What's the current state of Linux distros for kids?

We round up which distros are still supported, and fondly remember those that aren't.
473 readers like this
473 readers like this
A introduction to creating documents in LaTeX

Opensource.com

When she was only two years old, my daughter was fascinated by the old Eee PC running Ubuntu Studio I was using as one of my main computers. She would climb on my lap to hammer away at the keyboard, so—even though she was a bit young—I decided to search for Linux distributions made for children. To my surprise, I found a few distros made for kids as young as two. 

I downloaded DoudouLinux, booted it from a USB, and put it in front of my toddler. She tried a few games and puzzles, but she'd grown familiar with the iPad's touch screen (which she had been using at preschool) and didn't understand the laptop's dinosaur method of swiping a touchpad and clicking a button to make things to happen. 

The other trouble was that applications available for children couldn't compete with the educational apps available in Apple's App Store. In comparison, they were clunky, ugly, and uninspiring. Sadly, my dear old Eee PC died when I dropped it from a table, and it became one of her toys. Our adventures into Linux took a plunge.

Now that a few years have passed since those early experiments, I wondered whether the experience would be different now, whether time and competition from tablets would have improved anything. Plus, I thought, she might be a bit more patient with "stupid" mouse and keyboard input mechanisms now that she is almost five. What I found, however, was that the development of Linux for kids has declined—and several of the distributions I found nearly three years ago have been discontinued or stalled.

Here's what I learned recently about the state of Linux for kids.

Sugar

I had tried Sugar a few years ago, and I'm pleased to see it's still available. Now you can install Sugar as a desktop environment on your preferred Linux distribution, or you can download and run Sugar on a Stick (SoaS). It can be used entirely as a Live environment (with latest version released in July 2017 based on Fedora 26), or you can install it on your hard drive. Here's how Sugar describes itself:

"Sugar is both a desktop and a collection of Activities. Activities, as the name implies, are Apps that involve active engagement from the learner. Activities automatically save results to a journal, where reflections are recorded. Activity instances can be shared between learners; many support real-time collaboration."

Ubermix

Ubermix is another active distribution; the latest release, in July 2017, provides touch support. Not that I would be able to try that feature on my old laptops ... but it's a nice addition, as my daughter finds it more intuitive to point directly on the screen.

The distribution is based on Ubuntu and will be familiar to Ubuntu users. It is available both as images for installation or as a VirtualBox virtual appliance image, if you want to try it out as a virtual machine. In ubermix's words:

"The ubermix is an all-free, specially built, Linux-based operating system designed from the ground up with the needs of education in mind. Built by educators with an eye towards student and teacher empowerment, ubermix takes all the complexity out of student devices by making them as reliable and easy-to-use as a cell phone, without sacrificing the power and capabilities of a full operating system."

DebianEdu / Skolelinux

Skolelinux started in Norway in 2001, about the same time DebianEdu kicked off in France. They joined forces in 2003, and both names now refer to the same distribution. As it targets schools, the setup is a bit more advanced. It can be set up as a thin client server with thin clients for a school network, but also as a separate workstation. As the name suggests, it's based on Debian.

"DebianEdu/Skolelinux is an operating system intended for educational use and a Debian Pure Blend. As skole [skuːlə] is the Norwegian word for school, Skolelinux's literal translation is 'school Linux.' It has been created as an overall free software computer solution designed to fit to schools' resources and needs, and is currently being developed by a large and growing international community."

Edubuntu

Edubuntu, while still alive, sadly won't be for much longer. It was an official Ubuntu flavor, but has since disappeared from that list. In March 2016, the team announced that the latest version will be supported until April 2019, but unless new contributors join, no new releases will be made. Should no one pick up the project, it will end by the time Ubuntu 17.10 is released in October 2017. If anyone has the time and interest to carry this distribution forward, now is the time!

"Edubuntu is a grassroots movement, we aim to get Ubuntu into schools, homes, and communities and make it easy for users to install and maintain their systems. We are students, teachers, parents, and hackers who believe that learning and knowledge should be available to everyone who wants to improve themselves and the world around them."

Qimo

Qimo for kids was an Ubuntu-based distribution designed specifically for children. It was a popular distribution and pre-installed with a lot of educational applications for children ages three years and older. Sadly, Qimo was retired in January 2016. On its website, which is still up and running, the team recommends using Ubuntu or other distributions to use the games in Qimo, which remain available. They have also provided their wallpapers for download if you would like to recreate the Qimo feeling.

