Common Sense Media, a media watchdog organization based in San Francisco, recently released 10 suggestions for choosing educational video games and some suggestions about games that encourage your kids to be social, connected, and creative while gaming and that also related to what they are learning offline.
Commonsense Media also rates video games, books, movies, apps, and other forms of media, and their reviews are very easy to use. They provide a narrative and a numerical ranking for each review, and they state the ages for which the game, book, or other form of media is appropriate.
Here are some of their top suggestions:
Tip #1: Good games draw kids in and create what they call a sense of "flow." While getting kids to pay attention isn't usually a problem for kids playing video games, truly great games involve kids in challenging activities that keep them on the edge of their mental and literal seat. An example Common Sense Media cites is Super Scibblenauts, a game for kids 10 and over that allows kids to spell out objects that then appear in the game. The puzzles also require kids to creat their own solutions.
Tip#2: Good games create a sense of mastery by letting kids be in control. For example, the game Gamestar Mechanic allows kids over 10 to create their own video games and publish them online, and the site monitors the games' content. Another program that has been used effectively in schools (but that is not mentioned in the article from Commonsense Media) is Ten Marks, a program that allows kids to work on math skills customized to their interests and needs. The program sends feedback about how students are doing to teachers, and it provides immediate feedback and help so that kids can move through the problems and learn to correct their mistakes. This program allows kids to direct their own math learning and choose what they want to focus on.
Tip #3: Games allow your child to develop his or her interest in age-appropriate ways that are neither too easy nor too demanding. For example, Art Academy, for kids eight and older, is an age-appropriate art tutorial that explains concepts such as shading and perspective in 10 lessons.
Tip #4: Games should allow kids to carry out some safe experimentation. For example, Lego Harry Potter for ages 5-7 allows kids to solve puzzles and carry out experimentation to get out of predicaments involving Lego characters.
Tip #5: Worthwhile games also allow kids to create and teach them that their creations are valuable. Minecraft, a best-selling game, allows kids age 11 and above to use materials they gather from the environment around them to create buildings. There is an online community associated with this game that is moderated by private servers.
Tip #6: Good games develop kids' social skills by encouraging them to work together. An example is Herotopia, a game for children 7-10 that has kids work together to defeat bullies and to develop skills like good citizenship. Another great pro-social game for little kids is Ni Hao, Kai Lan's New Year's Celebration, which isn't mentioned in the Commonsense Media article but which has received good ratings on their site. In this game, kids younger than about 5 can enjoy setting up and celebrating the Chinese New Year.
Tip #7: Games that are worthwhile often offer academic learning presented in novel, exciting ways. For example, Dora's Cooking Club, designed for ages 4-7, requires kids to use math to help Dora and her family make recipes. Brain Pop, while not mentioned in the Commonsense Media article (though it received a good review from Commonsense Media), offers animated videos (new videos appear each day) for individual students, groups of students, and classrooms, and its content is aligned with Common Core Standards. The health games are particularly novel, as they help kids understand how to eat well and take care of their bodies.
Tip #8: Games that truly teach children show them information and allow them to use it, rather than simply telling them the information. Sid Meier's Civilization V allows kids to use real-life historical characters such as Napoleon or real-life historical elements to simulate new civilizations, thus enabling them to learn about how culture and other factors affect governments.
Tip #9: Games that draw kids in have a beautiful and unified visual style. Common Sense Media cites the example of Flower, a game for kids 7 and older that allows kids to direct the movement of flower petals that turn a gray field green. In addition to being calming, the game has an environmental message.
Tip #10: The best games also have an element of variety and do not involve constant repetition. For example, Boom Blox, for kids ages 7 and older, has almost 400 levels of puzzles, some of which can be solved cooperatively and all of which can be solved over again in different ways, allowing kids to constantly invent and reinvent strategies.
What's wonderful about Commonsense Media's reviews is that they help parents navigate the confusing world of gaming and steer kids to games that will enhance their learning and pro-social behavior. Find other recommendations for educational games.