The Linux for Kids Experiment

This Linux Dad got the young members of his family set up with educational software, art tools and games.

When pressed to answer truthfully, most parents agree that raising kids is a big experiment. In the December 2004 issue of LJ, Diego Betancor's letter motivated me to experiment with something I've been meaning to do for some time. Diego wanted to see more content in LJ aimed at kids, and his suggestion was the inspiration for the next phase of my child-rearing experiment: moving the kids to Linux.

My wife Deirdre and I have three young children: Joseph, age nine; Aaron, age seven; and and Aideen, age five—see Figure 1. As shown in the photo, indoctrination starts early in the Barry household: there's a fluffy Tux in the foreground and an electronic Tux on the screen.

Figure 1. The “Linux for Kids” Kids, (left-to-right) Joseph, Aideen and Aaron

With his dad being a longtime computer geek, it came as no surprise when Joseph took to the computer at a young age. For years, our home computer was a first-generation iMac, running Mac OS. A great 3-D shoot'em-up game came with the iMac, Nanosaur, that Joseph just loves. Despite this, our household software policy always has been to try to ensure that any software brought into the house is classified as educational. Therefore, Joseph also has a bunch of Land Before Time and Zoombini titles, as well as kiddie-strategy games, such as Darby the Dragon. Other software includes the usual encyclopedia, dinosaur and space-exploration titles.

Aaron is the sporty child in the house as well as the artist, and he has been happy to sit and play with the paint application integrated into ClarisWorks, the simple office suite that came with the iMac. Aaron also likes to play with Joseph's software, as well as some of Aideen's titles, which include Green Eggs and Ham, Sammy's Science House and Thinking Things.

As long as there's a lot of bright colors and funny sound effects, Aideen's happy, even though this five-year-old's attention span is not at all lengthy.

As great as it is, the iMac had been showing its age for some time. It also has become increasingly difficult to find original software titles for its effectively discontinued OS version. Trying to upgrade to Mac OS X or any modern version of Linux was not an option for the iMac; it's simply too underpowered. Without new titles, the kids were getting bored with the iMac and had been asking for a new computer. They also constantly bugged both me and their Mum to install various Windows titles on our laptops—especially the demo software that comes free inside various cereal packets. As Deirdre has to run Windows 2000 for work, her laptop was the one infected with a growing collection of these types of titles.

A few months back, a new computer arrived in the form of a Dell Optiplex GX270, with 512MB of RAM, a 40GB hard disk and a flat-panel monitor. As I'd rather eat the new PC than allow the kids to use the factory-installed Windows XP, I looked for a family-friendly Linux distribution to install instead. Having recently experimented with Ubuntu Linux as my office desktop, I downloaded and burned a copy of the Warty Warthog release for use at home.

Like most big kids, I love experiments, and now my experiment had a plan: replace the Dell's factory-installed OS with Ubuntu, pack it full of kid-friendly software, let the kids at it and see how they got on.

Going Cold Turkey

I deliberately decided against installing any type of emulation that would have allowed the kids to run any of their existing software titles, even though such technology is well established within the Linux community. My main reason for doing this was to see if the kids would identify any titles that they missed. If they did, I'd try to find native alternatives, install them and see if the yearning subsided.

Installing and Configuring Ubuntu

Ubuntu installed easily on the Dell, taking about one hour from start to finish. Once the base OS was up and running, I installed a bunch of stuff for the kids to use. I created a user ID called kids with a password of dinosaur and then set up a window in Nautilus to mimic the look and feel of the Mac OS Launcher program, as shown in Figure 1. Nautilus hopefully would provide a familiar look and feel for my pint-sized, Mac-loving user community.

Figure 2. The Linux For Kids Launcher, Courtesy of Nautilus



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Interested in an update also, if available..

Anonymous's picture

"Could we see an update to this, maybe? It would be cool. See if the "kids" are still using Ubuntu, or if they have chosen the way of Windows (or Mac)."


