Economy Size Geek - A Desktop for Our Little Penguin

How to make the perfect desktop for young kids.

The theme for this month's issue is the desktop, and when I sat down to write this article, I was going to focus on bringing the cloud to your desktop. A number of services exist, and I figured one of them would help me solve a problem that has gotten more troublesome of late—keeping all my workstations in sync. But, in the process of doing my research, a more pressing desktop problem came up. His name is Max.

Max is my son. He is only 15 months old, but he already has become a technology-seeking missile. No remote is safe. Any keyboard or mouse within reach is explored. This probably is a combination of mimicry, since I spend a lot of time with a mouse or remote in my hand, and his excitement over cause and effect. As the IT person in the house, I would prefer it that my users not bang on the keyboards until something bad happens. As a parent and Linux fan, I am happy for him to explore technology in whatever way he chooses—especially because I am in the golden time before I have to worry about what he is searching for on Google.

What started as a “crazy” idea came together pretty quickly. A quick scan of the inventory in my office turned up an old file server that was no longer being used. It is not very powerful, but Max did not need more than a “computer”. I found a CD-ROM drive and installed it. The computer already had a network card (yes, it is so old, there was no onboard NIC) and integrated sound. I pulled out an old 17" monitor and some speakers. That just left a mouse, keyboard and desk.

My wife already had gotten Max a keyboard. It was supposed to be for Christmas, but in the name of turning in my article in time, I opened it a few months early. It is a Crayola keyboard. The keys are big and brightly colored. It has no function keys (which means Max cannot get to the terminals). For a mouse, I picked up a Colby T-Rex mouse, which claims to be specially designed for the way little kids click. Originally, I was a little worried Max constantly would pick up the mouse to stare at the red light, but that did not seem to interest him.

Figure 1. Crayola Keyboard and Colby T-Rex Mouse

The last piece of the puzzle was the desk. I measured Max and found that he needed a desk at about 22" tall if he was standing when he used the computer. I use a standing desk from GeekDesk. So, it seemed to make sense to have him stand as well—both because it is better for you and also because it means I won't be tripping over a tiny chair in my office. A quick trip to Wal-Mart turned up a computer stand. It was built out of particle wood and plastic tubes—not the best piece of furniture in the world, but I was able to find a combination of plastic tubes that gave it exactly the right height. As a bonus, I have tubes left over, so we can raise the desk as he grows.

Now that his workstation was assembled, it was time to get to the installing portion of the show. After some quick research on Google, I turned up three possibilities for his OS.

Sugar Learning Platform

The Sugar Learning Platform was the system originally developed for the One Laptop per Child Netbook. I was interested in this one because it is specifically designed for learning. The developers spent a lot of time rethinking how everything works so that it would reinforce that goal. Besides, like most people, I had seen only screenshots. It seemed like this was my best opportunity to use it for an actual purpose. Sugar is now based on Fedora as its base OS. You even can download a version to run off a USB thumbdrive. I downloaded and installed the Strawberry release onto a thumbdrive.


Edubuntu is a branch of Ubuntu. This version is focused on building an “educational” operating system, and it seems to have two different goals. The first is to group software in age-appropriate bundles. The second is to make it easy to administer computer labs running Ubuntu. I was more interested in the bundles than the administration. Originally, Edubuntu provided a full ISO for you to download and install. Recently, it offers another option. You simply can add on Edubuntu bundles to an existing Ubuntu install, which meant I could just use one of the Ubuntu CDs I already had lying around.


Qimo (as in esQIMO) is a kid-specific distribution, also based on Ubuntu. It seemed to be more focused on the desktop portion than Edubuntu. For example, during the install process, you create a user account. That user is given full administration rights (aka access to sudo). Another user, qimo, also is created. qimo does not have a password and does not have sudo—meaning that when you boot up the machine, the user account the child is using can run applications but cannot make any modifications to the system. Qimo uses the Xfce desktop environment, so it should be less resource-hungry (which is important as I am putting it on old equipment). Qimo also has a very cute kid-style Eskimo theme.



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Rockstar idea

vincentjorgensen's picture

I've been dying to build a machine for my now eighteen-month-old daughter since I saw this article. I'm happy to say that I've finally acquired some hardware for the project. Screen, an old P4 box, with keyboard and mouse on the way. According to the reviews on Amazon, don't get the Crayola mouse, as it's H2O feature is susceptible to rupturing all over the upholstery.

Ubuntu 10.04 is now installed, and I'm about to APT ubuntu-edu-preschool.

