Wednesday, January 4, 2017

In search of a Linux distro for a kindergarten kid

tl;dr


I gave up and made my own kid-friendly install nominally based on Ubuntu. That took a few hours and is a hell of a lot more interesting than researching distros for children.

I do a wrap up at the end, go read that if you hate multi-syllabic sentences.

Never Mind All That: Introduction


It's not easy to say when the best time is to meaningfully introduce a computer into a child's life. At age 3 they already have a pretty good handle on navigating YouTube and a tablet. I'm not an advocate of getting kids into computers as early as possible, despite being a tech geek. In any event, I recently found myself hunting for a Linux distro for kids.

Kids Need to Know the Linux, Right?


I wasn't sure that there were any kid-friendly distros when I started my search, but I quickly found several prominent blog posts that pointed to a number of 'kids' and 'educational' distros. These posts generally spend a good deal of time waxing lyrical over how learning Linux was of paramount importance. I don't know that I followed these arguments.

In general you're putting a child down in front of a graphical user interface. You don't expect your 5 year old to run the Ubuntu package manager or need them to figure out how to get Eclipse's bash interpreter to work. Using a GUI is not learning open source; it simply helps a kid come to grips with the oddball ways that adults structure the world.

What Do You Need? 


My expectations for a distro aimed at a kindergarten aged child were along these lines:
  • Something to keep a 3 to 5 year old entertained. 
  • Educational in nature, but in the form of fun games.
  • Simple to switch on and off.
  • Simple to start and stop applications.
  • Safe web browsing options when browser available.
  • No need to customise applications, i.e. applications 'just work'.
  • Distro is lightweight in size and resource requirements.
The principles were that the distro would run on old hardware. Once running, the child couldn't wreck the whole install simply trying to work how to use (or even just start) an application.

At the start of my search it seemed hopeful, but when I dug into the recommended distros the results were disappointing overall. I share here my notes on each distribution in the hope that it will quickly guide caregivers in the right direction.

Did You Really Try This Carnival of ISOs?


Unless stated otherwise, I tried the distros on a Toshiba Satellite Pro A200 laptop, which is certainly not new hardware, but has capable and fully Linux-supported hardware. The distros were put in front of a 3 year old to gauge response and interest levels.

The Results 


Remember that I'm interested in Kindergarten distros.

Sugar on a Stick

 
Apparently this grew out of the One Laptop Per Child initiative. The GUI concept is inventive, but from personal experience it's not appealing to a youngster. On the live CD, the games appeared to be dry, some application wouldn't start (paint & physics) and the only usable application to keep a 3 year old entertained was "Maze". The project is still alive.

I deemed it unsuitable for the kindergarten age-group, not just because of the applications, but because the test-child took zero interest in the user interface.

Doudou Linux


The project is dead but a live CD image can still be downloaded. The UI is fugly, but I think quite appealing to children. This one really is aimed at youngsters. There's nothing extensible about it and I don't think it can be installed to disk. It's tidily put together (apart from the weird application switching) and not a resource hog - takes about 150MB of memory before an application is launched.

Qimo


The project is dead and the iso image is hard to find but downloadable via torrents, which is how I got my copy (and who knows what else). When you boot the Qimo iso you can decide whether to run as a live CD or install to disk. Based on the applications, tt's suitable for kids starting school. The xfce GUI is nice and the install isn't full of unnecessary applications. It uses 500MB of memory before any applications are started.

Unfortunately the live CD experience was terrible with actual hardware, although worked perfectly in VMWare Workstation. I probably would have installed and used Qimo had the live CD worked well. Since the project is dead, I didn't want to be fighting hardware detection problems on a base install that had no update path.

Also, The Matrix style screensaver rather dates it :-D

I persevered after reading a blog post that Qimo could be installed on Ubuntu using the qimo-session and qimo-wallpaper packages. After trying it for myself, I can tell you that this is no longer the case. Qimo package support was possible in Ubuntu 12 (quite old now), but it is no longer an option.

LinuxKidX


The sourceforge website screenshots look amazing, but there is no official homepage although an old blog still exists. Even the donation link was broken.

The download from sourceforge works. I really like the art concept. I tried this on a VMWare Workstation environment only. The distro appears to be simply a live CD and it suffered from a few technical issues, namely that some applications would not start and I couldn't switch into a getty - if that means something to you, you'll know why it's annoying.

The distro is cute, but it comes with unnecessary applications and has a KDE interface, so this will drag on old hardware. The running memory footprint is 580MB before you even start applications, which makes it one of the more resource hungry distros.

Foresight for Kids


This project is well dead, including the website. I didn't try to find the downloads as the 'top distros for kids' reviews that I read on the website reviews didn't distinguish Foresight as particularly different or special.

As a side note, the reviews always mentioned the Conary package management system, which I'd never heard of. I think that the reason they keep mentioning it was because these reviews eat off each other. The first popular post that mentioned Foresight probably mentioned Conary and because nobody actually tries this stuff before reviewing it. Reviews of Foresight are still appearing on the web even though the distro can't be obtained. And yet. here I am, reviewing Foresight....ugh.


Kiddix


I'm not sure what happened here. The distro got reviews and there is a nice page by the author, but the distro is unobtainable - assuming it ever was a distribution. There's a nice screenshot. This post and similar make me wonder whether it was a cynical vapourware project for someone out to make a quick buck.

Edubuntu


This is a Canonical sourced framework, which is the organisation behind Ubuntu. I didn't try this because I didn't see the need to download gigabytes of installer data for something I already knew was not what I was needed.


What's useful to see is the installation on an existing Ubuntu system on the download page and specifically it's the ubuntu-edu-preschool package which is promising. I've verified that Ubuntu version 16 has this package, so simply installing the latest Ubuntu and then the "edu" package of choice is all you really need to do here.

A quick review of the packages that come down with ubuntu-edu-preschool reveal a few applications that are not bundled with the other distros I looked at, namely: blinken, kanagram, khangman, klettres, ktuberling, and pairs. A few of those are a variety of alphabet drills. All of them are KDE applications and will not run unless the full KDE environment is installed.

The advantages of the Edubuntu route is that the install is easy and that the distribution will be supported long term.

The downsides are that you'll need to install on a device that has some processing power along with ample memory and storage. A young child will not be able to sit down in front of this and intuitively navigate around an Ubuntu system. You get a whole Ubuntu system, not a cut-down kid friendly one.

ubermix



This is a specifically school targeted distro and not kindergarten-kid friendly in any way. It looks like a great high school (college) distribution.


In Summary - Kindergarten


For kindergarten kids the options are limited. There's a niche here waiting to be exploited!
  • Try Doudou and Qimo. Both distros are dead but they may work on your hardware
  • LinuxKidX may work on an old system.

 In Summary - Post Kindergarten


Give the Edubuntu packages a try if you're an Ubuntu user, otherwise ubermix is an interesting and fllexible option especially for your teenager on the go.It'd just be nice to know where they're going, but spyware doesn't seem to be a part of any of these distribiutions.

Altogether Now!

  • Green - Impressive.
  • Yellow - Meh.
  • Red - Not a great option, avoid.
  • Grey - Not evaluated.
  • Black -  Not possible to test

Distro
Ages
Active
Obtainable
Live CD
Local
Friendly
System
Sugar Stick
5+






Doudou
2+






Qimo
2+






LinuxKidX
?






Foresight
?






Kiddix
?






Edubuntu
10+






ubermix
5+








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