The Linux for Kids Experiment
In an attempt to ease the introduction of a new—and somewhat different—computer into the house, we decided to relax our household software policy and install a few nice Linux games along with the educational software. Here's a quick rundown of the titles we decided to make available on the desktop launcher. Unless stated otherwise, these titles were downloaded into Ubuntu using the included Synaptic Package Manager. It helps to refer to Figure 1 while working through this list.
AisleRiot Solitaire (/usr/games/sol) is a Linux version of the classic solitaire game. It came pre-installed on Ubuntu and was elevated to the Launcher in an attempt to provide a familiar piece of software on the new desktop.
Bug Squish (/usr/games/bugsquish) is a bit mindless but fun all the same. Little bugs drop down and try to land on an arm. Your mission—should you accept it—is to squish as many bugs as you can by clicking your mouse on them. As I said, it's mindless, but it does allow little people to practice their mouse skills while having some fun.
Calculator (/usr/bin/gcalctool) is the GNOME calculator.
Four-in-a-Row/Connect 4 (/usr/games/gnect) is just like the board game. You can play against another human opponent or an increasingly more skillful computer user.
G Compris (/usr/games/gcompris) has to be the real find of the experiment. This is a single program that has many, many parts. It is an entire suite of educational tools packaged together and aimed at 3–8 year olds. Within the suite are—among many other things—word and number games, color-matching and memory exercises and geography quizzes. There's loads of educational functionality in G Compris, and it is graduated, which means the child cannot proceed to a later exercise until they have mastered the earlier ones. G Compris can be installed in one of a number of languages and has a friendly soundtrack and voice-over. I initially thought Aaron and Aideen would spend a lot of time in this program and was surprised to find Joseph enjoying it too. There's so much in G Compris that it really needs to be experienced to be believed.
K Tuberling, The Potato Guy (/usr/games/ktuberling) is a simple little program that provides a blank picture upon which you can place, for example, ears, eyes, noses, spectacles, hats and hair. The default blank picture is a potato, but a blank Tux also is provided. Aideen loves this program, as do the boys. The boys love it so much that they used K Tuberling to create a gallery of Tux and his family. Check out Tux's mother-in-law, as shown in Figure 3.
MathWar (/usr/bin/mathwar) is a simple X-based math-drill program.
Office Draw (/usr/bin/oodraw) and Office Writer (/usr/bin/oowriter), both part of the OpenOffice.org suite, were included primarily for Aaron, who likes to draw with the computer as well as write short stories and poems. I'd recently convinced the kids' school teacher to try OpenOffice.org for Windows in their school, in an effort to fix file format compatibility problems she was having with the school's existing choice of office suite. So, making OpenOffice.org available on the kids' PC made perfect sense.
Play a DVD (/usr/bin/xine) allows the kids to view any of the DVDs that they own. To get DVD playing to work on Ubuntu, I had to search Goggle for the libdvdcss library, which allows for the DVD movie encoding to be deciphered. Once the library was installed, DVD viewing worked. Xine was a big hit, not only because it supports DVD menus and the like but also because it allows viewers to capture snapshots of the currently playing movie. Once he discovered this Xine feature, Joseph wasted no time and created a gallery of snapshots of his current DVD favorite, The Incredibles. An added bonus to being able to view DVDs on the new computer is that the main household TV and DVD player are freed-up for Mum and Dad to use. Xine was chosen over the Ubuntu-installed Totem, which did not work as well as Xine in any of my tests.
Play a Music CD (/usr/bin/gnome-cd) turns the PC into a CD player, with the default GNOME CD player popping up whenever an audio CD is popped into the CD drive.
Super Tux (/usr/games/supertux) is a classic, Mario-style, jump-and-bump-level game that should be familiar to many readers. Saying that the boys love this game would be a complete understatement: they are totally besotted with it. A little animated Penguin jumps and bumps his way through increasingly difficult levels in search of his goal. The soundtrack to this game is great, as are the effects and configurability. If anything, it's a little too addictive and, of all the programs described in this article, Super Tux is the program most likely to be on-screen when I enter the playroom. This has caused Deirdre to worry that the boys are playing it too much. However, as the game allows players to design and use their own levels, and as the boys have started to do just that, I've been happy to let Super Tux survive. I figure that building a level is the first tentative step toward getting the computer to work the way the kids want it to, which isn't a huge leap away from that other popular customization technique: programming. So, highly addictive or not, Super Tux stays for now—unless the boys are cheeky to their Mum, in which case it'll be wiped from the PC faster than they can say “yahtzee!”
Tali - Yahtzee (/usr/games/gtali) is a nice implementation of the classic dice game. The iMac had a great version of this game that the boys always liked to play, and the GNOME version is similar and familiar.
Tux Kart (/usr/games/tuxkart) is an arcade-type racer game. Little Tux sits in a go-kart and races around one of a selection of pre-built tracks. The music is fun, and the game is not too hard to play, which means that even Aideen can play without too much trouble. I've seen some games of this type that take the physics to the extreme, making them incredibly hard to play well. Tux Kart, thankfully, does not fall into this category.
Tux Paint (/usr/bin/tuxpaint) is a great kids-targeted drawing program. The sound is great, the effects are wonderful and it is easy to use. Aideen spends more time in Tux Paint than in all of the other installed programs combined, and Aaron enjoys using it, too. The in-built collection of stamper shapes especially are appreciated by our budding Picassos.
Tux Racer (/usr/games/tuxracer) is the one program that's fired-up and shown-off whenever either of the boys have a friend over to play. Tux Racer is, quiet simply, one very cool program. Watching Tux slide on his belly at 90km/ph in stunning, realistically rendered graphics remains—for me, anyway—one of the best examples of just how far Linux has come as a multimedia platform.
Tux Type (/usr/games/tuxtype) is a fun typing tutor. All three of the kids play it, and Aideen loves the way Tux eats the letters as they drop from the sky and correctly are identified on the keyboard. Aideen especially likes the cartoon-type sound effects and animation that occur when Tux eats a fish at the last possible moment, which usually results in Tux making a mad dash across the screen.
X Tux (/usr/games/xtux) is a 2-D, Pac Man-type game that works well and is fun to play. Although not as popular with the boys as Tux Racer or Super Tux, it still is played quite often.
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