Four Linux distros for kids

No readers like this yet.
open source button on keyboard

I can see the brightness of curiosity in my six year old niece Shuchi's eyes when she explores a mobile phone or manipulates the idiot box with its remote control or becomes creatively destructive with any other electronic device. She, like a lot of kids her age, love experimenting.

This curiosity reaches its peak when she sits in front of my laptop or her father's laptop. A lot of times, however, I observe that she is lost in complicated applications that are suitable only to adults. An operating system that an adult uses and the system running it can look like a beast to a lot of kids. These applications are beyond the comprehension of very young kids and do not provide an ideal (and playful) introduction to computers. Futher, adults' laptops and tablets do not serve as a good learning environment for any kid (younger or older) who is just onboarding into the world of computing. Besides, letting a kid run wild on a computer with an online connection can be daunting for the parents.

As a big kid myself, and an open source software enthusiast for over four years now, I like exploring and experimenting with different software solutions. Pertaining to the problem of finding and setting up an ideal system for my young niece, I found that the open source Linux community has created specialized operating systems and environments for kids. Plus, setting up these systems is a breeze.

Why should kids learn Linux

I have reached a conclusive opinion at this point in my life that children should be exposed to the power of Linux early on. Two of the reasons are...

For the future of computing

 I recently read the article, A year of Linux desktop at Westcliff High School, which is an excellent piece by Stu Jarvis in which Malcolm Moore replies to a question by stating, "Here is a survey that reports in 2000, 97% of computing devices had Windows installed, but now with tablets and phones, etc., Windows is only on 20% of computing devices, and in the world of big iron, Linux reigns supreme. We specialize in science and engineering and want our students to go on to do great things like start the next Google or collapse the universe at CERN. In those environments, they will certainly need to know Linux."

Linux runs some of the most complex infrastructures in the world. For anyone even remotely interested in a career in technology, learning Linux will be a definite asset. Besides that, the adoption of Linux is massive and ubiquitous. Consider this:

  • Linux powers international space stations
  • Linux powers the technology in new cars like Tesla and Cadillac
  • Linux powers air traffic control systems
  • Google, Facebook, Twitter, all use Linux
  • 9 out of 10 supercomputers in the world run on Linux

There is a rational reason that initiatives like One Laptop per Child, which in my opinion is one of the most powerful programs today that is working to bridge the digital divide, use Linux based systems.

For customization and variety

 Learning at an early age can be best enhanced in an environment that encourages exploration. There is no other operating system that offers such variety and autonomy to customize the system based on specific needs like Linux. Like toys and clothes for kids, the Linux community has developed specific operating systems that can offer them a fun learning environment. I believe that to boost curiosity in kids, it is important to create a set up that gives them a feeling of wonder.

Programs to teach kids Linux

There are many different varieties of environments that the Linux community has designed for the children, and I haven't yet explored them all, but of the ones I did, you should be able to find a great solution for teaching a kid you know about Linux and computing.


Qimo for kids is a Ubuntu-based distribution designed specifically for children. The operating system comes pre-installed with a lot of educational applications for children ages 3 years and older. It comes with GCompris, a perfect suite for children aged 3 to 10 years. It consists of over 100 educational games that teaches basic computer use, reading, art history, telling time, and drawing pictures, as well as Childs Play, a collection of memory-building games.

One of the things I like best about this distribution is that it uses XFCE desktop , which is a lightweight desktop that can be installed on older machines. The hardware requirements are low and it is absurdly easy to repurpose an old laptop or a desktop system. We had an old PC at home, and Qimo resurrected it. This operating system was my choice for my niece because of its simple child friendly cartoon desktop and assortment of educational applications.


Sugar was designed for the One Laptop per Child program. It is an easy to use and kid-friendly operating system. Children who love exploring will figure out things quickly in this environment, even if they cannot read or write yet.

From Sugar Labs:

Information is about nouns; learning is about verbs. The Sugar interface, in its departure from the desktop metaphor for computing, is the first serious attempt to create a user interface that is based on both cognitive and social constructivism: learners should engage in authentic exploration and collaboration. It is based on three very simple principles about what makes us human.


