Most educational games you find in the iTunes and Google Play stores barely earn a passing grade. But the following eight titles are a lock for the honor roll. If you want smarter kids, get them smarter apps like these.
1. DragonBox Algebra 5+
Your 5-year-old may think he’s just matching pictures of fish, bugs, and other beasties so he can feed a hungry dragon, but he’s really learning the fundamentals of algebra. DragonBox is a truly sneaky way to introduce concepts like basic arithmetic, positive and negative numbers, and solving for X without using anything resembling a math equation. (It’s even fun for adults.) A complementary version of the game teaches 12-year-olds more advanced concepts such as factoring and fractions, while DragonBox Elements tackles geometry. They’ll never know it’s math unless you tell them. $6; available for Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Amazon.
Your dragon is hungry; feed it by matching light (positive) and dark (negative) objects, and then swiping them out of the way.
2. Tinybop Plants
This mesmerizing app is more an interactive experience than a game. Choose your biome (desert or woodlands), and then sit back and watch as day becomes night, animals enter and leave, weeks quickly pass, and the seasons change. You can drag your finger across the screen to change the path of a foraging animal, tap a cloud to make it rain, drop an acorn to plant a tree … and that’s about it. Along the way, kids learn to identify native plants and animals and how the natural world adapts to different conditions, without the use of rote memorization. $2; iOS only.
Tinybop Plants takes you for a walk in a deciduous forest filled with trees, birds, deer, and the sounds of nature.
Coding doesn’t get more kid-friendly than this. This iPad app lets your proto-geek adopt a kooky cartoon character and animate it by dragging routines (“draw a circle,” “do a backflip,” “rotate 180 degrees”) onto a pasteboard and then running them. He can dig deeper to tweak the individual commands that form each routine and share his projects with other Hopscotchers, who can then download and modify them. Ever see a monkey act like a balloon? With Hopscotch, you can. At press time, the app was totally free, though in-app purchases are coming. For iOS.
With Hopscotch’s visual programming language, you can create simple animations by stringing together commands.
4. Tinybop Human Body
The first app from the makers of Plants offers a similarly offbeat take on human physiology. Tap an icon to view the nervous system, skeleton, muscles, digestive system or all of them at once. Wave a bouquet of flowers beneath the nose to watch how the olfactory center responds. Feed the mouth broccoli and watch the food course through the digestive track as the stomach gurgles. Tap the circulatory system to hear the heart beat and the blood flow through the veins, or remove the bones one by one and see what happens. No questions, no puzzles to solve, just hours of exploration. $3, iOS only.
What happens when you eat? Drag the food to the boy’s mouth to find out. (Don’t blame us if he farts.)
The app version of the popular Vocabulary.com site builds your word power through a series of simple quizzes, which start out relatively easy and then adapt to your skill level. Some challenges are verbal, some are visual, but all are accompanied by a friendly definition designed to make the game feel less like a test and more like a conversation with a cool teacher. The site and app are used by thousands of school districts, whose students vie against one another in national competitions like the upcoming Vocabulary Bowl. $3, available for iOS and Android.
Each correct answer in Vocab.com is worth up to 100 points. Reach 100 million and you’re officially declared a Word Czar.
6. S.M.A.R.T. Adventures Mission Math
In this space-themed game, your child plays a cadet recruited by S.M.A.R.T. (the Science Math and Radical Technology Agency). Her mission: figure out who sabotaged the space station by solving a series of math challenges, calling on other virtual cadets for help. Games are based on the core fourth-grade math curriculum, and the immersive story line and positive female role models are designed to make the game more attractive to girls ages 9 and up. $2, available for iOS, Android, and Kindle Fire.
One of the Mission Math challenges asks your young space cadet to match numerical equations to their equivalents in Mandarin.
7. Motion Math Play Pack
This game sampler takes advantage of the iPad’s features to teach math in a different way. In Wings, your child uses the iPad’s accelerometer, tilting the screen left or right to steer his bird toward the correct multiplication answer. In Hungry Fish, he swipes together the correct number bubbles to feed his fish, adding and subtracting numbers along the way. Match teaches basic math by having kids match each equation with its corresponding answer, and so on. The iPad-only Play Pack costs $20; most of these games are also available separately for $2 to $4 for iOS, Android, Amazon, and Windows.
Your fish is hungry. Feed it by combining the sequence of bubbles that add up to the right number.
8. Leo’s Pad
In Kidaptive’s animated tale, your preschooler follows Leo, Gally, Marie, and their pals through a series of “appisodes” where she learns how to identify colors, numbers, shapes, and more. (Leo is really an 8-year-old Leonardo da Vinci, Gally is Galileo, Marie is Marie Curie.) But what looks like a Dreamworks-style virtual world is really an assessment tool, allowing parents and teachers to identify which skills their young geniuses have mastered and where they still need work. Kidaptive’s Learn Mosaic tool, coming this fall, will offer suggestions for concrete ways to boost their skills. Free, iPad only.
By building Galileo’s telescope, your preschooler learns how to identify triangles, squares, and rectangles.
Questions, complaints, kudos? Email Dan Tynan at ModFamily1@yahoo.com.