"When we started the project, there was a need for a simple, unobtrusive interface for very young children or those with learning or developmental disabilities. But technology has a way of moving on, and the things that Qimo did are now done in much more effective and inventive ways."

The Qimo team has moved to Phoenicia, which is developing educational apps for Android.

DoudouLinux

DoudouLinux was my favorite distribution for my daughter a couple of years ago. I'm having trouble finding out if the project is still running. The website and downloads are available, but the latest image updates were in 2013, and the last blog update was in April 2015. Not a good sign, but here's what the website says:

"DoudouLinux is specially designed for children to make computer use as easy and pleasant as possible for them (and for their parents too!). DoudouLinux provides tens of applications that suit children from 2 to 12 years old and gives them an environment as easy to use as a gaming console. Kids can learn, discover, and have fun without Dad and Mum always watching!"

Words to the wise

One major difficulty for Linux for kids is language support. If your children speak English fluently, they will be fine, but other languages are not commonly seen in applications and games. This is a very important factor in choosing a distribution, as young children will probably understand only their native language.

Although some distributions have discontinued, there are still several to choose from—depending on your preferences and requirements. Maintaining a distribution is hard work, and most teams do it in their free time. If you want to support any of these specialized distributions, reach out to the project and ask how you can help.

Some people argue that kids don't need a special or targeted distribution. They suggest using your usual Linux flavor, adding your child as a user, customizing the look and feel, installing applications and games, and letting them explore! They have a point: It's not like there is a Windows or macOS for kids, so why would we need separate distributions in the Linux world? On other platforms, it's all about the applications and games.

I tend to agree, even though I love that these specialized distributions for children exist. As a toddler, my daughter easily found her way around an iPad, which was not specialized at all. At five, she's a more avid user than many people I know. For children, it is all about the apps and how good they are.

She still finds it a bit harder to use a computer. Perhaps it would be different if I had a modern laptop with a touchscreen—she doesn't understand a mouse or touchpad very well, but still thinks it's fun to tap away on the keyboard.

Have you used Linux with children, either at home or in the classroom? What have you found to be successful? What are the biggest gaps the Linux community needs to fill in this area? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Tags
Jimmy Sjölund is a Principal Agile Practitioner at Red Hat, focusing on organisation transformation and team excellence while exploring agile and lean workflows. He is a visualisation enthusiast and an Open Organization Ambassador.

14 Comments

Raspbian (either on a Pi 3 or an x86 install)?

mandatory Hannah Montana distro comment?

Well, as it is "Kubuntu with a Hannah Montana theme" it would be included in the end comments where people suggest using a standard distribution and add a theme the child would like. I admire the ambition to get more people to use Linux:
Q : How/why did you make such a great OS?
A : I thought - what would attract young users to Linux? So I created this idea after a lot of reading and work.

But as it seems to have been a one-person-show I'm not sure about the further development of the distro. And as many wonder, will the next version will be called "Wrecking Ball OS" ...

In reply to by Luewenc

I agree that kids don't need a special or targeted distribution. Working as a translator for anything FOSS I stumble upon I often find that the niche distributions (and software forks) are bad at working upstream. This causes a endless amount of duplicated work for translators and likely other fields too.
I think what's needed is more focus on apps targeting kids and easier customising a "kid desktop" - terminal commands should be optional and not something necessary to install such things like icon packs and themes. Some guides (maybe a website) with recommendations for parents or for kids themself even would be nice. As far as I know, no package manager have categories for children apps. Why is that? We have vast categories for education and science, but it's hard to know what age level they are targeted at. Every app should be age rated, that would make it much easier for parents and kids to sort and find appropriate apps.

OT: i understand your reason for using recaptcha, but google is flawed. I had to solve literally 15 different images clicking on cars and signs to prove I'm a human. And the verification expired when I wrote this, so I guess a lot of new pictures are waiting for me... I doubt most people would even bother. Maybe you should look for something non-google. Just a advice.

I went looking for kids' distros this weekend, and was disappointed. I eventually installed Peppermint OS and their kids edutainment pack.

