Tag Archives: education

Computers all the way down: a free virtual machine for your child

The Curiosity Cycle emphasizes that tool use develops the mind. Tools are even better when they are your own. In this blog post, I’ll explain how to create a computer within a computer for your child.


This computer within a computer is called a virtual machine. Your real computer simulates every action of the virtual machine, so it appears just like the computer you normally run. Well, actually, the virtual machine described in this blog post will be different from your normal computer if that computer is a PC or Mac. This virtual computer will run an operating system called Ubuntu.

Ubuntu is free and open source. Open source means that you can look at the programming code for how it works. You can’t do this with Windows. With Windows, even forensic investigators have to guess at how the system works. Using Ubuntu is analogous to having an old car where you can look under the hood and see the moving parts.

Your child will love having a computer of his or her own. My oldest son really likes that his little brother can’t use his computer, and both he and his brother love customizing the look of their screens and setting their bookmarks. In addition, restricting your kids’ internet searches for ninja Pokemon badger-cats to be within the virtual machine helps to protect your main computer from rootkits and other malware.

Installing the computer within a computer takes three steps. These steps take some time, but the installation is like making a cake from a box–you can go off and do other things while you are waiting for it to bake. Note that for the virtual machine to be zippy and responsive, you need a fairly new computer (any computer purchased within the last two years or so should be fine).

Step 1: download and install the free VMware player from https://my.vmware.com/web/vmware/free#desktop_end_user_computing/vmware_player/4_0
(you may have to restart your computer, ugh).

Step 2: download the free Ubuntu operating system from http://www.ubuntu.com/download/desktop
(this make take a while).

Step 3: follow the instructions at
You are pretty much done once you get to  “Installing VMware tools” because you can just follow the onscreen prompt to install VMware tools for Linux (Ubuntu is a flavor of Linux). At some point, VMware will ask you about an update to the paid VMware workstation; you can click “skip this update” or “skip this version.”

ImageOnce the install process is done, you are ready to go. You will probably need to install Adobe Flash at some point. Luckily, Ubuntu has a built-in app store called the Ubuntu Software Center, which has a version of Flash. You can go to the Software Center by clicking on it on the side, and then you search for flashplugin-installer.

You can also use this app store to install free games. My kids have fun looking through the games. As another activity, your child can create documents because Ubuntu comes with free software that is similar to Microsoft Office.

Interestingly, the whole virtual machine can be saved as a big file and moved to a different computer. On Windows 7 machines, the virtual machines are stored in C:\Users\<your profile name>\My Documents\Virtual Machines. We think of a computer as a thing, but it is really just a  collection of information running (eventually) on hardware.

Teach your child to manipulate images with GIMP

The Curiosity Cycle emphasizes that your child can stimulate his or her curiosity by creating artifacts. Technology has enabled the physical artifacts that we can hold and the digital artifacts that exist on our computers to converge, and there are free tools that can introduce your child to the fun of moving between physical and digital representations. One such tool is the powerful image manipulation software called GIMP.

You can download GIMP at http://www.gimp.org/.

When GIMP opens, you will see three parts. As can be seen in the image above, the part on the top left is the pallet where you pick your manipulation tool such as painting or erasing. The part on the bottom right is where you pick what your tool will look like, for example if your paint brush will be thick or thin. And the middle part is where you do your work.

A good way to get oriented in GIMP is to watch a tutorial such as

Using a scanner, you can convert a picture that your child has drawn into a digital image (keep it Imageas a “bmp” file). Then you can load that image into GIMP. The large image shown above is of a comic book cover my son drew. Zoom in and look at the pixels using the menu Tools → Zoom. You can draw a box around a small area to zoom in once you have done that. You should see little squares called pixels, as can be seen in the image to the right. We used to say that “pictures don’t lie,” but now we view pictures as being made up of pixels, which allows them to be anything. Pixels are the precise conversion point between the continuous, physical world and the discrete, digital one.

You and your child can then modify the image. The eraser tool on the left can be used to remove pixels. You can pick the paint brush tool to paint on the picture, and you can fill in areas of the picture using the bucket fill tool (as I have done on the large image shown above). After manipulating the picture, you can then print out the new image for your child to see the complete cycle from physical artifact to digital artifact and back to physical artifact.

Additionally, once you have played around with the tools, you can watch this great tutorial on how to manipulate images taken from a digital camera

Since movies are just sequences of images, understanding how camera images can be manipulated gives your child a sense of how special effects are done in movies. Another theme of The Curiosity Cycle is that we should give children as many such glimpses of the world as possible. These glimpses allow children to create model fragments that jumpstart curiosity by giving them a reason to reach out for new information.

GIMP is a powerful tool, and therefore it can be a little overwhelming at first. Fortunately, GIMP has a robust user community, and many questions can be answered by Google search and watching online tutorials. Learning how to learn to use tools such as GIMP is itself an important skill, and may be even more beneficial for your child than learning about GIMP itself.