It’s a modern-day dilemma: Do you ban gaming during the school week in hopes it will encourage more studying? Or do you use games as a reward for finishing homework but risk kids doing a rushed job?
Research on the positive effects video games have on players’ brains may make those questions moot. In fact, all that decision making, logical thinking, and strategizing kids do while they’re playing may not be wasted on enemies in Fortnite. Spatial reasoning, for example, is strengthened by playing games that emphasize building—a lift that’s especially good for girls interested in STEM careers. Action games can boost cognitive abilities including perception, attention, and reaction time. And some games can condition the brain for all kinds of learning—sort of like how football players take ballet to improve their coordination.
So, how do you find the kinds of games that encourage the type of thinking that pays off? Look for games that include planning ahead, experimentation, problem-solving, and creativity. These games might not have the same appeal as Fortnite or Far Cry 5 (which can also serve up brain benefits) but might be the middle ground you and your kids can agree on for school nights.
Of course, it’s still a good idea to make sure video games are balanced with plenty of offline brain-building activities and exercise. And taking an active interest in your kids’ games and other media is another surefire way to boost learning. Check out these great games that you can say “yes” to after school—or anytime.
Math Blaster Online, 7+
Do your kids need help with equations? Math Blaster Online gives them plenty of practice as they join the Blaster Academy to save the universe using their math skills. It also lets your kids team up with other players to solve problems together in a safe, socially positive online environment.
Art Academy, 8+
Art Academy is more than a video game — it’s a fun art tutorial. The game walks you through the basics of drawing, shading, and other skills so you can apply them to real-life creations.
Lifeboat to Mars, 8+
Young scientists can experiment with creating a brand-new ecosystem on Mars to help support terrestrial life on Earth. Players can choose to work on microbes or on animal and plant missions to accomplish the task of terraforming the red planet. Even cooler, once they’ve finished a few missions, players can design their own missions for other players to try.
Minecraft can reinforce geometry concepts as it strengthens players’ thinking and reasoning skills, creativity, and even collaboration. The game has a strong, positive online community and even has an educational module teachers can modify for classroom lessons on different subjects.
Oregon Trail, 9+
Oregon Trail has been teaching and entertaining kids for more than 40 years. The game continues to innovate through digital versions that provide realistic storylines and context. Players take on the role of a wagon leader directing settlers from Missouri to Oregon in 1800s America while dealing with issues such as disease, food, and weather.
GarageBand has exactly what fledgling musicians need to take their music to the next level. Kids can record vocals and instruments and mix tracks to create — and share — new songs while learning essential audio-engineering and composition skills. It’s like having a professional recording studio in the palm of your hand.
The Political Machine 2016, 10+
While The Political Machine 2016 may be focused on the main political players of the 2016 presidential race, the hot-button topics that candidates have to address are no less important today than they were then. Whether you’re addressing issues like gun control, immigration, or global warming, players will have to figure out ways of swaying public opinion to their viewpoints, raise funds, and hopefully conduct a successful campaign.
SMART Adventures Mission Math 2: Peril at the Pyramids, 10+
Peril at the Pyramids is a story-based math app, where kids test their math knowledge to solve a mystery of disappearing artifacts at an archeological site. The app provides an engaging setting for players to use their logic skills as they solve engineering, science, and technology problems, as well as play mini-games that reinforce math concepts.
Walden, A Game, 10+
It’s not often that students get a chance to explore a celebrated work of American literature in a video game, but Walden, A Game puts you directly in the shoes of Henry David Thoreau as he explores the wilderness around Walden Pond back in 1845. The game highlights many of the themes of the novel, including the simplification of your life, the importance of self-reliance, and the impact of nature.
Sid Meier’s Civilization VI, 11+
With more than 20 cultures from around the world, Civilization VI is an ideal supplement to history class. Players lead a civilization from the Stone Age to the stars, using a variety of political, scientific, or military goals to accomplish their ends. Players can also found new religions, spy on rival countries, and explore various governmental systems through their country’s development as they try to become the most important society in the world.
Can you design and develop the perfect creature? Spore lets you develop a species from its microscopic origins to an intelligent, social alien life form that can venture into space and interact with other sentient life forms. This is a great way for your young scientist to explore the methods and ideas behind biology.