Hi
I have to disagree at some level with the idea of any OS with games and apps for kids is a well suited machine for kids, because I am an IT guy for more than 20 years, and I have seen too many times kids searching the web for games and apps and suddenly "out of nowhere" the have people naked on the screen.

I have seen on Spain for example no longer mantaind distros for kids and school with squid proxy installed and pre-configured for kids trying to avoid dangerous places for kids on the web.

That brings the "rage" of the people that is not in favor of "censorship" on the web, but I prefer to be labeled as a censor than to have in my conscience my 5 year old kid watching porno images and videos even accidentally because I didn't take the appropriate precautions.

The same goes with tablets for kids. The play store for android and apple store is more secure that surfing the web, its true, but for those who only want their "approved" content for their kids, http://kidoz.net/parents-corner/ will bring you the ability to install an "operating system" (more like another graphical interface" over the original operating system already installed on your apple, android (I think they stop releasing the windows desktop version). With that software the kid only can see a graphical interface that has kids stuff and cannot go out to the original android of iOS interface without a security code configured by the adult.

Again, sorry to the censorship witch hunters, but my kid will learn the web and to game safely as it could be.

That's a good point and probably a good idea for an article or even series, how to keep your kids' desktop and experience free from unwanted things. I didn't see that the distros I tried out had any proxy preconfigured or information on how to set it up. So if you got a browser up you would be able to surf as usual.

In reply to by RandallRW (not verified)

Not sure how a discussion of Linux for Kids gets this far without mentioning KanoOS https://kano.me . I have this running on a raspberry pi and he loves it. True, he spends 4x as much time in Minecraft than anything else, however when he gets bored I've caught him goofing around with Scratch and some of the TextUI games. I would highly recommend!

It looks very nice! However, it requires a Raspberry pi so it was a bit out of scope for this article.

In reply to by A. R. Thomas (not verified)

When my kids started using the computer it was on the only computer we had, so everybody was using the same distribution; Edubuntu at that time (6.06?).

I picked Edubuntu because it looked a little more "fun" than the run-of-the-mill distributions out there at the time with cartoon-y icons and bright colors.

I was nervous in the beginning about if they could log in. I made their username and their password the same; their name. I knew it wasn't a problem when my son tried logging in with "daddy" as the username and password! ;)

In the beginning I set gCompris to start when they logged in. When school introduced them to computers I adjusted their environment so the programs are there, but so are all the others.

I also included some games to make it fun like Super Tux Kart and kPatience. Then when they found online (flash) games and moved up to them.

Eventually the computer was refreshed and I put regular Ubuntu on it (8.04 LTS?).

I was nervous about the programs being different between them and their friends but they understood and didn't make a big stink about it. I would look for alternatives and talk to them how they were learning how to use a word processor, not Microsoft Word. Now they use Google for everything since the schools give them accounts and use Google Classrooms.

Now one uses a Chromebook they purchased with their own money, another plays games on Windows and manages 2 Minecraft Servers on Linux servers that their friends access from home (I'm just the backup sys admin) and the third uses mostly online apps. Only a couple key games influence what they use.

I have to say, it's not the OS which needs to be specifically a "Child's OS" or a "Child's Distro". It's a matter of taking a stock OS, adding apps appropriate for children, and installing it on a device which is easy for kids to control. iPad has all of this built in, but a Linux device shouldn't be too hard to make "kid friendly" with any distro.

A few of comments re Sugar:
(1) it does support touch on devices where touch is available
(2) it is available in about 40+ languages and is easy to port to new languages
(3) it runs great on hardware such as Raspberry Pi 3

Enjoy.

Also, Sugar Labs is participating in Google Code In again this year. If you know any 13-17 year olds, it is a great opportunity to learn to program within the context of real-world problems.

Fun fact: ~50% of the commits to Sugar have come from kids.

I've been trying to use Sugar on a Stick, but the livecd-creator application isn't supported on the referenced websites, and finding alternatives are ones that don't seem to install. It is probably easy to do a boot image from the CD but not for me. The DVD I booted would not boot, so no luck. DuoDuo was pretty cool. Nothing to write home about but I have old hardware that won't run anything else and DuoDuo is different enough that it is intriguing to my 6-year-old. The classics like hangman and tetris are redone as "retro" as far as he's concerned and it was worth it. I'm going to try the Ubermix option and see how it goes.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

Are you new to open source?

Are you new to open source?

Browse our collection of resources.