How It All Started
Two years ago, we had our first bundle of joy. In this blog entry, I’m going to talk about what happened when our little boy, who was a bright and bubbly 1-year-old at the time, was handed a laptop installed with Linux for Learners.
Why Linux for Learners?
Kids love anything they can get their hands on, including parents’ computers. By the time our newborn learned how to crawl, every time I pulled out my computer to look up something on the internet or work on a program I was writing at home, his little antennae would go up like a spaceship, and he’d squiggle his way on over to me and my laptop to see what was up. I kept my cool when he beat my keyboard like it was some kind of baby drum. I turned the other cheek when he attempted to hijack my mouse. What really chapped my caboose was when he reached for that shiny, green power button. Daddy says NO! Then there was that time he tried to press the Delete button when I was working on my home server’s shared folder－babies can be terrifying.
I was in a pickle. I thought and thought about what I could do to keep my child from ruining my work life. That’s when I came up with the idea to give my baby boy his very own computer. I pulled out my wife’s old laptop and set to work figuring out what I needed to do to make this brilliant idea a reality. Her laptop already had Windows Vista installed, but it was a bit too complicated for a wee 1 year old. I knew in my heart I needed to give him an OS so simple that even a child could use it. I started looking for one immediately.
It was the perfect opportunity to try out that Linux for Learners everyone has been jabbering about.
Linux: There’s a Distro for Everyone
This Linux distro is a customized educational version of Ubuntu. As of the time I’m writing this blog, the most current version of Edubuntu uses Ubuntu 14.04 as its base. It’s often combined with low-spec computers, using them as a thin client to make the magic happen. It's especially suited for the classroom environment. Several educational applications are bundled into Edubuntu that target the 6 to 18-year-old demographic.
Check it out for yourself here:
Here’s a screenshot of a live DVD running on a VM.
Imagine, if you will, a satchel full of educational applications and classroom network admin tools added to the regular version of Ubuntu. That’s Edubuntu. Pretty neat stuff, really.
This little gem is a Linux distro based on Knoppix.
As the name suggests, KnoSciences is pre-installed with a wide range of science and math-related applications.
This one’s an educational distro based on Debian. Some call it DebianEdu. Either way, Skolelinux makes it extremely easy to set up an educational-oriented network via a thin client-server setup, much like Edubuntu.
Sugar on a Stick
This intriguing Fedora-based distro takes the OS developed for the One Laptop Per Child project and lets you run it on a single USB stick. It comes with a unique application cluster called Activity.
Unlike other Linux distros, this one comes with its own unique environment.
First and foremost, I needed a simple OS with an intuitive and consistent UI. The last thing I needed was a bunch of “metaphors” cluttering up the desktop, making it hard for my kid to learn. I also wanted something with big UI elements that are easy enough for, well you know, a kid to understand.
Though I was looking for something simple that didn’t require the OS to do much (i.e., I didn’t need a bunch of applications), I wanted an environment that allowed for the creation of original content. I also wanted to give my child the opportunity to use a Terminal that allowed him to interact with a CUI. In other words, I wanted to experience programming at a fundamental level.
Lastly, using a browser for the network was fine, but I needed the shared network to be hidden to keep my child from messing with our home network. I made sure this was airtight before I handed the keys over to my son.
Sugar It Is!
At the end of the day, the OS that met all of the above requirements was Sugar on a Stick, so I decided to go with that.
What Sugar is Good At
Pre-installed apps and UI have a consistent look and feel.
It’s simple enough for a child to understand.
There are big, easy-to-use icons.
Single-task orientation only displays the activity currently in use on the screen.
Console can be called from the standard menu.
It comes with a simple IDE for programming in Python, a LOGO-like programming language, and Squeak.
The features used to connect with NAS that I was worried about can be hidden via the console. Such features can also be hidden by switching the WindowManager to Gnome. (Sugar does not include an interface for his.)
You can view and edit the source code for each activity right from the start!
What Sugar is Bad At
You can’t type in Japanese without doing a little extra work. (Not a problem if you’re not typing in Japanese.)
Compared to other Linux distros, the things you can do with Sugar is fairly limited.
Since it all comes down to personal preference at the end of the day, I decided to go with Sugar.
Installing Sugar on the Machine
You can view the instructions for installing Sugar here. There’s a couple of different ways to do it, but I went with the USB stick + Windows machine method.
First, I downloaded the image of the USB-version of Sugar on a Stick. You’ll need a USB with at least 2GB of space on it.
Next, I downloaded Fedora Live USB Creator and used it to create an image of Sugar on a Stick on my USB stick. This creates a portable version of Sugar that can be booted directly from your USB stick.
I could’ve run Sugar right off my USB stick. However, since I had the time, I installed it directly onto the hard drive. I plugged in my USB stick, started up Sugar on a Stick, and opened Terminal.
Last but certainly not least, I called the Fedora installer with the all-too familiar command,
to install Sugar on a Stick.
When you first install Sugar, the login screen will come up by default, forcing users to enter their password every time they log in. Most of the time that’s fine. However, this posed quite the challenge for my young son, who had yet to learn his way around a keyboard. I changed the settings so that the computer automatically logged into my son’s account on startup.
I went to Terminal, su’d my way to root, then went inside /etc/lightdm/lightdm.conf and set autologin-user to my kid’s account.
Did He Like It?
It’s been almost a year since I gave my son a computer with Sugar on a Stick on it. What have I learned from this little experiment?
It seems to me he thinks of his computer as a special kind of toy. I mean, I’m pretty sure he likes it. He’s got a laptop just like daddy does, and he feels like a big boy carrying it around just like mom and dad.
His favorite apps are Analog Clock and Speak, a little program that automatically says the words you type.
He hasn’t figured out how to click with the slide pad yet, so he still has to rely on mommy and daddy’s help to open apps. I really should’ve just gotten him a mouse. Maybe even a touch pad would’ve been better. He’s starting to get the hang of the alphabet, and it seems like he’s beginning to realize what the keyboard is for.
At the very least, his computer is one of his favorite toys. As a parent, I’m going to sit back and watch carefully how things go from here.
If you’re wondering if my son has stopped trying to mess with MY computer, don’t worry. He still tries to get his hands on my laptop every chance he gets. Lately, he’s been especially adamant about stealing my Surface Pro 3 pen whenever my back is turned. It’s a mild annoyance I have learned to live with. As my child grows up, he’s going to become interested in more and more things. I’ll just have to grow and adapt my method of thinking along with him. Being a parent is kind of challenging and awesome that way.
If you’re thinking of getting your kid a computer for a Christmas present this year, then this blog just may hit the spot.
Until then, happy parenting!