Walkthrough: Setting Up a Mac for the Minis in Your Life

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Does one set out to create a computer-literate family, or to cultivate a creative family familiar with the modern communication capabilities of today’s age? The distinction is subtle, but the benefits of the latter strongly outweigh the former, and thankfully is still quite easy to set up.

The first is to merely grant access to an overwhelming environment and expect time itself to wear down the mental faculties of the unsuspecting, in hopes of some sort of miraculous and divine intervention. In other words, rely on dumb luck by clicking on everything in sight until one achieves success.

The other path is a much narrower one where every user can quickly gain access to that which they desire most. With children, the key in either situation is to find a means to where the young user grows a sense of self-confidence, realizing that they are in control, and a sense of accomplishment that they know how to do it for themselves. This is where the iMac can learn from its little siblings: the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch. With these devices, access to what one desires is about all one can do when picking up the device for the first time. The goal is to create a user interface that’s as easy to access as the one on the iPad.

Creating a safe environment for the younger Mac heads in your family while allowing them to explore and expand their minds is not only possible in Snow Leopard, but is pretty straight forward and simple to pull off. Once you know that it can be done, it’s simply a matter of doing it. This article will assume we are targeting the very young, pre-school-aged Minis. Knowledge of their ABCs is a bonus, but not absolutely required. The only time they will be required to interact with the keyboard for input will be their password. And since a separate account will be created and locked down, allowing a simple password will not compromise security to such a degree that one needs to worry too much. The focus will be on creating large, clearly identifiable icons that can be clicked on to allow access to some of the basics of the Mac.

Creating a New User Account

If you’re not familiar with creating Accounts on a Mac, you’ll need to open the System Preferences application from either the Apple Menu, the Dock, or in the Applications folder. Once in the System Preferences, click on the Accounts icon. In order to keep things simple and consistent, first take a look at the Login Options section of the Accounts window. There may be times when your Minis want to use the computer but it’s not on or is asleep. It’s important to try to keep the experience as consistent as possible each and every time they want to access the computer. So it would be best to turn off Automatic login, display a list of users on the login window, and to show the restart sleep and shutdown buttons.

At this point, go ahead and create a new user account. Create a standard account. Various preferences will need to be modified by logging onto the account before the parental controls will be enabled. So do not enable Parental Controls just yet. For consistency’s sake, the Account Name may be the same as the child’s email or other online account ID, like their MobileMe family account ID. Use their full name as the Full Name since this is something that they will be learning more and more as they enter pre-school and kindergarten.

Make the password some sequence of characters that the child will be able to remember. This will break with all security conventions as it will likely be a weak password. The account will be locked down, and access to the full file system will not be permitted. This is also the first opportunity to allow unfettered access to the Mac, and a strong password that the child does not know will limit their access to the Mac and require someone else to log on for them. If this is a dedicated machine for their use only, and is in a permanent secure location (not a MacBook/laptop), allowing for a simple and weak password may not be an issue. Using the password hint will help later on once the child learns to read, unless one chooses to make the hint the actual password.

Once the account is created, establishing an icon with the account will help make the account unique and identifiable. At first, they will recognize the icon, and soon identify with the fact that their full name is also being displayed. This icon will be displayed on the login prompt when they first access the Mac. The icon should be an image they can relate to, like their favorite toy, or a self-portrait. Just ensure that it’s unique from the other account icons, and is something that the individual will not have any problems remembering. Keep in mind that depending on the age of the user, reading may not be a skill yet mastered. And in some cases, the full alphabet may not be known (yes, Mac users can be that young and still get things done on the Mac).

Some of the initial security setup lies in how things are currently configured on the Mac you intend to allow the Minis to use. It is more than just a good idea to create a separate Administrator account on all Macs and not allow any other user accounts to administer any Mac — it’s essential. This is configured separately for each User account in the System Preferences’ Accounts window:

Leave this unchecked

You may also want to configure any other accounts to log off after so many minutes of inactivity, and be sure that all remote access to the machine is disabled.

NOTE: Do not enable parental controls until after the user account has been accessed and configured properly. This is very important and will prevent one from having to re-establish the parental controls over and over again for each tweak of the user preferences. This is because one of the applications that the user will not be permitted to use will be System Preferences. These controls can be used to allow quite a bit of freedom for the Mini user without having to enforce constant adult supervision. This freedom to explore on their own creates a sense of freedom and self-confidence that just simply cannot be achieved with constant adult supervision. So rather than direct adult supervision, the Mac allows one to configure and control — to a staggering degree — indirect adult supervision.

Configuring the Account With the Mini User in Mind

System Preferences

Now that a user account is created, go ahead and log in to the account. Remember, the less there is to click on, the less that can go wrong. The goal is to eliminate as many unnecessary options as possible, provide a consistent experience with each successive login, and maximize the font and visuals. For the most part, this will lead to disabling most of the advance features, and controlling the behavior of the mouse, keyboard and screen as much as possible. Go back into System Preferences and proceed to configure the user account.

Appearance – Disable the number of recent items by setting Applications, Documents and Servers to ‘none’.

