My six-year-old is taking a new class this year at school – Computer Lab – and he couldn’t be more excited. It may seem odd for someone who works in the business but until now he hasn’t had much access to screen time. We don’t watch TV and apart from occasional movies and Skyping with far-flung relatives he really hasn’t spent a lot of time in front of a computer. While the characters and games that dominate popular culture are very much a part of his play and interaction with his peers, until recently the exact details have been pretty much a product of his imagination. When he was three, for example, he was convinced that Spiderman was a shoe salesman, having experienced the web-slinger entirely through his merchandising. It’s very clear, however, that screens are going to be a big part of his future, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the best way to approach this.
When I think about the kind of experiences I want him to have in front of a computer screen I think about:
- An opportunity to be creative – to look behind the curtain, manipulate the environment, learn how to control what he sees and how it works, tell a story his way
- An engaging way to learn a useful skill or concept – there are some things (like sight words) that just have to be memorized, the more fun you can put into it, the better
- A perspective or experience that’s impossible to duplicate in real life – like venturing inside a cell, or flying low over the African savannah
- Some protection from the relentless marketing and merchandising directed at kids from diapers on up
We’ve been having good fun lately with a free open source application called Tux Paint (www.tuxpaint.org). With large, colourful icons, goofy sound effects and a large dose of whimsy it gives my son plenty of room to play. I love the ‘magic’ tools and rubber stamps and I’m constantly amazed at how deftly he draws with a big clunky tool like a mouse. He loves to print out his colourful creations and then incorporate them into other drawings and paintings.
There’s a lot about the interface for this application that’s interesting from a design perspective too. All of the icons are large and have both images and text. Everything is big – arrows, icons, text – to accommodate users with little hands just figuring out how to use a mouse. The effects descriptions are all very kid-centred. ‘Toothpaste’, for example, is the way to describe a drawing tool that creates tubular images. ‘Real rainbows’ creates just that – realistic rainbows wherever you want them on the screen. A little penguin mascot (the symbol of Linux) pops up to cheer him on and give him more information whenever he seems stuck. Nothing un-undoable happens until you answer the question ‘Did you really want to x?’. The screen is optimized for a 640 x 480 resolution, ensuring that even the smallest, lowest end computer screen can display it nicely. The admin system is completely separate from the program, so that no settings can be changed while using it.
I haven’t tried this yet, but apparently Tux Paint runs well on small handheld computers as well. It probably won’t be long before we see an iTouch interface. It also comes in about twenty languages, from Chinese to Catalan.
All in all, I’m pretty happy with this one as a fun, creative, useful place for my kids to spend time. Anyone out there have some other favourites?