Ubermix is extensively used in schools. The system was designed to store user data and software in seperate partitions. So, in case the computer malfunctions, the user can wipe out the operating system and resotre fresh copies quickly. From Ubermix founder, Jim Klein, in an interview:

Ubermix comes pre-loaded with a number of applications for education, productivity, design, programming, Internet, and multimedia construction. Education oriented applications like Celestia, Stellarium, Scratch, VirtualLab Microscope, Geogebra, iGNUit, and Klavaro, as well as educational games like TuxMath, TuxTyping, gMult, and Numpty Physics all bring with them plenty of opportunities to learn.

Internet applications we all know and love, like Firefox, Thunderbird, Chrome, Google Earth, and Skype are all there. Common productivity apps like LibreOffice, NitroTasks, Planner Project Management, VYM (View Your Mind), and Zim Desktop Wiki are too. Kids interested in design will find the GIMP, Inkscape, Scribus, Dia, Agave, and even TuxPaint for the younger ones. And apps like Audacity, Openshot, Pencil, and ffDiaporama help round out the media offerings. These, and many more, make Ubermix a powerful launchpad for student creativity and learning.


Formally the Ubuntu Education Edition, Edubuntu was developed in collaboration with educators and teachers. It embeds a variety of educational programs and a suitable learning environment. An advantage to it is access to the Ubuntu software repository. The education community has extensively used this operating system in schools and organizations to provide an enriched learning environment for their students. It's a great operating system to teach older children about Linux; it can have a steeper learning curve in comparison to Qimo and Sugar.




See the full list of Youth in Open Source Week articles.


User profile image.
Aseem is a graduate of Conrad Business, Entrepreneurship and Technology Center, Faculty of Engineering, University of Waterloo, Canada. He also holds a masters in computers application from Guru Nanak Dev University, Punjab, India. On, he serves as an author. He also blogs at


Picar OS ( a Galician distro is also worth looking at.

Thanks John.

What about Kiddix, which is the oldest "Linux for Kids"?

Don't forget DouDou :

Thanks for sharing Ronen.

This is great article Sir Aseem! Children should learn as early as possible so that linux would not be alien environment as they grow older and I believe that "The youth is the hope of our future." - Jose Rizal

Thanks a lot Jose. A youth that is more open, aware and comfortable with the technology of the future can bring a very positive change in the world. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Aseem ji, Read your inputs. I ma impressed. I have been toying with the idea of venturing into Linux for some months; and now with your encouragement i would be beginning to take my baby steps into this world very soon.
Thanks for the inspiration.

In reply to by Aseem Sharma

Jose Rizal! He is one of my favorite authors!

On a more relevant note, I agree that this is a terrific article. I know a lot of parents who recognize the need to integrate more awareness of technology into their kids' lives, but their solution seems to be tablets with games, which seem to end up stifling creativity more than promoting it. I'll definitely be getting the word out about these better alternatives!

That is so true Jared. A tablet access with a few games is like giving someone Facebook or Twitter access to teach him/her about internet. Children, as in this case, need a system that gives them an autonomy to explore technology and at the same time safeguards them from the unnecessary aspects of the online world.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Just so you're aware, we're planning on releasing a 3.0 version of Qimo this spring, to coincide with Ubuntu 14.04

That is an exciting news. Thanks for sharing Michael.

Qimo doesn't look like it has been updated for 2 years.

The download site does not seem to exist any more either

I don't agree that children need a special "children's distro".
I put my daughter, then aged 5, in front of what was then called Mandrake 9 and she found her way round it without any help or guidance at all. The consequence being that she's utterly unafraid of unknown software/UI's.
Children have a lot more going on than we give them credit for and if we restrict them to simplified versions of everything, we risk stunting exploration and leaving them bored or frustrated.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think, a child oriented environment can provide a good introduction to the world of computers and Linux can provide a playful introduction to the digital world.

restrict them to simplified versions of everything, we risk stunting exploration and leaving them bored or frustrated. = they are not being restricted as you say...they are being given choices to make it easier to learn and move around the Linux environment...not every child may be as quick to grasp some concepts as quick as others and some may, for example, figure out their way around the OS in one day...that's the beauty of life...choices!!