Spotlight – Uncheck all searchable items, and disable the shortcut keys. This is a user-specific setting and will only limit the search capabilities of the specific user for which this preference was configured. It may also be a good idea to establish which areas of the Mac should not be searchable under any circumstances.

Desktop and Screen Saver – Do not randomize anything; keep the desktop image clean and clear of clutter by selecting a solid color. The desktop will be where all shortcuts will be created to launch the applications and web pages. As an added bonus, think about purchasing a custom screensaver like SereneScreen’s Marine Aquarium for Snow Leopard.

Dock – This may not make much sense at first, but minimize the Dock to its smallest size, and hide the Dock. The goal here is to keep the individual away from the Dock entirely. All access to applications and websites will be made accessible via shortcuts on the Desktop. It’s also important to manually remove all icons from the Dock. The only two remaining icons on the Dock that will not allow themselves to be removed are the Finder, and the Trash. Think iPad.

Exposé and Spaces – Disable all hot corners in Exposé and disable Spaces entirely. Kids tend to overcompensate their mouse movements and this could be a confusing topic to broach when they constantly hit the hot corners of the screen. Since there is very little functionality that they will need to utilize, it’s best to simply disable all opportunities to access other features and applications via hot corners.

Task Bar Icons – Keeping consistent with the theme of minimizing the number of opportunities for a stray mouse to click on something, hiding as many of the tray icons as possible is a good idea as well. This includes but is not limited to the Displays, Airport (Network), Battery (Energy Saver), Clock (Date and Time), Bluetooth and Time Machine. If you have not been able to locate all of the preferences that add items to the Task Bar, simply hold down the command key and drag the items off the task bar one by one, just as you remove items from the Dock.

Finder

Finder

Now click on the desktop; the Finder menu should appear on the menu bar. Under the Finder menu, select Preferences. Under General, do not show any items like hard drives and peripherals on the desktop. All access to each application and website will be individually and directly controlled via a shortcut from the desktop. New Finder windows should open to the Desktop as well. Basically direct all attention to the Desktop as much as possible. For the sidebar, uncheck everything so that the sidebar is completely bare. When performing a search, search the current folder only, which again, will hopefully only ever be the Desktop.

Toolbar – Open the Finder and from the View menu, choose to customize the Toolbar. Remove all tools from the toolbar and leave it as bare as possible.

View Options – Right-click (option+click) on the Desktop and select Show View Options from the menu that pops up. If the dialogue that displays does not say Desktop at the top, click on the desktop. Once you’re sure that you’re modifying the View Options for the desktop, maximize the icon size, grid spacing and text size. Keep the label position at the bottom and continue to show both the item info and preview. The interesting part will be sorting the icons by their respective labels. This will give more control over the positioning of the labels, and create a color-coordinated option for organizing utility applications from educational and fun applications.

Safari

Safari

Within Safari, some of the basic configurations to establish include either setting up a blank home page, or a familiar home page, perhaps one that was created just for them with large image icons of their favorite websites. Additionally be sure to turn off all of the tool and status bars. This will initially create an experience that each website is a separate ‘thing’ accessible from a desktop icon. This is perfectly acceptable at first and can be a modified behavior once the Mini user learns that all of the ‘sites’ they’re accessing are not on the computer, not in the house, and in some cases not even in the country. Be sure to edit the bookmarks and remove all pre-populated bookmarks as well.

Safari Preferences

Setting Up Parental Controls

Parental Controls Everything is now configured just right and the account is ready for parental lockdown. Kid-proofing a Mac With Parental Controls is now possible. Log out of the account that was created for the Mini user, and log into an administrator account. While it’s not absolutely necessary to log in to an administrator account, this will eliminate the prompts to authorize each action that’s taken. Disabling and Enabling Parental controls will prove to be a real pain as well. Especially when you have an extensive list of email and chat accounts, as well as a good list of websites that you want to grant access. Not to mention, establishing a complex set of times and hours that the little one can use the Mac. The preferred route is to create a user account, strip it down to the bare minimum required to make things go, and then to enable parental controls to lock down everything else.

The first choice is to use the simple Finder, or to only allow access to selected applications. While the simple Finder is nice, and is what all of the configuring and messing around attempted to achieve to a lesser degree in the above recommendations, in the end, the ability to limit what applications the user has access to outweighed the simplification of the Finder. The recommendation is to utilize the “Only allow selected applications” feature of Parental Controls. From here, one can select exactly what applications the user can launch. At first, un-select all applications and log on to the user account and see what can be accomplished. Disabling the ability to administer printers, change passwords, burn CD/DVDs and even modify the Doc is also recommended.

Conclusion

Empowering the Mini Mac users in one’s life is simple and straightforward once one gets the hang of creating a user account, customizing System Preferences and setting up parental controls. The rewards of having a Mini user realize that they’re in control and are able to make the Mac do what they want it to are huge. Playing with Photo Booth and communicating with the grandparents via video over long distances is worth all of the set-up. It will not be too long before the Mini user is confident in their own skill set enough to go and check on their own to see if Grandma or Grandpa are online.

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