My hope is that my daughter will use this box instead of mine, so I can finally get some work done :-)

I'm also happy to report that my old machine, the one I originally slotted for this purpose, is in the hands of _my_ grandmother, and she's over 90 years old and using Ubuntu linux to look at pictures of her great-granddaughter.

Qimo FTW

Anonymous's picture

Good day. I got Qimo a couple of months back. Used the ubuntu usb-creator on my laptop to make a bootable stick and then boot up either my wife's laptop, my netbook or my work laptop from Qimo whenever my son wants to play.

My son was about 3 at the time. Took him about 15 minutes to get the hang of the mouse, but then was exploring without any help.

My son is now 4, and still asks often to play Qimo. To the Qimo developers: A very well done, and thank you.

A visit to the Qimo site is well worth your time, to see how it came about.




Anonymous's picture

I also suggest that you take a look at Kiddix. My kids been happy users of their OS for a couple of years now. I definitly find it to be the best thought out OS for kids on the market, and it's 100% Linux at its core. It seems to me that they have spent a long time figuring out how children use computers and built that into their desktop environment. Kiddix also comes with some top notch parental controls. My little ones haven't ran into any problems on the internet since we installed it on our family PC.

Thanks for the Kiddix recommendation. I'll take a look.

Anonymous's picture

We are experiencing Linux growing pains. Management seems to get the whys they just don't understand the nuts and bolts and are afraid of something new. I know that if the kids get it and the moms like it the dads will follow. So...I'll try Kiddix but I will wait to see if anyone has a response to my inquiry on Qimo. I emailed the developers but they must be very busy as I have not received any response. Oh, to be popular! GO TUX!

About the Qimo article. How to merge the custom GDM and...

tgoatley's picture

Hello Dirk,
I am trying to setup Qimo for the library system here in Reno, NV. I would really like to know how you merged the GDM's after the upgrade. I need to maintain the upgrades on my machines. Can you forward (or post) a copy of the completed file(s)?
Also, I want to offer just 1 hour sessions (to save us from any bickering amongst the little tykes) so I'll be using timekpr. The timekpr works if you login straight away but if not the login timeout takes you straight into the default Qimo user. I would like to inhibit this from taking place so a user can login with a predetermined user name and password other than Qimo. Any suggestions here as well?
I have modified the /etc/gdm/PostLogin/Default.sample file. Named a copy as Default (per instructions) and setup for multiple users using the Qimo profile as my base. But the Qimo profile does not carry over well as the base profile for my other login profiles. A little frustrating because I really need to turn these things out as soon as possible. Any insight and or directions you can offer would be great.
Thank you,
Todd Goatley

PS Great and timely article!

Todd Goatley

So what exactly DID Max wind up with?

RO's picture

I read the article with an eye to seeing if it had a suitable model or template for setting up a PC for our grandsons (6, 4, 13 months) when they are over visiting, which is often since they live near us. It appears you went with Qimo in the 2nd installation, upgraded it to 9.04 (think that's what "Jaunty" equates to - please use version numbers instead of, or in addition to those goofy Ubuntu version names - I get lost now that there are so many), added Edubuntu for preschool, and tweaked it a bit from there, but the narrative form makes that my "best guess" of how it transpired.

Interesting that you could upgrade Qimo. I tried it again recently (after a shot at it when it first came out nearly a year ago), but I could not get it to connect to whatever repositories it was pointing to for updates. I did not check out the contents of /etc/apt/sources.list, but something made me think they were using a custom repository that had been abandoned since there did not seem to be any recent news on the Qimo site.

I also have an OLPC XO, and that Sugar interface seems to almost require a degree in the Piaget/Papert theories of education. My wife did not have much use for it (nor our 2 older grandsons), and has been teaching the primary grades for 30+ years. During that time she has gone through many different teaching methods du jour (schools systems are like big businesses in always looking for the next holy grail to achieve their goals without focusing on using intelligence with tried and true hard work and discipline to get it done by actually mastering anything that could work with "due diligence", and wasting huge amounts of money and time on fads), so she is used to looking at new teaching ideas (and usually debunking most, but not all, of them ;-).

What would really be helpful would be more details on your setup, and periodic "progress reports" on how Max fares with it. Watching young children learn is fascinating, and can be quite satisfying from a parental perspective.

Comparing notes: Kiddix, Edubuntu, Grubby Games

kendricbeachey's picture

I did not see a mention of Kiddix in your article...wondering if you gave it a look? ( Apparently it costs money, but it seems like an interesting product. Maybe for a little bit older kid though. I have my kids on Edubuntu...they like it fine. My 6-year-old really likes FizzBall and the other Professor Fizzwizzle games, as well as MyTribe, all available for a newly cheap price at .