3 Steps for Choosing Learning Games for Children

Kristen DiCerbo

Kids can while away hours playing Candy Crush and Angry Birds, but is there are way to redirect the time they spend playing on their tablets or laptops to other engaging games that will also have a positive impact on learning? A visit to the App Store or a Google search for “learning games” will net you millions of results. How do you choose?

1. Pick a Topic Area

What topics do you want to target? Maybe the child you’re working with needs practice in math. However, once you start to explore what is out there, you’ll find that games in general are not that good at covering entire subjects (like third grade math). So, you’ll likely want to continue to narrow down the topic of interest. One way to get a sense of topics covered in a particular grade is to search for something called a “scope and sequence.” These are documents that lay out the topics covered in a particular grade level and the order in which they are taught. Many districts publish scope and sequence documents, so you might search your local school district’s website. In addition, publishers often create scope and sequence documents for curricula, so if you know what curricula the child’s school uses, you can search those. Here is how to navigate games on some of the most popular topics.


There are likely more games available for math than any other topic. A major consideration with math is whether your goal is to have your child practice skills and procedures or gain conceptual understanding. Gaining practice with math facts and formulas so they become automatic can then allow learners to move to more complex mathematical concepts because they do not have to spend mental energy computing basic facts. On the other hand, learners who blindly apply formulas for things like area and perimeter without understanding what they really mean are likely to end up hitting a road block in the application of math because they don’t understand the conceptual underpinnings. Although there is a never-ending debate in the math education circles about which of these is better, it seems likely that both sides are needed and as a parent you may want to try to balance out skills practice with conceptual understanding.


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English/Language Arts

Don’t overlook the possibility of games for language arts topics. There are games that help kids build skills like identifying plot and plot structure, as well as games for developing argumentation skills, such as how to link claims and evidence to create strong arguments. Okay, maybe that isn’t the first skill you want your kids mastering as you think about trying to keep them doing their chores around the house, but there are also games and apps related to concepts like story structure and plot development.

21st Century Skills

Apart from traditional academic topics, you might also consider what are variously called 21st century skills, soft skills, and other cognitive skills. These are things like creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration. As an example, researchers who study creativity stress the importance of “divergent thinking,” the ability to use ideas and tools in new ways that others have not thought of before. If you are interested in fostering this, look for games that reward developing new solutions and tools (yes, that includes Minecraft!). Find out more about the principles that make games good learning tools:

2. Look at Already Curated Lists

There is often no need to go digging through app stores on your own when there are a number of good resources that provide great reviews of popular learning games. Common Sense Media has a very nice site that describes, reviews, and rates the learning potential of apps, games, and websites. I (and probably everyone) might quibble with ratings here and there and they certainly haven’t reviewed everything out there, but it is a good, independent source.

Similarly, Graphite provides searchable reviews by grade, subject, and skills, rates the games on engagement, teaching/learning, and support for players. In addition, teachers provide reviews of the games and apps. Note that this effort is part of Common Sense Education, so related to the above effort, but you will see different options in each. Their lists contain websites and games, and it would be nice if you could sort by type, price, and ratings, but the lists and ratings are solid.

3. Apply Some Criteria

If you’re going to search through individual games, or even in choosing from a list, here are some things to look for:

  • Is the learning embedded in the game play?  Do the key actions in the game require learners to have the knowledge or skills targeted? There are too many games where displaying the key academic knowledge is ancillary to game play and not directly tied to the actions that move the game forward. This is especially true of those games that aim at providing practice on skills and procedures.
  • How complicated is the game to pick up? Most good games start out quite simply, drawing the player in. Like a good lesson, complexity is only added when the player has shown they are ready. Play a little and see if early rounds are fairly easy to pick up. Then see if and how challenge is added.
  • Is there a way to track players’ progress? More and more games are starting to offer reporting features. This might include time played, levels mastered, or achievements gained. If the game play is tied to the learning content, as suggested above, then these measures will tell you something about content learned. Find out more about using data from games to understand what learners know and can do:

Bonus: Explore Together

Children know their own preferences for things like game genres, whether story or competition is important, and if they like to have room to explore in a game. Pick games together! We often hear statistics about how many kids are playing games, but they aren’t all playing the same games. Just like adults, some kids like puzzle games, some like adventure games. Some like single player games and others like multiplayer games. The actual process of selecting educational games can itself be a learning process… for kids and adults.

For more on parenting for powerful learning, check out our book, Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning as well as these blogs:

Kristen DiCerbo, Ph.D., leads the Center for Learning Science & Technology at Pearson’s Research & Innovation Network. Follow Kristen on Twitter, @KristenDiCerbo.

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