How-To: Set your child up to be a computing genius by turning that dusty old PC into the coolest educational toy ever!

My wife had a great idea; why not write an article about using Linux to create a great educational learning tool for children? Like the system we put together for our own son. So here you go – a guide to show you how easy it can be to turn any dusty old PC or Laptop in to an amazing learning tool for your child!

In Part 1 of this two part How-to article, we’ll discuss what hardware you need, how to choose the right Linux distribution, and how to get it all up and running. Next week I’ll go over some specific software you may want to install to covertly have your little one learning things like computer basics, ABC’s, and a little math, all under the guise of fun video games!

A Brief Overview

Nothing will encourage a child to learn to type and navigate an operating system faster than the thought of playing video games! My son learned to type his name, a simple password, and to move the mouse around in one day when he was only three years old, because I told him he had to learn to do this if he wanted daddy to make him an account so he could play games on my computer. It only took one afternoon of working with him on this before he could do it all by himself – from log-in to launching a few games I put in a folder for him. Now our son is four years old and has his own Ubuntu Linux computer in his bedroom, which has taught him a great deal about basic computing and allowed him to have a lot of fun while doing so! And one of the nicer points; it didn’t cost us a dime! Also, if you have more than one child, the inherent multi-user nature of Linux is a great way to satisfy them all with one machine (although I’ll leave it to you to decide how to ration out computer time to each child).

Step 1: Dust off that old PC or Laptop!

Most of us nerds with kids have lived long enough to have at least one old computer or laptop laying around collecting dust. Maybe it works fine but was merely no longer capable of meeting our adult needs, or maybe it has a small problem like a fried power supply – something which can be fixed on the cheap. Most any old computer will work for this! The games are not resource intensive, but I would recommend using something less than 6-7 years old, just to make sure the user experience isn’t too painful! But that being said, use whatever you have available – if there’s a game involved they will wait 2 minutes for it to load and still be happy! It might even teach them some patience (although that might be wishful thinking). On the other hand, if you have a little money to spare but no old computers, a cheap new net-book or even a budget custom PC will work amazingly well too! (but if you do go the netbook/laptop route, you may want to get them a cheap USB mouse, as I’ve found that kids can get frustrated using touch-pads, which seems counter intuitive to the fact that kids these days seem to come with tablet computing instructions pre-written in their DNA). Craigslist or eBay are also great places to find old computers for next to nothing! You could even use this project as an excuse to convince your spouse that you really should buy the latest and greatest Core i7 quad-core machine and give your-suddenly-outdated-and-slow PC to your kid! Okay, so I’ll assume by now you’ve found something to work with here, so lets get ready to run Linux on whatever it is that you have at your disposal!

Step 2: Decide what distribution to use and make sure it plays well with the that computer!

I recommend using some flavor of Ubuntu Linux. I’m really not an Ubuntu evangelist, but my reasoning here is simple; generally speaking Ubuntu Linux just works on whatever you install it on, and has a great track record for hardware detection and drivers that work out-of-the-box, as well as a massive support community if a problem does arise. We don’t want to have this computer be something you are constantly being called upon to perform IT duties on, making your child’s room feel more like the accountants cubicle at the office! That’s why I’m so adamant about encouraging you to use Ubuntu here – install it in an hour and forget about it! The little guy/gal is well his/her way to becoming a genius if they are breaking the Linux box, so you should be able to sit them in front of this machine and get your own work done! And, unlike the television, it will make them smarter & wont fry their neuron connections! Speaking of fried neurons, back to the topic at hand… In many cases installing Ubuntu goes more smoothly than a MS Windows install, from my experience, and Ubuntu also has many derivative distributions to choose from. We don’t want this to be a painful project, so unless you need a distribution that is even more lightweight than lubuntu (Lightweight Ubuntu), for example, just keep things simple & easy and use Ubuntu or a derivative distribution that is likely to require no advanced configuration. Personally, I use Arch Linux for my own desktops, and Debian Linux for my servers, and of course part of me wants my son to have a killer finely tuned OS on his machine too – but this misses the point entirely! We’re talking about old computers here and using them for children who are just starting to learn computing, so there’s no need to have a higher-maintenance distro like Arch, Debian or even Gentoo Linux that requires more manual configuration and compiling from source, when we can use something that will likely work right out of the box and allow us to very easily install most, if not all, of the software we will ever want to install for the child. That said, if your child is older, or more advanced with computers, and he/she find compiling software and configuring things in /etc/ interesting… by all means throw Arch or Gentoo at them! And if you just hate Ubuntu that’s fine too, any Linux is a good decision in my book! But don’t make this painful for yourself or the child when they just want to play some games and have fun while learning a few new things!

