Learning with Gcompris
In my last article, Teaching with Tux, I wrote about teaching children with the Tux Educational programs. Today, I'm going to discuss the Gcompris education suite. Gcompris is meant for younger children from 2 to 10 years old, though it seems to focus on the younger part of this range.
As you can see from Figure 1, Gcompris has a pretty simple user interface. Along the bottom of the screen, we have buttons that let us quit, see the credits, configure the program, and get help. Along the left side, we have icons for each game (I mean exercise) category. As you mouse over each icon, a brief written explanation of category is presented in the blue section of the screen. This is a nice compromise for kids who can't read and parents who would rather see text. The program's spoken prompts and classical music playing in the background make Gcompris a very professional program. Besides, everyone knows that classical music is good for kids.
“Discover the computer” is the first category of exercises, which is further broken down into keyboard and mouse activities. The most basic keyboard activity requires the child to simply press the two shift keys at the same time to guide a beach ball straight to the waiting penguin. Other activities require the child to press numbers, letters, and words. The mouse activities start with simply moving the mouse over the screen to reveal a hidden picture. Eventually, the child can progress to clicking exercises and eventually to finer movement control.
Gcompris has many classic puzzles in the “Puzzles” section. See Figure 2. Most kids are familiar with tan grams and jigsaw puzzles. The “Super Brain” game is actually just an adaptation of the Mastermind board game where the child uses deductive reasoning to deduce an unknown color combination. Gcompris also includes a Sudoku game played on a 3x3 grid. The “Fifteen” game is an adaptation of the little plastic game where you move the squares around to get them into numerical order. In the “Tower of Hanoi” game, the child moves disks from one peg to another in order to finally duplicate a given color pattern. Finally, there's a crane game where the child clicks on arrow buttons to move the crane's bucket to pick up objects and place them elsewhere in order to duplicate a pattern. Some of these games could be fairly challenging to the younger children, and most kids will need to have the games explained to them first.
The Mathematics section of Gcompris has a myriad of activities roughly broken down into counting, arithmetic, and geometry. The counting section has activities where the child has to count the bananas on the screen, or total up the number of dots on a pair of dice. Then there are activities where a number of stars are placed under, or taken out from under, a hat, and the child has to determine how many stars there are. There's also a “guess the number” game where the child is told if their guess was too high or too low. The Gcompris “dot-to-dot” game requires the child to click on the numbered dots in numerical order to draw a picture. Figure 3. Finally, there are two exercises with money, one with whole dollar amounts, and one with dollars and cents.
The arithmetic activities include quizzes for addition, subtraction and multiplication facts. There are also numerous memory games where the child has to remember which cards contain an arithmetic fact, and corresponding answer.
The geometry section has two activities where the student tries to reproduce various patterns on a Cartesian grid and a vector paint program. The paint program could be used to describe circles, lines, and boxes.
When I was looking at Gcompris initially, I completely overlooked the “Amusements” section thinking that there wouldn't be anything of educational interest there. I was wrong. This seems to be the place where the authors put activities that just didn't fit anywhere else. For example, there is a game where the child kicks a soccer ball around a soccer field by clicking on it. I coach my older two boys' soccer teams so it was refreshing to see that all of the soccer areas were properly marked in this game. There's also a link to Tux Paint, which I wrote about last time. Then there is a kind of “hotter/colder” game where the player tries to find the star hidden on a hex-grid. As the player clicks on a hex, it turns colors. The redder the color, the closer the player is to finding the star. SeeThere is also a very stripped-down version of a word processor suitable for young kids who are just learning to write simple stories or essays.
Then I found the real gem in Gcompris, the Stop-action animation activity. In this activity, the child uses various drawing tools to draw a story scene. The he clicks on the camera icon to take a picture and save a single frame of their animation. Once the picture has been taken, the child can move things around in the scene and take the next frame. Finally, they can play back their animation. This one was really fun.
The Strategy Game section has simple strategy games like Connect-4, Oware, and a couple variations on Chess, though the chess games require gnuchess.
The experimental section is where Gcompris has a few Science activities. Here we find an activity where the child has to activate gates and valves in order to allow a ship to pass through a canal lock. In another activity, the child can click on various parts of the water cycle to see how water evaporates from the ocean, falls as rain, gets cleaned up and sent to our homes, etc. See Figure 4. Finally, the experimental section has a simple electric circuit simulator that allows the child to wire up a simple battery, switch, and lightbulb circuit. The simulator required the gnucap package and actually simulates whatever circuit the child builds.
Gcompris's Reading section isn't nearly as large as the mathematics section is. Here we find a game where the computer says a letter and the child has to click on the spoken letter. We also find an activity where the child has to fill in the missing letter to spell a word that matches a picture. Finally, we have an activity where the child drags pictures onto the word that describes them.
Then things get a bit strange, in my opinion. We also have two activities that seem almost identical. A list of words is displayed briefly and the child is asked if a given word was displayed on the list. The only difference that I can see between the two activities is that in one, the words are displayed vertically, and in the other, they display horizontally. And the last activity that struck me as odd was the one where an image is displayed and the child has to click on the word that describes the picture; the problem is that for the first question, the correct answer is apparently “satchel.” I wonder how many American children even know what a satchel is. All in all, I found Gcompris's Reading section to be it's weakest section.
In the Discovery section, we find sound, memory, maze, color, chronology, shape, pattern, geography, and time activities. For the most part, these activities are very well done. See Figure 5 for an example. My only criticism for the discovery activity group is for one of the color activities. In this activity, the child is asked to click on the box of a given color. The problem is that some of the colors that the child is to click on include “coral,” “sienna,” “cobalt,” and “claret.”
When I set out to write a review of Gcompris, I sorely underestimated just how much material there was to write about. I actually intended to cover each activity, even if it was covered only briefly. However, Gcompris has a LOT of learning activities for children. Most of the activities are very well done. Many of the individual activities are written by different authors, but they all integrate into a seamless whole. Having more fully explored this program, I'm anxious to get my younger children started with it and I highly recommend it to any parent of young children.