Video games have come a long way from the Super Mario Bros. games of the ’80s and ’90s — and I’m not just talking about graphics. Developers have gotten super creative at sneaking in educational lessons where kids would least expect them. And one of the best ways to learn is when you’re having fun.
In addition, an ongoing study published in the medical journal JAMA Network Open says that kids who play video games daily show improved cognitive skills in comparison with kids who don’t play at all.
Check out our list of mobile apps, PC and video games that can educate and entertain your kids.
What your kids will learn: creativity, problem-solving, collaboration, reading, math and more
World-building game Minecraft lets players explore, gather resources, craft tools and engage in some mild combat. The game has different modes — survival, creative, adventure, spectator and multiplayer — so players have flexibility in how they approach it.
Creative freedom and self-direction isn’t all that the game lends its players, according to iD Tech. Minecraft teaches teamwork and the motivation to improve reading and math skills. To get better at the game, parents told iD Tech that their kids started reading about biomes and calculating rations for adventures, dividing supplies and how many minutes until “night” in the game. Minecraft’s educational benefits have also been packaged for the classroom.
You can play the game on PC, mobile, console, Amazon Fire and Oculus.
The Oregon Trail
What your kids will learn: historical events, critical thinking, problem-solving skills and more
The Oregon Trail came onto the scene in the ’70s and has gone through quite a few changes since then. My 10-year-old self spent many an afternoon trying to get my digital wagon 2,000 miles west to safety. Before you start the trip, you pick a job (each has its own unique benefits), name your companions and purchase supplies.
Recent updates to the game let you trade, upgrade your wagon and buy food and medicine to increase your group’s chances of survival. Along the trip, your group encounters illness, obstructive rivers, highway bandits, food constraints and other complications of the time. Though the situations are a bit dramatic, players learn fast about pre-planning and making choices with the long term in mind.
I played (and described above) the 5th edition of the game, which you can order on Amazon. If you want a newer mobile experience, you can try The Oregon Trail: American Settler for iOS or The Oregon Trail from Gameloft on Apple Arcade.
What your kids will learn: vocabulary
Fans of Words with Friends and Scrabble (the app or the board game) may be drawn to Wordscapes, which allows kids to learn new words and practice logic skills. You get unlimited tries to solve crossword-style puzzles using only a handful of letters (with few free hints). The app challenges you on some levels by prohibiting three-letter words and offering daily puzzles that challenge you to guess all the words in a certain order. Wordscapes has a built-in dictionary that makes it easy for kids to add to their vocabularies. You can play on Android and iOS.
The Little Big Planet series
What your kids will learn: logic, spatial orientation skills, design and problem solving
This spunky little game follows the adventures of Sackboy and his friends. The first two games are mostly platform-jumping and avoiding obstacles to make it to the next level. Players can also create their own levels, customize characters or build complex contraptions in a level. Finally, players have the option to share their creations in the PlayStation Network.
The first game, Little Big Planet, was released in 2008 and the creators have released several entries since. Little Big Planet 3 is the newest installment, which introduced three new characters: Toggle, Swoop and Oddsock. The games are available on PSP, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita and PlayStation 3. You can also check out Little Big Planet Karting and the free Run Sackboy! Run app on Android and iOS.
What your kids will learn: logic, problem-solving, physics, math, science and spatial skills
Portal is along the lines of Little Big Planet, but it’s a bit more mature. The first Portal got a Teen rating for the inclusion of some bloodstains, but Portal 2 is rated E. The games might be a bit scary or difficult for players under 9, Common Sense Media suggests.
Portal places players in a secret research facility who is led through a series of dangerous tests by a humorously narcissistic AI called GLaDOS. The puzzles are solved by creating an entry portal in a wall, creating an exit portal somewhere else and walking through. Players advance by learning how to manipulate physics and spatial constraints. Just try not to fall forever. Portal and Portal 2 are available on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
Kerbal Space Program
What your kids will learn: physics, the solar system, mathematics and basic aerospace engineering
Your kids don’t have to play in a cardboard box in the yard if they want to be an astronaut. This rocket simulation game focuses on a space program for an alien race called the Kerbals. When you start a game, you’ll be tasked with building a rocket that either works or doesn’t work, based on “realistic aerodynamic and orbital physics.” Once you get your Kerbals into space, you can explore the solar system, build bases and construct space stations. The game got a lot of attention from NASA and the B612 Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to planetary science and planetary defense.
