Set up a kid-friendly computer

Dan Frakes
16 June, 2010
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As any iPhone or iPad owner with children will attest, touchscreen devices are clearly the future of kid-friendly computing — there’s no substitute for the direct interaction between onscreen items and fingertips. But there’s still a lot of great kid software out there for the Mac, so until we all replace our Macs with tablets, there are plenty of reasons to set up a computer for the young ones.

Most people worry about finding the right software and configuring the right settings for kid-safe computing. But what about the hardware? Chances are your preferred setup isn’t ideal — ergonomically or logistically — for a child. Here are some tips for setting up a work-and-play-station your kids will love.

Choose a computer

While you can share your Mac with your kids, doing so involves quite a bit of logistical manoeuvring — and not just because of differences in preferred physical setups. For example, you’ll need to decide who gets to use the computer when, and you’ll have to share your Mac’s hard drive with applications and media you may never use.

If your budget allows, you’ll appreciate the flexibility of having a dedicated “kid computer”. And, in fact, it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg: given that most schools are using older hardware, most children’s software runs great on computers that are several years old. You can hand down an older Mac when you upgrade, or you can shop for a used Mac. Our three-year-old Mac mini, equipped with a five-year-old LCD display, has more than enough horsepower for the educational and creative software our kids enjoy.

The other question is one we all face: desktop or laptop? I can tell you from experience that kids love laptops. From the trackpad to the lack of wires, kids, like adults, are enamoured with the freedom a laptop provides. But I can also tell you — again, from experience — that kids aren’t as careful with computers as most adults are. Laptops get dropped and stepped on, screens get poked and bent back, and food and liquids get spilled, no matter how many rules and warnings are issued. It’s much easier (and cheaper) to clean (or replace) a Mac mini’s keyboard than to fix a broken laptop. And if you’re shopping, a desktop will, of course, cost you less.

Select kid-sized accessories

You may be tempted to use the mouse and keyboard that came with your computer, but those accessories were likely designed for adults. Kids can really benefit from input devices made specifically for children’s smaller hands and lack of computing experience.

Input devices Ironically, perhaps the biggest obstacle for using a computer, especially for younger children, is the mouse. Although it seems perfectly normal to those of us who’ve been using one for years, there’s little intuitive about moving an object around on a desk in order to move a cursor on a computer screen. I’ve found that many kids learn basic computer tasks more easily using a trackpad.

While this is a good argument for opting for a laptop, it’s also a persuasive argument for grabbing Wacom’s $99 Bamboo Touch or $159 Bamboo Pen & Touch. These tablets each provide a 125mm by 85mm, multi-touch trackpad with large, easy-to-click buttons — perfect for young hands, and reversible for left- or right-handers. The Pen & Touch adds a larger (147mm by 92mm) area for drawing with an included pressure-sensitive pen.

Bamboo Pen & Touch

Consider giving kids an easier-to-use input device, like Wacom’s Bamboo Pen & Touch. This tablet includes a multi-touch trackpad and an area for drawing.

If you insist on a mouse — or if your child is ready to graduate from a trackpad — look for one that’s smaller than a model made for adult hands. Many travel mice, such as Microsoft’s Wireless Mobile Mouse 3500 or Targus’ Wireless Stow-N-Go Laptop Mouse, are smaller than their standard siblings. There are plenty of options available, and you might even find a more child-friendly design such as the Logitech Zebra mouse (unfortunately not currently available in Australia).

Logitech's Zebra Mouse

If you choose a mouse for your kids, make sure to get one made for small hands.

Keyboards There are also kid-focused keyboards, such as Crayola’s US$30 (about $36) USB EZ Type Keyboard, that feature fewer keys, larger key labels, and colourful designs. However, if your child is already comfortable with a keyboard, you may want a more standard layout. If so, consider using your current keyboard with a bit of protection (more on that in a moment).

Crayola kids' keyboard

Keyboards designed for kids, like the Crayola USB EZ Type Keyboard shown here, feature larger key labels and simplified layouts.

When shopping for your kids, also keep in mind that the benefits we, as adults, get from wireless peripherals are just as appealing when kids are at the wheel. Kids like moving their mouse and keyboard around as they play, and get just as frustrated as we do when cables get tangled. Wireless accessories also reduce the chances your Mac’s USB ports will be damaged when someone inevitably tries to run away with a mouse. (Of course, you might also want to stash a spare somewhere for the likewise inevitable moment when your wireless mouse gets lost.)

Follow good ergonomics

Most of us know the basics of computing ergonomics — if you don’t, check out these suggestions from Cornell’s Ergonomics Research Group — but how many of us apply those guidelines when our kids are using the computer? A good ergonomic setup matters for children, too, so try to make your kids’ computer physically kid-friendly. This means using a desk and chair that, together, let your child sit comfortably, with the keyboard at approximately elbow level and the display low enough that the young ones aren’t craning their necks to see. (Kids also like to touch screens. This is unavoidable, so move the display a bit closer than you might like and get over your aversion to fingerprints — yet another reason to give the kids their own computer!)

One related tip: although you might be tempted to use a desk with a built-in keyboard drawer, kids will consider that surface to be just another table or desk — and will lean on it with all their weight. So unless your keyboard drawer is super-sturdy, just place the keyboard on your desktop and adjust the desk or chair height accordingly.

Protect and clean

No matter how angelic they can be, kids will be kids, which means you’ll want to take some steps to protect their computer from food, drinks, messy fingerprints, and the like. You also want to clean it when that protection falls short.

Perhaps the most vulnerable part of a computer is the keyboard. It’s nearly impossible for an adult, let alone a small child, to keep dirt, hair, liquids, and other stuff from falling in between the keys. I recommend using a keyboard “skin,” a washable, silicone cover, custom fit for particular keyboard models, that keeps such detritus from ever reaching the keys.

Keyboard skins

Protect a standard keyboard from spills with a decorative and washable skin like the iSkin ProTouch Vibes shown here (also available in pink, green, and purple).

KB Covers makes a huge range of keyboard covers for Apple-branded keyboards. Some even offer educational benefits, as well. For example, for US$25 to US$30 a pop (plus shipping to Australia), the company offers a number of covers with large-type key labels, as well as several that display both upper- and lower-case letters on the keys. The latter are especially useful for kids who are learning the alphabet. For US$25 to US$35, iSkin’s Mac offerings include both large-type options and colourful patterns that should appeal to kids. These can be ordered online, but are also available from some local resellers and Apple Stores at around $50. iSkin even makes a US$20 protective skin for Apple’s Mighty Mouse.

As for your computer’s screen, while there are protective films on the market, most are for laptop displays. For a desktop display, you’re better off just cleaning the screen, as well as the rest of the computer, regularly.

Let kids be kids

Perhaps the most important part of a kid-friendly computer is the freedom to learn. Once you’ve set up a great computer for your children, you may be tempted to walk them through every action and task. But they’ll get more out of the experience — especially in the long run — if you let them explore on their own. Provided you’ve configured programs and OS X’s parental controls, just show them the basics and then take a step back. You’ll be amazed at how quickly they figure things out—and unlike many adults, they won’t hesitate to ask for help if they need it.

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