A Computer for Calvin

A couple of weeks ago I was on Craigslist and stumbled across a listing for a preschool desk with two chairs. It looked adorable and I knew, given research I had done previously, that it was at a pretty good price. I’ve been thinking about getting Calvin a desk for a while but just haven’t. I seriously considered the desk on Craigslist but I’m trying to avoid buying any bulky items that we have to sell or will be difficult to store when we move in a couple of years. So, I passed on the desk and wondered if that was a good choice.

Yesterday, I was practicing the piano when it suddenly occurred to me that we already had the top of a desk, we just needed legs for it. I ventured down into the basement and pulled out one of the desk tops that belong to the cubicles Jaeger inherited. It’s about 2’x4′ and fit perfectly in a corner of the family room. However, the cubicle legs it’s suppose to attach to are obviously too tall for Calvin. I did some research and found a website that said the desk should be between 18-20″ high. I briefly contemplated whether I could take some of the unpacked boxes and stick them under as table legs. However, the idea wasn’t appealing to me. I continued thinking of low-cost solutions and then hit upon the idea of trying out concrete blocks.

I went to pick Calvin up at preschool and told him we were going on an expedition to look for a table for him. Calvin insisted that he didn’t want a table and I briefly considered abandoning the idea but I had a bee in my bonnet. I told him that I wanted to try it out and if he didn’t like it, we’d take the table down. Off to home depot we (crankily) went and I picked up four 8x8x16 concrete blocks. Including tax, they cost a little less than $8. We went back home and I arranged the concrete blocks and then placed the table on top. Next, I dragged down my old 8″ mini-exercise step that has recently been a step-stool for Calvin and set it as a seat in front of the table. It turned out to be the perfect size for Calvin. I then setup Calvin’s old computer, Illyria, and Calvin got a chance to try out the new setup. After seeing it all together, he decided it was an improvement and wanted to keep the table.

About a year ago I had setup Illyria to be more toddler/preschool friendly. My parents had given us a kids keyboard that had some special games with it which Calvin enjoys. However, I wanted to setup the rest of the computer specifically for him too. I found a couple of websites that I thought he’d like to play and then found a Firefox add-on to whitelist websites so he could only go to the ones I allowed (and, more importantly, he doesn’t accidentally get to other random websites due to accidentally clicking on ads). I setup the desktop with shortcuts to the website and then changed the default to have shortcuts open with a single click rather than a double click. Calvin tried it out and the theory seemed to work fine but the mouse was really hard for him to use and he kept asking for help. We didn’t have a spot for his computer to be and it was a pain to get in and out so we mostly ignored it for a year.

Yesterday, when I got the computer out again, Calvin seemed to remember the games he had played before. The mouse is still a little tricky for him to use but at this point he has enough coordination that he can eventually get it to move the way he wants and click on things. The main site Calvin has been playing with so far is Sesame Street.

Illyria is pretty old at this point. You can see her specs here. She has no wireless card so I have her hooked to one of the handy nearby ethernet jacks Jaeger installed when we moved into this house. Getting decent software for Calvin that can run on Windows 2000 may be a bit of a challenge. The library actually does check out some software but we’re straining to meet even their minimum requirements. After Calvin went to bed, I contemplated various children-friendly Linux options. I did some research and came across a couple of decent looking possibilities.

  • Edubuntu – From what I’ve read, it looks pretty full-featured but seems to be mostly aimed for classroom use. Also, Illyria is not beefy enough to run it.
  • Sugar – Apparently it was developed as part of the One Laptop per Child project. However, while Linux based, I understand the interface is radically different than adults are use to dealing with. I was still curious but some browsing made it appear that, once again, Illyria would have trouble handling it.
  • Qimo is yet another distribution but this one looked more promising as one website reported, “Qimo uses a customized Xfce interface thus allowing it to be used even on computers with the lowest of specs.”
  • DoudouLinux received high marks from a number of sources and looked like Illyria might be able to handle it.

I started with Qimo. I downloaded it and burnt it to a CD and then had Illyria boot to CD. Qimo has a handy feature where you can either choose to install it or run it as a Live CD so you can evaluate it without making irreparable changes to your existing OS. It booted very slowly and the programs took a while to load but it did work. The slowness would drive me nuts but I really need to stick Calvin in front of it and see what he thinks. Qimo, like most of the other kid-focused Linux distros comes with a suite of Linux-based edutainment options.

Next, I dried Doudoulinux. Doudoulinux also runs as a Live CD. However, it turns out that Illyria wasn’t quite beefy enough to run it. It would mostly load and then randomly stop before we got to the desktop. However, I was successfully able to pull it up on Adara and see how it works. Tentatively, I think I might like the interface a bit more than Qimo.

At this point, I’m not willing to commit Calvin to an exclusive relationship with Linux. I still need to tinker a bit more and also see how much Calvin is really using his computer before I decide what the best long-term option is. I haven’t run out of kid-friendly Linux distros to try so there might be an even better option available but Illyria is old enough that nothing runs perfectly on her.

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