The game has three modes — Science, Career and Sandbox. Science mode lets players unlock new tech and advance the Kerbals; Career mode has players oversee every aspect of the Kerbal’s space program; and Sandbox mode is more freeform play. Kerbal Space Program and its expansions — Breaking Ground and Making History — are available for PC and console.
What your kids will learn: trigonometry in its basest form, angles and critical thinking
This app is another example of teaching your kids without them knowing they’re being taught. Eloh is a visually beautiful musical puzzle game that teases your brain without stressing you out. Each level features island spirits that you can move. Once you get them into the right spot, tap the red speaker and music will start. The goal is to bounce the “sound waves” off the spirits and hit the spiral icon. It’s kind of like banking a shot in billiards.
The levels get progressively more challenging, but there’s no timer, ads or in-app purchases. The app costs $3 to download on Android or iOS.
What your kids will learn: logic, patterns, data analysis and problem-solving skills
If you grew up in the ’90s, you might remember this game. Zoombinis kept me busy many an afternoon. In the game, you must guide the little blue critters out of the evil Bloats’ clutches and home to Zoombiniville. Each of the 12 levels such as Allergic Cliffs, Stone Cold Caves and Pizza Pass get progressively more challenging, with kids using logic and pattern identification to win. Play on iOS, Android or PC.
Where on Google Earth is Carmen Sandiego?
What your kids will learn: geography, the locations of historic events and other geographical facts.
Google Earth and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Carmen Sandiego games — The Crown Jewels Caper, The Tutankhamun’s Mask Caper and The Keys to the Kremlin — offer something new while paying homage to the original franchise. Players use the magnifying glass to interview witnesses in different cities and gather clues, learning about geography and history along the way. When you think you’ve figured out the next step, click the airplane icon to fly to the next city and continue unraveling the mystery. You can play on web browser, Android or iOS.
Nancy Drew Interactive Mysteries
What your kids will learn: historical events and important figures, critical thinking, foreign cultures, languages and customs, problem-solving skills and more
I will shamelessly say that I have played these games since they started making them in 1998. Some are based on Nancy Drew books (The Secret of the Old Clock game, for instance, is based on the first four books in the series) while others are original mysteries.
The point-and-click games let you play as Nancy, solving a mystery as the amateur detective would. Whether you play as a junior or senior detective, you’ll question suspects, solve puzzles, discover clues and find your way out of multiple sticky situations to catch the culprit.
The beauty of these games is that they teach kids without them knowing it. At 9 years old, I knew a ridiculous amount about the Mayan civilization after playing Secret of the Scarlet Hand, as well as the key players in the French Revolution after playing Treasure in the Royal Tower. There are 33 games to date for PC, mobile and certain gaming consoles.
What your kids will learn: multiple layers of government functions like parties, funding, taxes, elections, policy changes, political capital, budgets, debts and more. In addition, they’ll learn about compromise, cause and effect, strategy and conflict resolution.
Has your kid ever wanted to be in politics? Now they can try their hand at it with the Democracy game series. In this government simulation game, you play as the president or prime minister of a democratic government and alter policies in the areas of tax, economy, welfare, foreign policy, transport, law and order and public services. The catch, like in real life, is that each policy affects other factors like voter happiness, crime rates and air quality, for example. Players also have to deal with situations like homelessness or protests and make decisions accordingly.
You can play Democracy, Democracy 2, Democracy 3 and Democracy 4 on PC.
National Geographic Challenge
What your kids will learn: historical figures and events, geography and more
The National Geographic Challenge is a quiz game that lives up to the “challenge” part of its name. There’s no shortage of questions that range from easy to hard and are divided into regions — North America, Europe, Asia, South America, Africa and Australia. Start a game for up to four players and choose an avatar. You can try to answer 40, 60 or 80 of the game’s timed questions. The games are complemented by impressive photography and video from the National Geographic archive.
The National Geographic Challenge will test kids’ knowledge with questions like: In what year did Madagascar gain independence from France? In which country does the River Niger reach the sea? The game is available on Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii and PlayStation 3.
What your kids will learn: geography, conservation and sustainability, global problems, healthy living and activism
World Rescue was developed by ZU Digital with the help of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Think of it as a 21st century Captain Planet, minus the superpowers. The game’s levels are set in Kenya, Norway, Brazil, India and China. There, you’ll help five heroes solve problems like displacement, disease, deforestation, drought and pollution, giving kids lessons on real-world issues. You can play World Rescue on Android or iOS.
For more, check out our list of the best video games to play in 2021, best online games to play with friends and seven great kid-friendly gifts that aren’t video games.