An quick update

barryp's picture

My kids have a dual-boot PC, with Ubuntu as the default OS and Windows XP as the alternative. They use both, but spend most of their time in Linux. OpenOffice is used a lot for writing up essays and such (homework). I'd say 80% if their time is spent on Ubuntu. Windows is used to load music onto their phones and play some older games.

They are still "Linux Kids". :-)

Paul Barry

Just wanted to mention Timekpr

Joachim Zobel's picture

Timekpr limits login time on a per user base. If you have kids, its obvious why.

Some details on 3D graphics and the like can be found

Childsplay is another great

Anonymous's picture

Childsplay is another great app for preschool and elementary kids.

nice apps selections's picture

i might add some of the apps into my kidsuse...

An update of the Experiment

Anonymous's picture

Could we see an update to this, maybe? It would be cool. See if the "kids" are still using Ubuntu, or if they have chosen the way of Windows (or Mac).

another linux for kids's picture

about to launch another linux for kids:

my kids are using it for a while.
now i'm preparing for public use.

Commercial Linux games for kids

Troy Hepfner's picture

Great article! For those who are looking for some good commercial Linux games that are family-friendly, visit our web site at

Ubuntu / Knoppix derivatives for kids

oeb's picture

I you are looking for an easy 'Ubuntu + Kids programs' to install I have been using Edubuntu for a couple of months now in addition to all the edutainment and games on it one can use synaptic (or apt-get install) to add games found on the liveCDs:



an italian distro (three disks or one DVD) based on Eduknoppix


which in turn is based on Knoppix. There is also another liveCD called Didatux


also italian. The Di in the name implies didactic. Since both distros are based on Debian most of the educational programs are already in the Ubuntu repositories.


Kid's Web Sites?

Chris Hogan's picture

I've been running Linux (SuSE, then Gentoo) in the house for three years now. The only complaint from the kids is lack of a Shockwave player and Microsoft-only web sites (Disney). Does anyone know of a good web site for kids that offers Java or Flash games and isn't dependent upon IE/Windows?

replacements for instant messenger apps

sunset's picture

My twelve year old would suffer severe withdrawal symptons without access to a program to talk on MSN etc. It seems half the fun is the sending of icons and short audio recordings and the nudge. Is there a modern app that can do all that sort of stuff ?

It seems that using this brings our phone bill down by half, so while cuteness is a factor, the money saved is good value...

Try using gaim, gaim

namol's picture

Try using gaim, gaim condenses all the major chat applications into one program, msn, aol, yahoo, google, jabber :)

Gaim Website

MSN Replacement

Anonymous's picture

My 13 y/o uses amsn:

I don't know whether this will do, but it's worth a look.

Thanks for the new game names

Clemens Tolboom's picture

Thanks to google (gcompris) I came along. I would never found the games mentioned above ;-)

Hopefully my daughter likes these new games.

BTW. tuxracer is re-named/placed by planetpinguin-racer

RE: The Linux for Kids Experiment

Garrit Krakusia's picture

hi there,

i tried a summer-special with a small group of five kids. we tried to
install a suse linux distribution. the kids were in the age of 8 to 12.
in the beginning they not have much fun... but after we setup the system and download a lot of games and tried them out... they all get happy
give games to the world... 8-)) cu, gk

can't seem to find the game titles listed via synaptic

swilson05's picture

thought i'd try some ubuntu, but can't seem to find these titles. tried various search options and terms. do i need to specify some sort of special repository? just trying to relax with some linux that's easy on the eyes and hassle.

Adding Repositories

barryp's picture

This should be easy enough and can be done from the Synaptic menus. I don't have it in front of me but, from memory, you need to enable the "Universe" repository. Steve Hastings review of Ubuntu (from the August issue) talks about this. Have fun.

Paul Barry
IT Carlow, Ireland

Paul Barry