The day TuxPaint became contagious

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I work at a public library with 28 Linux stations made publicly available in four separate rooms. The room in which I spend most of my time has 10 computers, and elementary and middle school students stop by daily after school to use them. About 90 percent of the children use the computers for games, and about 10 percent use them for doing homework. Very few use the computer for creative graphics applications. I'm bent on changing that.

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Our computers run three very interesting, fun, and useful graphics programs. For young children, we have TuxPaint. We also have the Inkscape vector drawing program and the GNU Image Manipulation Program--known as the GIMP.  A few years ago our library offered a GIMP class for elementary school students. It was a joy seeing the students continue using GIMP after the class came to an end. Unfortunately, the GIMP contagion did not spread beyond the students in the class.

Last week, I was really happy to see a mother sitting at a computer with her 3-year-old son, with TuxPaint up on the screen. The child was squealing with delight as he used the various drawing tools in TuxPaint. Listening to him speak, I noticed he was highly verbal, too.  “How old is your son?” I inquired politely. 

The mom smiled back and said, “He's three.” 

I explained that TuxPaint was a free program and that the family could use it at home. Mom told me the family has a laptop, so I offered to install TuxPaint the next time they visited the library. (TuxPaint runs on all computer platforms–Linux, Macintosh, and Windows.)

created by TuxPaintI did not expect what happened next. Somehow, the word about TuxPaint spread throughout our community. Older elementary school students started exploring it in our computer center. A few days later, a middle school boy asked how he could use TuxPaint on his computer. This is a boy who has spent hundreds of hours playing first-person shooting games.

This student went on to make a lovely drawing in TuxPaint.  I commented, “You've got artistic talent.”

He replied, “My teacher once asked me to draw a bunny rabbit for Easter and I drew a really excellent rabbit.” 

I offered to print his drawing on our color laser printer. That's when I noticed that TuxPaint was on most of the computers in our computer center. A TuxPaint epidemic was full-blown. Students of all ages were exploring different aspects of the program.

I showed the sixth-grade student's drawing to a fourth-grade girl who was enjoying TuxPaint.

“I'm going to try and make the same drawing,” the fourth-grade girl said.

“Can she borrow your drawing for a little while?” I asked the sixth grade boy.

He said, “Fine!”

Within a span of 10 minutes, the computer center had transformed itself from a games-playing room to a room full of creative exploration. I can't explain how it happened, but I give a lot of credit to the programmers who created TuxPaint. For those of you who work with youth in outside-of-school settings, there is hope that students will voluntarily move themselves off a games-playing path and onto a creative exploration path.

TuxPaint, Inkscape, and GIMP are all free tools for creative exploration. It is possible to see these programs making their way into your community. I can tell you first-hand, it's a truly beautiful sight.

If you have ideas or tips for how to spur a creative epidemic with these and other FOSS programs, comment below or--even better--consider writing an article for  This is the tip of the iceberg. Reveal to us some of the rest of the iceberg, won't you?


Smiling librarian standing in front of bookcase
Phil Shapiro has been an educator, teaching students from pre-school to graduate school for the past 35 years. He currently works at a public library in the Washington, DC area, helping youth and adults use their public Linux stations.


I believe that one of the greatest points in TuxPaint is that it connects way back to the "old school" feelings of "simple fun" we had with our computers back in the 80's and early 90's. The majority of people see computers these days either as boring work machines or plain old mindless entertainement.
I believe we need to present computers to people again as "simple creative fun" boxes, specially to younger people, so that they will not risk limiting their perception to "boring work" or "mindless entertainement" when they see a computer. Some simple way to create music, some simple way to create drawings, etc. (Insert here old 8bit or Amiga fun)

You should try lmms or hydrogen. You can also use this web interface hope someone make open source software like that. doesn't work without javascript - no about, no contact, nothing. That's just as bad as creating a Flash-only website. Lazy!

So I'll be staying away.

Tux Paint is great software, but I have advocated for years (to no avail) that the saving mechanism should be a simple save and save as like every other paint program out there and it should not go into a folder that most students don't know how to find.

My children have had a lot of fun with tuxpaint in the past, and so have their friends. They are now 8 and 11 - and have moved up to the excellent <a href="">MyPaint</a>. It's simplicity and power have encouraged us to get a graphics tablet to make more use of it. It really is well worth investigating. And again it's free software. I've only ever used it on Linux, so I can't say how or if it works with Windows.

According to the MyPaint <a href="">download page</a>, the program is available for Linux, Mac OS-X and Windows...

That's a great story. I love to hear about curiosity blooming and about people falling in love with free software. If your library mainly serves younger students, do you make gcompris available? I've known a couple of kids who've used it and like it.

Some good conversation and tips happening on <a href="" target="blank">reddit</a>.

Phil, great article. I am both surprised and happy tuxpaint was able to pull them in to that extent. My daughter used to use that program (from about age 5 to 8) pretty regularly. She has since moved on to 'playing' with scratch, which continues to push her creativity.
Another game that is simplistic, but has levels from trivial to very challenging, is magicor (and to be honest, one of the only computer games to grab my interest). It is more of a problem solving game (the penguin pushes a block of ice to extinguish fires). The graphics are simple so it will run on any hardware, and there are enough levels to keep any person satisfied for a long time. It appears to really get their interest when they challenge each other on a given level.

"About 90 percent of the children use the computers for games,"

Maybe it would be cheaper for the for the taxpayers if the libraries just bought Xboxs or Playstations instead of wasting a bunch of our money on computers.

The games would be stolen, followed by the consoles themselves. If somehow they weren't, then the dozen or so consoles wouldn't be enough for all the kids wanting to play them.

Further, at $50 a game, the price of each these consoles would quickly exceed the price of a computer with just a game or two.

Keep in mind, also, what would the 10% that DON'T play games on the computers do with a useless console?

If there was Xboxs or Playstations in the library where Phil works, this great story wouldn't happen.

As a librarian/former teacher and parent, I really applaud and congratulate you on your efforts. I wish more librarians would try moving beyond book-based learning.

Art is way for young children to express themselves -- their thoughts, ideas, and feelings. TuxPaint is an excellent program for young children to do this. It offers an opportunity for young children to have unstructured play which is so critical for life, learning, and their development.

Hi Phil -

I'm an open source developer, keen on getting folks to play with a new tool for getting computers and mobile phones/tablets to talk. It is called SlideSpeech. It does what the name says: authors use presentation software to make slides, then add a script in the speaker notes (where you'd normally type a reminder to yourself about what to say) so each slide has both the slide image and this separate "speech" about the slide. E-mail the presentation as an attachment to and the system sends back an e-mail with a link to play the converted presentation, with a computer voice reading the script.

Kids could have fun using this to make talking story books. Adults could use it to make how-to instructions.

Worth a try?


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