Teaching with Tux

As a homeschooling family, my wife and I are very involved in our children's education and since we're both a couple of nerds, much of our children's education is done on the computer. I use Linux for work almost exclusively so I was a bit curious to see if there were any good children's educational programs for Linux; it turns out that there are some very good ones and I'm going to discuss 3 of them today: Tux Paint, Tux Typing, and Tux of Math Command. Do you sense a theme developing here?

All three games feature Tux, the mighty Linux mascot. In the paint program, Tux gives instructions on how to select a color from a pallet. In the typing and Math games, Tux shoots down invaders or eats fish as they fall from the sky. Either way, it's a nice touch for a children's program; who doesn't love penguins?

tux1

Figure 1

When I first encountered Tux Paint listed as an educational program, I had some doubts. Almost every computing environment comes with a free paint program. What makes Tux Paint any different than the rest? What makes it qualify as an educational program? Well, Tux Paint is really geared toward young children; it's simple enough that they can use it with little or no instructions. It certainly isn't as powerful as the Gimp, but it has a few features that kids should have fun with. As you can see in Figure 2, I'm only slightly more advanced than your average 5 year old art student. On the left side, we see icons for the various functions such as drawing, text, and shapes. We also see an icon for “magic,” which gives us the menu we see on the right. On the “magic” menu, we see two brick tools, a “sparkle” tool as well as a rainbow tool. Kids can use these tools to create whatever they can imagine. My masterpiece demonstrates the grass, sparkle and brick tools. You can also see Tux, which kids can put in their art using the “stamp” tool. Most of the tools have their own sound effects to help keep the child's attention.

tux2

Figure 2

So how is this educational? At the lower ages, this might simply be a first introduction to using the mouse. In this case, the parent or educator would help the student select colors and draw lines and shapes. Older, pre-readers, could use this program to tell a story in storyboard fashion. Still older children could use this program to create their own comic strips complete with text. Of course, you could also use Tux Paint to teach students art concepts like color, line, and texture. It doesn't matter how you use it though. Tux Paint is a lot of fun.

I'm sure we've all seen the ubiquitous typing tutor games where you type letters in order to “shoot” falling invaders. See Figure 3. Tux Typing features two such games. In “Fish Cascade,” fish fall from the sky, and as the player types the letter on each fish, Tux eats the fish. The crunching sounds Tux makes as he eats are sure to amuse any young child. In “Comet Zap,” blue comets fall from the sky threatening to destroy the cities below. As the player types the letter on the comets, they get shot down and explode.

tux3

Figure 3

Tux Typing features animated menus and four levels of game play. Increasing the game level simply causes the fish or comets to fall faster. You can also chose the length of words that have to be typed in order to shoot down the falling objects. In this case, your choices are short, medium and long, of course. You also have the choice of practicing the alphabet or simple finger exercises. As with most software, and open source in particular, Tux Typing seems to be a work in progress. Some of the menu items didn't work, for example. However, it was quite usable and fun to play.

When I was in school, typing class was an elective. However, it was also a prerequisite for the only computer class my high school offered. Things are different today, though. Not being able to type in today's world would severely limit a person's job prospects. As soon as my boys are old enough to have mastered handwriting, I'm expecting that they will spend a lot of time with Tux Typing.

Kids just don't seem to like to study Math, so anything you can do to make it tolerable, if not fun, is a good thing. Tux of Math Command, or simply Tux Math, is just such a program. See Figure 4. Tux Math is almost identical to Tux Typing's Comet Zap game. Here we have the falling blue comets. Only this time, they have math questions written on them. As the player answers each question, Tux shoots down the comet. Tux Math also allows four levels of play just like Tux Typing. However, Tux Math has a much broader variety of Math exercises.

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Figure 4

In fact, Tux Math has eight pages of menus from which to select a skill to practice. Younger children can practice simply typing numbers or addition problems up to 3. Addition exercises go all the way up to addition with sums to 20, or addition with two digit numbers. Subtraction and multiplication offer similar exercises. Many kids seem to have problems multiplying and dividing with particular numbers, so Tux Math allows the student to work on just the multiples and factors that they need to practice, all the way up to 15. Finally, Tux Math allows a student to practice adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing with positive and negative numbers.

As you can see, Tux Math is a fairly complete Math tutor. It's not designed to teach Mathematical principles, but it does offer a very wide variety of fact drills. My experience with my Kindergartner was that he liked the game, was able to answer the addition questions, but had difficulty actually typing the answer. So he and I played the game together; he'd say the answer and I'd type it. This worked very well.

These three programs are very high quality educational programs for children. Both of my older boys found the games appealing. (It was difficult to convince them that I was actually working while playing these games.) As a warning to parents, some of the theme music is insidious; you may find yourself hearing it in your sleep. In my next article, I'm planning to discuss the Gcompris educational suite. I'd also like to hear suggestions of other quality educational software for Linux.

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