I agree that children don't necessarily need their own distribution. I had picked Edubuntu for the family computer more for the kid-friendly icons and wallpaper. Now it has been 4+ years of regular Ubuntu (first Gnome then Unity).

I think for kids it is more "all about the apps!". Most of my support is finding what they are wanting to do and the best programs to do that.

That's one of the reasons why I stick with Ubuntu .. the largest collection of apps (pre-built) in the repositories.

One thing that shoulf be noted here is language support. 5 year old can use these distros as long as they are translated to her native language. It was the main reason while choosing Doudou Linux.

Great point Kettu. I too agree that it is very constructive to have applications in the native language. A lot of the digital world needs to be translated into native languages.

This is an great idea to have applications in native languages. but one international language is must so that we all can communicate each other. that should be taught throughout the world to bring the world closer as one being many(retaining their own identities).

My child is 4 years old and is learning with Doudou, it's incredible the way he use it, a lot of things he has learned. It's very difficult in Cuba 'cause most of the children has no computers at home so I really appreciate the work of programmers are doing for getting ressults with children everywhere. Congratulations!

That is a very good point dekatrom. The best part about Linux is that it goes everywhere.

I must admit my kid does not care much about the OS running behind Gcompris. Being able to play in is own language, french, is a major thing though and Gcompris offers that. It's an incredible piece of learning software! You would have to install a great number of windows software to get all that content. I know, I've been that route before!
Great article, many thanks!

Thanks Frederic. Gcompris is a great learning environment.

My kids started out with Edubuntu and then Ubuntu proper (8.04 LTS?). There were a number of programs they enjoyed using such as gCompris, Childsplay, Phun, Kpatience, TuxDraw, Super Tux Kart, Super Tux and FreeCiv.

At first I thought the login requirement was going to be tough for them, but they quickly got used to it and it hasn't been an issue. Even when my son, at 4 or 5 tried logging in under the username "daddy"!

My teen daughter likes to use my openSUSE laptop, in part because it is in my bedroom as a media PC, thus she is separated from her siblings! School uses Google Apps for Education so she could use any of the computers for homework but she has stated flat out "I prefer Linux". Who am I to argue? ;)

When they started going to school, the difference between Ubuntu and Windows was annoying for them at worst. Not because of things being different (that is only a minor annoyance), but because the school's computers are sloooow and not stable!

Until recently, 2 of the 3 also used my Chromebook and took to that after a few quick instructions. I have recently gotten a Raspberry Pi and every time I hook it up and turn it on the kids swarm me to check it out. :)

So for all intent and purpose, they have grown up using Linux. I do have a Windows machine accessible, in case they are more comfortable with that because of what they use at school. Honestly if it weren't for a couple of Windows-only games there would be little to no need for Windows. Except maybe to learn how everybody else using Windows has to do things.

Thanks for sharing your experiences Drew. I firmly believe that, considering the options we have now, any kid who likes technology will like Linux.

If you introduce the kids early, they don't have any pre-conceived views of what it "should" be like.

In my case, the kids learned Linux first and got familiar with it for a few years before they were introduced to computers in school

I also kept comments general. Instead of making a "Word" or "Writer" document, it was making a document with a "Word Processor".

I can't believe that any system is proof against the random keyboard stabbing of a one year old, even without root access. The exploration of the keyboard and mouse by any toddler usually results in a reboot required: I have tried it. It would be necessary to lock down any keyboard combination that is not necessary for the functioning of the program of interest and not allow escape from "the domain of the execution". A kind of selinux for the app of interest. Trial and Error (Correction?) would then be a possibility.

I don't know of any sane parent expecting anything BUT the random stabbing of a keyboard by a one year old! ;)

There is a program, however, that detects some random keys being hit on a keyboard and locks the keyboard for a moment. The concept behind this is when a cat walks across the keyboard (or lays down on it).

Now, a child and a touchscreen device like a tablet, I have heard, is more effective and I can believe it. That provides easy interaction that is more focused on the colors and shapes than it is of letters and their order.

It probably isn't but I've never had to reboot a computer for this reason - so I would argue that the probability is extremely low.

One thing that shoulf be noted here is language support. 5 year old can use these distros as long as they are translated to her native language. It was the main reason while choosing Doudou Linux.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.