If your child is under 5 and doesn’t have any experience with computers, tablets or anything like that, you may wish to use a Linux distribution specifically designed for young children. Just do a Google search if you’re interested, as there are several kid-oriented distros available. I’m not going to cover those here simply because I would recommend opting for something more standard. The reason for this is simple; why have them learn a user interface that doesn’t reflect what they will encounter in real life later? My son, at three years of age, had no problem navigating the standard Ubuntu distribution’s desktop and launching games. And I’ve heard reports of even younger children doing just fine with standard distributions. You’ll be amazed what the little one can do when there’s a game dangling at the end of the stick!

Assuming I’ve convinced you to go the Ubuntu route here, the first thing I would recommend doing is to download an Ubuntu Live DVD* and boot up the PC with it. You can use the standard Ubuntu distribution, or the particular derivative distribution you plan to use (so long as it supports booting in to a live environment). And again, if you hate Ubuntu, for it’s gray area in the open-source department, or for whatever reason then just use whatever distro you like – freedom is one of the most amazing parts of Linux and open-source (but please, don’t torture your kids with Stallman philosophies just yet). Anyhoo, get Ubuntu, or some other distro with a live CD/DVD. We just want to make sure the basics will work right with Linux and your chosen computer, and ensure that everything on the machine functions properly; the mouse cursor moves, the keys still work, it can handle the window manager, functioning sound is a big bonus, etc. If you’re happy with the experience, then great! If not, try doing a Google search for something like ‘getting sound to work in Linux on a Dell Inspiron 1525’, or whatever the issue may be. You’ll likely find that there’s just something very simple you need to do to get the problem solved, and that someone else has already documented the solution!

* If you don’t have a DVD drive there are a few other options:

1) Use the slightly older 12.04 version of Ubuntu, which is the latest version which was small enough to fit on CD-ROM. You can perform an upgrade later if you’d like.

2) Use this smaller net-boot image if you still want the latest/greatest right off the bat. Burn this to a CD and the packages will be downloaded on demand. Downside to this option is that there is no live mode and an internet connection is required during install.

3) Choose some other distro! Ubuntu is just a recommendation I make because it’s typically easy… but if it starts to feel like it’s not easy in your case, try something else!

Step 3: Install Linux!

I’m not going to cover all the details of installing Linux here. Although I’ve recommended Ubuntu, I want this guide to be useful to anyone who is looking to set up their child with a capable, albeit older, computer to play with and learn on. But I will mention one thing to keep in mind, no matter which distribution you chose, and that is partitioning.

Partitioning will probably be the most complicated part of the process if you’re not a seasoned computer geek. Still, it isn’t hard these days! If you did choose to go with Ubuntu you can let it handle the partitioning for you. That is fine for this project. If you partition manually I highly suggest using just one partition in keeping with the “it’s a bloody kid’s computer, so keep it simple” theme.  Just delete whatever you had on there and make one new partition, designate it as / (root) and be done with it! Simple. You don’t need RAID arrays, LVM, or even a complex partitioning scheme here – that is, unless your kid finds that stuff exciting… in which case it might be fun to go all data-center style on it! It might be worth mentioning that you should make sure you don’t have a bunch of old family photos or anything else important on the drive before you proceed here. For bonus points, use fsarchiver to image the drive before wiping it clean!

There’s really not much else to worry about here, especially with Ubuntu. Just follow the on-screen instructions and you should be up and running sooner or later (depending on just how old the computer is). For the sake of this article, I wish it were a bit more complicated, but it’s not. Linux has come a long ways and it’s a breeze to install most distros these days!

I encourage you to go ahead and find some software your kid will enjoy, once your all done installing! Even though I plan to cover software in the future part of this series, why wait? Start having fun and let your child get used to navigating around (i.e. finding that ‘game’ folder you made). You might want to make yourself an account on the machine, just in case the child manages to run passwd and gets locked out or something.

I would really like to see some comments on this topic from any parents doing this too! What do you think is the best distro for a child? What are your kid’s favorite apps? Or just let us know how this project went for you, or if you had any issues!

Thanks for reading!

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