When I was growing up nobody ever taught me how to use a computer. I was just placed in front of one and had to work it out on my own. With my daughter about to start school next year I thought it might be a good idea to give her a little head start into the world of computing. The initial idea was just to refurbish an old work laptop with Windows 10 and Office and be done with it. But in the age of cyber bullying and social media a child’s first entry into the Internet and computing shouldn’t be taken so lightly. So this blog post will primarily cover the philosophy of the setup (instead of full technical details) with my 5 year old daughter’s use in mind.
- An old Laptop or Computer (I used a HP Elitebook 8460p)
- USB Mouse (I used a portable one to fit tiny hands)
Besides the obvious advantages of using a laptop with inbuilt connectivity and audio capability; this laptop also had an inbuilt SD card reader perfect for downloading her camera photos and also a web cam to make video calls.
The laptop was already running Windows 7 with Office installed which I could have upgraded to Windows 10 through this for free but Linux has a few different offerings which seemed more appropriate especially for schooling. Some examples of why Linux is a better environment include:
- Safer from malicious software
- Encourages understanding of how programs are made and used
- Great Educational platform for future projects and programming
With regards to Educational Linux there are a few options available such as Doudou, Qimo4Kids, Edubuntu and Ubermix. All of them offer great simple interfaces and bundle kids programs but ultimately I chose Ubermix because it is still actively being developed with a very recent updates.
The main purpose of choosing a Kid friendly Ubermix Distro over a full Ubuntu Distro was:
- The User Interface is greatly simplified and removes a lot of options for changing/breaking the system
- Comes pre-bundled with kids educational programs and games
- Ubermix installs the software and user data into separate partitions which makes restore the OS a lot simpler in case of failure or corruption
Installation of Ubermix was very simple (Full instructions here). Download and burn the image to a USB Key and then boot from it during start up. Follow the wizard and it will do the rest. The great thing about an Ubuntu based distro is that all the HP drivers and soft keys are already installed functioning from the first time you login. After jumping on the WiFi and adding in the printers I made some changes which made it a bit easier for my daughter to use. Out of the box there are some other optimisation tweaks you can do to increase the performance. As these are optional I’ve left those details below.
Step 1: Customising the Desktop
Ubermix comes prepackaged with the Cinnamon Desktop which has many familiar features like a Windows desktop with shortcuts like Win-E for explorer or Win-D for Desktop. To make the interface even simpler I chose a custom Theme called Zukitwo and added in my daughters favorite Frozen character Elsa to the wallpaper.
Step 2: Adjusting the Accessibility
Starting out my daughter wont be as dexterous with the touch pad or mouse as an experienced user so I increased the text and menu scaling sizes to make things more visible and easier to click on. I also increased the size of the mouse cursor, slowed the acceleration and increased the double click delay.
Step 3: Installing Packages
Although it is an Educational device it would be waste not to install additional multimedia tools and games. Majority of these apps can be found within the inbuilt package managers or directly from the developer web pages.
- Media Player: VLC Player
- Music Player: Rhythmbox
- Games: GCompris, Steam
- Emulator: Wine
One application of special note is TimeKpr which is a tool that lets you track and control the access time of a user on Linux. Allows you to limit the usage based on time duration or time periods.
Child Friendly Customisations
The Operating System and Applications aside the most interesting and important feature of a computer is accessing the Internet. For my daughter’s safety this means trying to lock down the Chrome Browser as much as possible using the following tweaks:
Chrome Supervised Users: This feature allows you to control and monitor the websites that a user can access on the browser (Instructions here).
YouTube Restrictions: Once signed in, at the bottom settings section of a YouTube page you can enable Restricted mode to remove inappropriate material showing
Kiddle Search Engine: Kiddle is a search engine designed for kids and is perfect for setting as the default home screen and address bar’s search engine. You can see in the example search how it appeals to kids with the large thumbnails.
Kids Web Pages: Finally once I’ve locked down the browser to my satisfaction its finally time to enjoy what the vast internet has to offer. The following are some great websites to suit kids of all ages in both education and entertainment.
- Khan Academy: Khan Academy is a fantastic educational website which host hundreds of educational videos and quizzes and even provides tracking tools for parents and teachers to monitor the development of a child.
- ABCya!, Funbrain, Highlights Kids: A ton of educational games for kids
- ABC Kids: A great Kids TV network in Australia
- National Geographic Kids: A perfect place for kids to learn about the world
This laptop is just a the foundation for my daughter to enter the technological world. As a parent it will still be my responsibility to ensure my kids surf the web safely whilst enjoying some freedom. The pace at which kids learn new things always surprises me and knowing that you must always supervise your kids online.
OS Performance Tweaks
Optional optimizations outside of normal interface tweaks.
- Reduce the Grub loading time
This reduces the default 10s boot load time down to 2s. In a terminal window run the following command:
sudo gedit /etc/default/grub &
Change GRUB_TIMEOUT=10 to GRUB_TIMEOUT=2. Once saved, use the following command to apply the change:
2. Install Preload
Preload is like Windows SuperFetch which monitors application usage and makes commonly apps more efficient to run. In a terminal window run the following command:
sudo apt-get install preload
After installation, restart your computer and it will be running in background.
3. Adjust Swap Partition
The default swap file level in Ubuntu is set to 60 which means that it will start using the Swap Partition even when there is plenty of RAM remaining. For our laptop with 4GB of RAM dropping this level down to 10 will be plenty: In a terminal window run the following command:
sudo gedit /etc/sysctl.conf
Scroll down to the very bottom of the file with the arrow keys and then add this line:
vm.swappiness = 10
Save the changes then restart to apply.