Ready-made distributions for kids
There are a few distributions out there which attempt to deliver a child-friendly desktop right out of the box. These might be useful to you if you’re not very experienced with Linux, but even if you are, they can be a good introduction to what’s available for kids.
This Debian derivative from France is aimed at very young children. The interface is colorful and simple, and they’ve done some clever things to make the login menu act like an application menu, so that the child can just boot the PC and click (for example) “tuxpaint” and be in tuxpaint without all that tedious logging in and starting a desktop environment.
There’s also the option for them to log in to a desktop environment – specifically LXDE with LXLauncher running (so it’s kind of like the original eeePC interface, with tabs and big icons for stuff). The fact that it’s LXDE means it can run well on your old computer, and I had good luck installing DouDouLinux on a k6-2 laptop with 256 Mb of RAM (we use that particular unit to teach patience…).
If you plan to let the kids surf the web, DouDouLinux comes with content filtering already configured and enabled right out of the box. As far as I know, it’s the only distribution that does this, and for this reason alone is pretty sweet.
The program selection and graphics pretty much target younger grade-school children; your preteen will probably not appreciate all the teddy-bears and kitty-cats and whatnot.
Qimo (sometimes called Qimo4Kids)is an Ubuntu respin with an XFCE desktop. It looks really nice, includes all the usual software suspects, and (since it’s XFCE) works reasonably well on older systems. Unfortunately the project hasn’t been updated in nearly 3 years, and there aren’t any signs of life at the website as of this writing. If you’ve got the bandwidth and media to spare, though, booting to a Qimo live CD might give you some good ideas, if nothing else….
Written by Alan Moore