September 17, 2004

Linux can give kids an edge

Author: Rob Reilly

Have you ever thought about turning your kid into a computer geek? While we might not want to go quite that far, as savvy future professionals, they'll no doubt need wide ranging computer skills. Linux offers youngsters a richly featured, comprehensive, hands-on environment that they can use to learn about applications, networks, servers, and how to make it all work together. If you work with them, you can even start to instill some of your hard-earned business acumen, as well.

My eight-year-old daughter Katie and I put together an old 200MHz Pentium desktop with 128MB of memory, an 8MB video card, generic sound card, 10/100 network card, and SUSE Linux 8.2 Professional for her to use as her machine. I ran a Cat-5 cable from her computer to my router so she can get to her favorite Web pages, as well as my internal file and Web servers. From this she discovered what a network is, saw how to log into a remote machine, learned how to copy a file from a remote machine, and began to grasp the multi-user concept.

My daughter has always been pretty creative and wanted to write stories. (I wonder where that came from?) Over the course of a few weeks, she has used OpenOffice.org to write several one-page original stories about horses, dolls, and so on. She's pretty good at basic sentence structure and can spell lots of words. I turned on AutoSpellCheck so she'd be alerted with a red squiggly underline when her phonetic spelling wasn't quite right. Being pretty traditional, I have AutoCorrect turned off and insist that she use a real dictionary to look up the correct spelling of words.

Her latest project, a brochure, started out as a template on my laptop. I demonstrated how to use SSH from her machine to find the brochure template on my laptop in my office and then used SCP to copy it over. She began to grasp the multi-user concept.

Guess why she wants to do a brochure? So she can hand them out and take orders for her artwork on the Internet. We've come a long way from the old corner lemonade stand days.

At some point we'll put the Web pages on my ISP's servers. We're going to get the site worked out right here on our internal network, as a learning experience. Then, we'll roll it over and maintain it from her machine.

I'm going to show her how to use OpenOffice.org's HTML save function. We might also try out Mozilla Composer and Nvu, for WYSIWYG Web page creation. Perhaps we'll write the basic content in Openoffice.org Writer, then save it as text and finally add a few paragraph and other simple HTML tags using the Bluefish Editor. Seeing the general layout of real-life HTML, with some Q&A, will help her better understand how the Web server/browser paradigm works.

Eventually we'll upload the HTML files to one of my internal Web servers using either SCP or gFTP. Guess we'd better set up an FTP server on that Web server box -- another chance for her to learn something. Finally, she'll then be able to use Mozilla on her desktop to see the results.

Other tools we'll might learn about include The Gimp graphics editor, remote desktops (like VNC), OpenOffice.org Calc, and setting up a remote file server. It will probably be a couple of years until she has an interest in PostgreSQL and PHP. I'm only partly kidding.

A standard Linux CD set gives a young person just about every imaginable computing tool. While your youngsters may not need to be a super techno whiz when it comes to computers, giving them a view of the multi-user networked world at a young age puts them that much farther ahead of kids that were brought up on, shall we say, less capable platforms.

Related Sites:


Doc Searls muses about curiosity of kids and power of Linux as a building material.


Story about 4 year old on Linux


Story about Linux in Hawaiian schools


Kids in Ghana learn computer skills while using the MIT Fab Lab

Rob Reilly is a professional technology writer and consultant whose articles appear in various Linux media outlets. He offers professional writing and seminar services on Linux desktop applications, portable computing, and presentation technology. He's always interested in covering cool Linux stories.

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