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Linux operating systems (OS) are often challenging for newcomers. Although Linux distributions such as ChaletOS and Manjaro target entry-level users and those switching from Windows, there’s still a steep learning curve. Aspects including the command line and fiddling with dependencies admittedly aren’t beginner friendly.
But Linux is a superb operating system for kids to learn. With a multitude of projects for kids and even simple kid-appropriate Linux distros, learning Linux from an early age carries its many benefits. Check out Sugar on a Stick (SoaS), an educational Linux OS.
What Is Sugar on a Stick?
Sugar on a Stick, or SoaS, is a kid-friendly Linux operating system. The default interface diverges from traditional desktop environments. SoaS boots into a simplified interface with icons and in this way allows for anyone to use it, regardless of reading level. As the name suggests, Sugar on a Stick is lightweight and made to run off of a flash drive, or a live CD. It also works well in a virtual machine (which is where I tried it).
Originally Red Hat and Pentagram developed SoaS as part of the One Laptop Per Child project. As the Wiki states:
“Sugar is a learning platform that reinvents how computers are used for education. Collaboration, reflection, and discovery are integrated directly into the user interface. Sugar promotes ‘studio thinking’ and ‘reflective practice’. Through Sugar’s clarity of design, children and teachers have the opportunity to use computers on their own terms. Students can reshape, reinvent, and reapply both software and content into powerful learning activities. Sugar’s focus on sharing, criticism, and exploration is grounded in the culture of free software (FLOSS).”
Even the install process eschews difficulty. Unlike modular installations, the most complexity you’ll encounter is mounting an ISO. Once you’ve loaded up your Sugar on a Stick ISO, you’ll enter a live environment. Rather than selecting operating system settings, SoaS presents a series of prompts. For instance, entering a name, gender, and age. There’s a spectrum which ranges from pre-kindergarten to adult. Unsure about whether I should go by age or maturity level, I authoritatively selected “Adult.”
During installation, there’s an onus on learning and exploration. It’s a theme which permeates usage and manifests as encouraged interaction with the operating system. One of the most enjoyable elements during installation: picking colors for your avatar which assumes the form of a “child you.” The entire process is strangely simple, and took about 30 seconds. In fact, I spent more time mounting my ISO than launching SoaS. Once I booted up SoaS, I even thought — incorrectly — that I’d missed a step.
It’s that easy.
Hands-On With Sugar on a Stick
After creating your username and avatar, you’ll see your customized child icon in the center of the screen. Surrounding the avatar, there’s a ring of applications. These vary from typing tests to a shape matching games and a web browser. There’s a clever simplicity to the overall experience. Without any directions, you can identify apps from just icons, and figure out how to navigate the OS with ease.
One of the first aspects you’ll notice is the unique interface. App icons appear in a circle around the person icon you created during the initial set up. Hovering the mouse above an icon shows what utility you’re using. If you prefer a list format, you can sort programs that way. I preferred the default layout with its aesthetically pleasing view. With its ring around the avatar, this look felt kid-oriented and screamed fun.
I was impressed with the range of included applications. There’s a basic learn-to-type game which I tried. Hoping for Typing of the Dead, instead I was greeted by the Typing Turtle. Expect a Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing-style experience. You’ll also find a paint app with stamps, shapes, and brushes for image creation and even basic programming tools. The latter even introduces Python conditionals. Don’t expect a full-fledged coding boot camp, but think along the lines of coding apps for kids.
Throughout the process of using applications and SoaS, there’s encouraged learning. As you advance throughout the operating system, you unlock increasingly advanced elements. For instance, with the Typing Turtle, as your typing skills improve, you unlock new challenges. Therefore, SoaS grows as you do. With its vast arsenal ranging from a reading section with free books, to a shape matching game, typing tool, and even basic programming, SoaS provides a treasure trove of educational material. I enjoyed the mix of technical and non-technical content. You may use this educational Linux operating system merely for fun and games, or as a foray into entry-level programming.
This is a Linux operating system built for kids and it shows. Aside from the apps and interface, the process of using Sugar on a Stick is deceptively simple. You’ll soon forget you’re using a Linux operating system. As much as I love Linux, there’s often quite a lot of work involved installing dependencies and troubleshooting. But with SoaS, it just functions. With almost no direction, it’s easy to create a user, pick an avatar, and hop into the apps.
Once you’ve used and exited an app, you’ll notice that they’re colored like your avatar; this indicates that you’ve used the app. The entire experience isn’t guided… but it doesn’t need to be. Absent are written directions. Even applications don’t feature descriptions. Instead, there’s just an icon and a name. This approach makes Sugar on a Stick ideal for children regardless of reading level. Since it’s lightweight, you can run Sugar on a Stick on almost any hardware.
Who Should Use SoaS?
Although Sugar on a Stick includes options spanning pre-K to adult, it’s tough to recommend for older audiences. Adults should skip this Linux operating system and instead pick a full-fledged alternative. For beginners, try Elementary, Manjaro, Ubuntu Desktop, Linux Mint, or ChaletOS. Even high schoolers may suffer boredom with SoaS. That’s because of its aesthetic. The typing turtle really caters to kiddos. Yet for children, this is the ideal distro. Although it won’t teach much about Linux itself, Sugar on a Stick is a comprehensive educational Linux operating system.
You’ll find a safe environment for children to play and learn. It’s minimalist, intuitive, and misleadingly educational. While playing around, I quite enjoyed the apps, even the far from challenging Typing Turtle. After a while, I realized that though I was having fun, I was also engaging in educational activities. Contrary to popular opinion, the two are not mutually exclusive. SoaS is like a sandbox packed with opportunities to create and get messy. Therefore, it’s an excellent means to introduce children to computers in a safe, worry-free environment. It’s suitable for both kids who want to explore basic coding, or merely learn through reading and typing games.
The only downside is that whereas SoaS is ideal as an educational Linux operating system, it doesn’t really teach much about Linux. There are opportunities to teach technical skills though. For instance, include your children in the process of mounting the Sugar on a Stick ISO and teach them about live CDs. Despite the lack of Linux, it’s a great way to get the younger demographic acquainted with computers from an early age. Sugar on a Stick acts as a bridge between the pre-tech age and more advanced gadgets such as smartphones and full-fledged computers.
Gimme Sugar… on a Stick
Ultimately, I enjoyed using Sugar on a Stick. It’s one of the easiest Linux operating systems I’ve encountered, from installation to everyday use. As a youngster, in computer lab I mostly played Math Blaster, The Magic School Bus Explores the Human Body, and The Oregon Trail II. While I still adore The Oregon Trail II, and even revisited it with PlayOnLinux, it’s mildly educational at best. SoaS is a deft Linux distro that fosters a safe environment for children.
With its variety of applications, ease of use, and ability to run on pretty much any hardware, Sugar on a Stick is wholly unique and an ideal introduction to computers for children. Because you can run it on a flash drive, SoaS is the prefect project idea for an old PC like an Intel Atom-based Netbook. Try using this for a dedicated kid’s computer.
Which educational Linux distros do you recommend?
Image Credit: KK Tan via Shutterstock.com