Debian Jr. Computer Channel article

The following translation by the Debian Jr. Project of this original article (in German) by Susanne Reininger is posted here with permission from G+J Computer Channel GmbH.

A Linux for the Young

The free operating system Linux should gain entry into children's rooms - that is what certainly the initiators of three projects wish. But whether Linux fits that simply into "children's shoes" in the minds of the committed developers is questionable.

By Susanne Reininger

"Daddy, is this Linux game also available for Windows 95 -- it would look better there, wouldn't it?", nine-year-old Victoria asked her father nervously. That hurt the Debian developer Ben Armstrong in two ways: as a committed advocate of the Open Source idea he is one of the initiators of the "Debian Jr. Project" which aims to make the Linux based Debian operating system more friendly for kids. Besides, he wants to pass on his beliefs of "free software for all" to his children because he classifies the alternatives as "too restrictive and just unacceptable". "Whether I like it or not, Windows is much easier for kids than Linux is" Armstrong had to admit. "Why can't Linux be more fun for kids? I want to develop a desktop for kids where they can start toys, games and educational software with a few mouseclicks" describes Armstrong in his vision of the Debian Jr. Project.

    The project is not visible to the public yet and is situated in the "internal phase" in which Armstrong exchanges ideas and tips with other Debian developers in his spare time about how Linux-based desktop-functions and applications which are suitable for children could look in a mailing list {translator's note: this is not true anymore: there is an official website}. "This is not about reinventing a user interface but about selecting applications we think children can cope with best." says Armstrong.

    The central question is: "What exactly is it that makes computers attractive to kids?". Therefore you must keep your eyes and ears open and look unobtrusively over the kids' shoulders when they sit at the computer. Without this focus you get lost in abstract questions believes the Debian developer. Not only is desktop-arrangement debated, but also child-proofing applications so that kids are not limited, but rather are encouraged to find their own solutions - "even if it breaks sometimes".

    Besides the Debian Jr. Project there are two more developer initiatives which want to enthuse kids to use Linux playfully, an operating system which is hard for many average users to understand. One of them is "Linux for Kids" which launched their own website. It wants to give publicity to the open operating system as a platform for learning and edutainment software. "Our target group is kids under the age of ten" says Chris Ellec, the operator of the website. But so far, Linux for Kids serves mainly as a software forum for parents and teachers who are looking for programs for the young at home or for teaching. "We hope that we become also a contact point for kids soon" says Ellec.

    Chris Ellec and some friends wanted to adapt some old 486es for deployment in an elementary school. Through his long lasting experience with Linux he installed the free operating system on the "good old boxes". But then he discovered that there were barely any educational programs and games. So he collected existing software from the net and encouraged some programmer friends to develop appropriate applications. Thus, step by step the software forum grew from five up to more than 60 programs. Under seven categories, games like "Tuxracer", a 3D ski race, city simulation "Lincity", a multilanguage translator for Japanese and educational programs can be downloaded. In February a collection of the best programs on CD-ROM came out, the proceeds of which go towards operation of the site. A review system and feedback from users should be added soon. The initiators or "Linux for Kids" work closely together with SEUL/Edu (Simple End User Linux) a discussion group of parents, teachers and students who want to deploy Linux as a learning aid.

    The Linux-mascot Tux has already become a cuddly toy for children's rooms - now it just has to manage the jump to the child's computer desktop.

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