April 8, 2004

A babe in Tuxland

Author: Jim Westbrook

You may have heard Linux is difficult to learn and use. Certainly Linux is different, but pointing and clicking work the same regardless of the underlying operating system. My four-year-old granddaughter, K.D., hasn't had any trouble figuring it out, and if she can do it, you can too.

K.D. had watched her mom, my wife, and me using the various Linux-based computers in our home since she was able to sit in our laps while we were at the keyboard. By the time she was two and a half years old, she was "helping" us by moving the mouse or pressing keys on the keyboard -- generally at the most inopportune moments.

When K.D. was three I realized I might reduce maintenance problems by creating a user ID for her. Her mom and I carefully explained that we would be glad to help her use it.

What I had not anticipated was how personally K.D. would take having a user ID of her own. I've since re-learned just how possessive small children can be. We were all surprised when on the second day K.D. asked her mom to log out so that she could have her login. The obvious sense of power and control that having her own user ID gives her is beyond my ability to put into words.

Over the last year and half I have learned a few things about setting up a desktop for a pre-schooler. At the top of this list is to make it simple. Because the rest of us use KDE as our window manager, I set up KDE for K.D. to use too. I removed the print queue icon, the floppy device, and the data CD mount icon from her desktop. I left the icon for playing music CDs so that she could do as mom does and play music while she's at the computer. In an effort to prevent unexpected events, I used the "hide taskbar" feature of KDE to scroll the taskbar off-screen. This keeps the system tools available for her mom or me to use while keeping them out of sight, out of mind, for K.D.

The distribution we use, SUSE 9.0, includes a number of games that K.D. enjoys. She likes KSame, the KDE version of Same Game, which is colorful, has optional sound, and is fun for all ages. It is somewhat like the guitar -- easy to play, difficult to play well. K.D. entertains herself by making the colored balls go away. Another game she enjoys is Xvier, an on-screen version of Connect Four. K.D. has beaten it more often than I have.

I gave K.D. an icon for the Mozilla browser, setting the default homepage to SesameStreet.com, an age-appropriate site her mom selected. The screens are colorful and simple, and the familiar TV characters serve as launch buttons for different subsections of the site. Like the TV program, the Web site manages to be both entertaining and educational. Its use of sound is also very good; it includes simple tunes and speech in the voices from the TV series. K.D. has logged a considerable number of hours on this site and never seems to tire of the activities it provides. I can wholeheartedly recommend this one for pre-school users.

K.D. also has icon on her desktop for KWrite. This gave her a place to type, or at least insert random characters, as she had seen the rest of the family do. By the end of her second day she had created her first "document," which her mom wisely saved in several places. This has become one of the family's prize possessions.

Most recently I added the icon for TuxPaint to K.D.'s desktop. She loves the image stamp feature. By changing colors and stamp image, she has created numerous masterpieces of refrigerator art and her own desktop background. This is another example of K.D. extending her ownership of the computer. Not only is it her login, but it is easily recognizable as her login.

The adults in the family help guide K.D's computing experiences by setting a good example to follow with a few routine practices. These include logging out when we leave the computer for more than a minute or two, closing
applications that we are not actively using, and treating the hardware gently. We praise her on jobs done well, such as winning at KSame or Xvier, and print many of her TuxPaint pictures and display them both at home and at work. We provide assistance if she asks or when we observe that she needs it. And, of course, we brag about her to our friends just loud enough that she knows we are proud of her.

The next time you hear someone say that using Linux is hard, tell them that you know of one four-year-old who has been handling it daily for more than a year. Linux is not hard unless you convince yourself that it is.

Jim Westbrook is a network administrator in Austin, Texas.

Category:

  • Linux
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