Linux distros for kids

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.

6 Linux distributions for kids
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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.

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About the author

Jimmy Sjölund - Jimmy Sjölund is a senior IT service manager and innovation coach at Telia Company, focusing on organisation development, exploring agile and lean workflows and is a visualisation enthusiast. He's an Open Organization Ambassador and an open source evangelist, previously engaged in Ubuntu Studio and Plume Creator.