How do you set up a PC for the kids?

Hardware requirements

A computer to be used by children is at best a dedicated PC. You will not have to worry about protecting your data or other resources. There is simply nothing there for the child to erase or reconfigure. Whatever you do, never, ever let children use a computer you use for work, no matter what their age is. Accidents happen and you will be the only one to blame for allowing it. If necessary, use a USB key or external hard drive to boot from. An 8GB USB key is enough to put the OS and plenty of software on. A key like this is very cheap and certainly a lot cheaper than lost data.

If you use the free and open operating system Linux, you can get away with older hardware. I have recently used a PIII of 700MHz with 384MB of RAM with great success. It ran all the educational software without a hitch and even ran Flash at acceptable speed. This machine is an exception though but in general I can say that any Pentium processor with at least 512MB of RAM is enough to get a more than acceptable speed. This puts the Kids PC in the category of “old PCs too slow for a modern Windows OS”. Many people throw these PCs out the door so you can easily get a PC like this for free if you ask around.

Installing the software

I have used the GNU/Linux distribution called EasyPeasy as the basic OS. This distribution is originally made for netbook class portables, but runs very well on regular computers. The reason why I chose this is because of the interface with very large icons called Ubuntu Netbook Remix. It takes only a few minutes for even the smallest children to start using it. It's also a very fast and easy OS to install. The basic installation, which already includes loads of applications and the latest updates doesn't take more than 30 minutes. Adding and configuring the rest of the applications takes only a couple of hours more. On top of that all applications used are 100% free and open. This means you not only don't have to pay for them, but you also can get the source code and change the applications if needed. On top of that, because Linux in general is community driven, you can get help from a lot of different places.

I am in the process of creating an install manual for EasyPeasy and the added software. Subscribe to my RSS feed to keep up to date with my progress.

Optional installations

Time limitation soft

I found a really great application call timekpr to set the amount of time a user can make use of the computer. It's very easy to install and allows the administrator to set a per user daily time limit. You can set a limit per weekday and also give users a time bonus or punishment. It's perfect for what we need.

Hone page:

Web filter soft

The software used to do the web content filtering had to be reliable and the child may not be able to switch it off easily. Using a simple browser plug in was not an option. With the help of the users on the Linux Link Tech Show mailing list I found DansGuardian, This is a daemon (service) that filters all http traffic passing through it. It's pretty easy to set up and configure and has several levels of filtering by default. Combining this with a very lightweight proxy and an iptables rule gave me a system that can not be switched off and does the filtering at the lowest level. As an added benefit, the proxy speeds up surfing speeds.

A guide on how to set up this option will be posted as soon as the manual is up.

Home page:

What's next?

Now that you have the PC up and running and everything is ready to hand over to your kid, don't think your job is done. You have merely created the means for your child to learn stuff, it's up to you to be the guide and mentor. Getting and keeping your kid interested takes some effort. Sit down together at the PC and explain step by step on how to start it. Show how to press the on-off button - just press once, not too long. Tell what happens when the reset button is pressed. Explain things, don't just tell them what to do. Personally I explain that the reset button should only be used when the computer is locked up completely and that I need to know about it when this happens so I can investigate it and avoid it from happening again. They can use it, but only when needed and when I am not around.

When the computer is booted you go through the basic interface. Show the icons of the applications where the good stuff is. Don't tell your kid he may not touch some applications as that will trigger him/her do just that. I explain that some of the icons are only to be used by me to configure things and that when he/she is older can get access to it when he/she needs it. That way the icons are “Dad's icons” instead of “the interesting forbidden icons”. ;-) Besides, the real important ones need an administrator password to be able to change things.

Then you can start up gCompris and show only a few game. With a three year old this is of course the swipe game where white block are wiped clean to reveal a picture. Don't be tempted to show all the possibilities of the PC. That way you shoot all your arrows at once and can't use the “let me show you something new” any more. Besides, you will overwhelm the child and kick the fun out the door. Let your kid take over and let him/her experiment as soon as possible. If the interest is not there, try again later when he/she is calm and open.
Regularly show new things. My daughters just loved the audio recorder application. It's amazing that the simplest things get the most attention sometimes. Having a kid listen to his/her own voice or to the sounds of the surrounding makes them more self conscious, a basic need for becoming a stable person.