February 4, 2003

Tux4Kids + Knoppix = Kids enjoying Linux

- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -

The Open Source Education Foundation and Tux4Kids have made a prototype kid-oriented version of the well-regarded "runs from a CD without installing" Knoppix distribution. It still has some rough edges, but my associate reviewers -- Shantia Younger (age 9) and Earl Holly (age 8) -- both found a lot to like. So did their mom, Alicia Younger (age 27), although she had one major complaint that further development will probably make worse instead of solving.

Alicia's complaint

Throughout our review session, Alicia kept saying things like, "Wait your turn. Earl, let your sister do it for herself," and, "Shantia, you just had a turn at the computer. Go do something else and leave your brother alone."

Alicia's other main comment was, "I'd like to try some of these games and things myself. They look like fun. But I'll never be able to get at the computer while the kids are awake at this rate, and after they go to bed I'll be too tired."

If anything, additional development of this fine effort is going to make Alicia's problem with Tux4Kids software worse, since she is a single mom with a low-level warehouse job and only has a computer because it was given to her free. There is no way she can afford to buy computers for both children and still have one she can use herself to keep accumulating skills that may eventually help her get a better job.

But enough of that. Let's move on to the specific kid-level programs included with this distribution and see what our testers had to say about them.

TuxTyping

TuxTyping is a typing tutorial program with several levels. Shantia proved to be a more proficient typist than Earl, but it seems that although their school has computers and they spend several hours every week in computer classes, they have had no typing instruction at all. This was their first typing tutorial, and they loved its game format, with letters raining down, space-invader style, that could only be stopped by typing the correct one before it hits little cities that surround Tux in his little mission control stand. When you get the right letter, a visible stream of light makes it explode with appropriate sound and graphics.

More advanced levels use whole words, not individual letters. Neither Earl nor Shantia is ready for anything beyond the easiest level, but the game holds their interest well enough that there's a fair chance they will move beyond the lowest level before long.

Adult input was needed to give them the idea of using more than one or two fingers to type, but this is true of almost all kid-level typing tutorial software. The background music seemed sappy and repetitive to adult ears, but Earl and Shantia thought it was fine.

TuxTyping is a mature, totally usable program. Earl and Shantia both gave it a "We want to play with it a lot" rating.

Tux of Math Command

Tux4Kids shows Tux of Math Command as 50% complete. That's about right. Only part of the game is actually usable, but what there is works fine. The concept is identical to TuxTyping: Tux sits in a little control center and you need to type in the answers to arithmetic problems before they fall down on little cities at the bottom of the screen and destroy them.

The problems given in the completed part of the game were too hard for Earl and Shantia. Earl soon resorted to hitting keys at random just to make noise. Shantia tried to do the arithmetic, but was overwhelmed. It would have been better to start out with simple addition and subtraction, two digits or less.

Indeed, this program needs a one-digit problem starting point, because you need to be a reasonably proficient typist in order to type a two-digit or three-digit answer and hit return before a problem destroys a city -- even if you know the answer off the top of your head.

The basic look and feel passed Earl's "I like to blow things up" test, and Shantia enjoyed the problem-solving aspect. We'll come back to this one when a little more work has been done on it -- or when the kids have practiced up on their typing and have gotten a little better at math. Lots of promise here.

TuxPaint

Shantia got first crack at this one. She loved the different sounds TuxPaint made with different "paintbrush" styles and other tools. Those sounds encouraged her to experiment with a wide variety of effects she might not have tried without them. (The "rowf-rowf-rowf" sound the "eraser" made was voted by everyone in the room - adults included -- as the best audio effect in TuxPaint.)

Earl used TuxPaint to create a house with people in the windows, a sun overhead that was first round, then rectangular, then round again, and went through a variety of color changes as Shantia (and mom Alicia) made increasingly ludicrous suggestions. The front yard grew grass. A Jeep got drawn and was parked on the grass despite suggestions that it wasn't nice to park a car on the lawn.

(Earl pointed out that "Mr. Robin" sometimes parked his Jeep on his lawn, so it was okay. I am obviously a bad influence.)

When they discovered the stamps tool, all was lost. Suddenly drawings started to get Tuxes and flags all over the place, and an argument over whose turn it was quickly developed, and was stopped only by Alicia saying, "It's my turn now. I want to play too."

While not a full-featured, "adult level" graphics program, and listed as only 70% complete, TuxPaint has lots of neat drawing tools for all ages. Indeed, my wife (Debbie; the kids' grandmother, age older than she likes to admit) had a great time playing with it herself. We can hardly wait to see what this program will be like at the 100% mark.

Earl suggested adding an animation feature. He says the (Windows) drawing program they use at school "can make things move" and he likes that. He and Shantia both rated TuxPaint's sound effects as superior to the school's program, though, and said that aside from animation, it did at least as much and was at least as much fun to use, and that it didn't crash like the school's Windows computers.

(This is not the first time Earl has complained about the school's computers crashing. Apparently teachers spend a fair percentage of computer lab time rebooting -- and won't let the kids do it. Earl has trouble understanding this since the Linux computer at home virtually never locks up, and if it does it's almost always a Mozilla problem -- and Earl knows how to kill and restart Mozilla on his own, no problem.)

Potato Guy

The project's home page says, "KTuberling is a 'potato editor' game intended for small children and adults who remain young at heart. The game has no winner; the only purpose is to make the funniest faces you can."

This is not part of the Tux4Kids project, but we ended up spending quite a bit of time with it. In fact, we played with it until well after everyone's bedtime.

There are plenty of fun little games and toys like Potato Guy included with most Linux distributions. Earl and Shantia are already of familiar with many them, and like to play them as much as mom will allow. We won't try to review -- or even list -- all the kid-friendly items that have become part of Gnome and KDE. You either have them already or can easily download them (for free) and try them yourself even if you don't have children available as an excuse for engaging in child-style play.

We ended the review here, even though there were other features to look at. We had spent much more time than expected playing with the few toys we tried. This stuff is addictive!

Remember, this is all Knoppix-based, so if you want to try it yourself all you'll need to do -- as soon as the download version is released -- is burn a CD and boot directly from that CD. No installation is required.

Conclusion and suggestions

Although what Shantia, Earl and I looked at was an early beta, we had a lot of fun. This is a worthwhile project. Take a Tux4Kids/Knoppix CD to a school or a parentally-inclined friend's house and you will be doing some outstanding Linux evangelism. The only thing more likely to spread Linux than a CFO showing how much less it costs than Windows or commercial Unix in a server room is a small child winsomely asking, "Mommy, can I have a Linux? Can I play with the penguins some more?"

One thing, though, that my review crew and I agree should happen is that Tux4Kids should put the coolest kids' games, tutorials, and kid-friendly utilities directly in the KDE panel as a small menu of its own (easy to do) instead of leaving them buried in the main KDE menu structure. Or, better yet, give each one its own panel icon.

This small change would make Linux4Kids much easier to try and play with for new users -- especially for "new users" in the sense of "new to computers in general," and "new to reading and writing."

But these are quibbles. Knoppix is already great and improving steadily, and we want to encourage Tux4Kids, not knock their fine efforts, which we wholeheartedly endorse. And if you want to support them, too, we're sure they'll appreciate any help you can give them, as will Earl, Shantia, and -- we hope -- eventually millions of other children all over the world.

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