsoft, but it is in my view, a very important aspect of education and one at the moment, that on the whole, is being ignored.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

That's my goal; comfortable use regardless of branding. If my little ones take after my computer interests, I'll guide them into the deeper system details. Until then, it's just usage without a brand crutch. I don't expect everyone to become a licensed F-1 driver; I only expect they learn to drive.

frt975
frt975

Ubuntu offers wubi which is basically dual-booting without grub and different partitions. Or you might be thinking of a virtual machine. Try Virtual Box and install whatever distro you'd like.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

VMs could be done on any host platform so I don't know that a Linux based distro sandboxed inside Windows is particularly important. Another option would be liveCDs that reboot to a fresh image after the child has chewed the previous boot-up. You'd want a distribution that didn't make it easy to format the HDD or install to the local drive though. There are also some great children focused game and learning suites in the distribution repositories.

neill.wilkinson
neill.wilkinson

I'm with you on that one - I remember having to glue the oh so expansive (16k) RAM pack to my ZX81 to stop it working loose and crashing the machine when I typed basic code out on the membrane keyboard! On a more serious note - VMWare Player is free - So Easy to to set-up a Linux environment on an existing PC. Neill....;o)

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

The big draw with Qimo for me is more the preinstalled suite of kids applications. The desktop is essentially a standard versus some specific children's interface like Sugar. The puzzle game has been the most popular so far. Qimo maintainers need to do something about sound volumes though. If your trying it, be sure to set the master volume to medium or low. It seems game and master volumes are all maxed out.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

It's early so I may be committing PBC (posting before coffee) but what do automation tools have to do with teaching? A teaching automation tool would seem to be pre-fabricated lesson plans or computer hosted tutorials that free the teacher from guiding the class. For a cabinetmaker, the profession's activity is assembling cabinets so wood working tools would be more applicable to understand than accounting or cooking tools that don't relate to the profession. The subject matter is wood working so things outside of that should not expected. For a teacher, the profession's activity is educating the students. That would assume a minimum amount of knowledge about the subject matter. Shop teachers have to be able to use the tools they teach. Science teachers usually have a fairly good grasp of the subject matter. The shop teacher is not limited to understanding Black&Decker tools only. The science teacher is not limited to a specific shape of beaker. Why is it acceptable for the computer teacher to barely understand only a single brand of word processor?

kent.manley
kent.manley

"Any competent teacher, should have no problem at all." Therein lies the rub. Competence at teaching and subject matter expertise do not necessarily translate to being good at using automation tools. I'm good at it because I use automation tools/computers/databases/stuff to get my work done all the time. Were I a cabinetmaker running a business, I'd be all about the band saw and not so much about the QuickBooks and the computer it runs upon.

lastchip
lastchip

And the point is, if we talk about word processors, the difference between MS Office and Open Office these days, is minimal. Any competent teacher, should have no problem at all.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I am far from old enough to have "back in my day" complaints nor did I particularly enjoy school but even I have a laundry list of issues with the current education system.

seanferd
seanferd

they don't even teach them how to use the required brand very well, anyway. My favorite is when they protect a document on a school computer, then bring it home and try to edit it...

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

A carpenter doesn't become lost because the hammer happens to be a Snap-on branded model while they learnt on a Black&Decker branded model. General principals are very sorely lacking from our "brand'em young" computer classes. Sadly, this would also require the teachers to learn more than one OS to at least the minimum to be able to effectively teach it. "I can't use this, we had Word at my school" - who cares, it's a freaking word processor and your writing a basic letter; get on with it.

lastchip
lastchip

It's exactly the same here in the UK. My daughter is a computer science graduate, who now teaches ITC at "A" level. She's tied to strict syllabuses and with very little spare teaching time, it's all centred around Microsoft products. Her prime objective after all, is to try and help the kids get the best grade they can. She does what she can to make the kids aware that other software is available, but..... So don't blame your wife or my daughter. They are doing what they can within the confines of their workplace and in accordance with their brief. It is the hierarchy of education that should be taken to task and asked; what the hell are you doing?

itadmin
itadmin

One has to ask why do these institutions supply these eventually Microsoft prisoners to Microsoft. Of course, they get free or ridiculously cheap deals and don't look beyond the tips of their noses. They don't ask why does Microsoft do this. Recently a church college proudly announced their deal with Microsoft. In NSW, Australia school students from a certain year up each gets a laptop running MS, of course, with a lot of other applications, like Adobe something. Lots of stuff to do with graphics. My wife is a teacher and has one as well. If one looks beyond the surface this is actually immoral - delivering future customers to Microsoft. Microsoft has good business sense. It's these dummies who are to blame.

Tom-Tech
Tom-Tech

...that means relying on a Linux-based OS being on the machine already. Given that the overwhelming majority of home users / parents will have Windows on their home machines by default, the OS community needs to market themselves directly to kids and offer something easy to get up and running, straight out of the (virtual) box. I'm thinking of something that can be downloaded and installed on Windows as easily as most software, that won't require Mum and Dad to try and tackle a full OS install just to give their kid something to play with.

cives
cives

My opinion is to do just the opposite. If you have Linux in a Virtual Machine inside Windows, kids will seldom use it (I think). My point of view would be to install a Windows VM on a Linux OS. That way if they want to use the Windows they will necessarily have to learn how to access it through the basic Linux menus, and that will be a very important first step won to our side. From that on, they could probably continue investigating other options, at the same time that they use the Windows VM. But there should always be a Linux OS in the background. Otherwise we will never transmit a spirit of open-source to anyone if we are not credible enough by showing that our main OS is other than Linux.

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