Traditionally, video games have gotten a bad rap. “Time wasters,” “digital distractions,” and other not-so-flattering descriptions have been blanketed over the industry.
The truth is, though, the tides are turning. Many video games, when played in moderation, can actually be a positive influence.
In short, games can teach, inspire, and encourage.
As a parent, you’re probably wondering, “Why haven’t I seen those types of video games?” With so many different types of games and genres, you probably have, and just haven’t realized it.
The best video games for kids, though, are the ones that challenge young minds on several levels (and we don’t mean the levels through which they do speed runs).
Best Video Games for Kids Ages 4-8
Skills Learned: Basic problem-solving, math, cooperation, organization
If you haven’t already introduced your kids to video games, you might want to consider doing so while they’re still young. Video games are universal, and eventually your kids will come into contact with them—wouldn’t you prefer that when they do, it’s on your terms? This way you can set the educational tone early-on.
The good news is, you don’t have to settle for games of violence—there are a libraries’ worth of games that don’t require shooting or destroying anything, and can still teach your kids something while they’re enjoying everything that makes video games fun at the same time.
At this age, most parents have already established a toddler tablet or other mobile device, and as such, most games are available exclusively on mobile platforms.
LEGO Creator Islands (iTunes)
Give your kids access to the world’s greatest construction toy without spending a dime on a LEGO set.
LEGO Creator Islands lets young builders explore and play on five exotic islands. What’s great about the game (beside the excellent gameplay and variety of bricks and accessories) is that it’s free and features no ads or in-app purchases. In fact, none of the digital games from LEGO or their junior doppelganger Duplo have any ads.
Sure, the games probably help get kids interested in the real-world sets, but these games aren’t slapped together for marketing—this game and all LEGO’s digital products are produced with thought and care, and it shows.
Players build vehicles, animals, and buildings using the same LEGO components (albeit digital versions of them) from real-world sets. The game includes missions and with each build, players unlock more cool features.
Minecraft (Google Play, iTunes, Amazon, PC, Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo Switch)
Minecraft has retained its staying power for several years, mainly because at its core, it’s a really well-made game.
It’s also an incredibly versatile game and can be played a variety of ways. There’s exploration, resource gathering, crafting, and of course, combat. Not to mention that Minecraft is educational, and can teach kids basic programming concepts by modifying the game’s root code, which is Java based.
Download our 2018 brochure to learn more about getting your child started with Minecraft game design. Or, continue reading about video games for kids!
Introducing your kids to Minecraft can be an incredible experience for both parent and child. Playing creative or survival mode with your kids will teach them cooperation and other social concepts—and it’s a great way to bond with your little one during their screen time.
Lightbot Jr.: Coding Puzzles (Google Play, iTunes)
Lightbot Jr. is an introduction to coding. (Don’t worry, your kids won’t need to know how to write code.) The game costs a few dollars, but that’s a small price to pay to get your kids interested in coding and starting to understand the core concepts of computer science.
This is the little kids version of Lightbot: Programming Puzzles and kids can play as a Boybot or Girlbot. 42 levels challenge kids to solve and complete puzzles using a basic graphical interface. Educators the world over pick Lightbot to introduce and teach computer science to kids because of the high quality and straightforward interactivity—you should too.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo Switch)
The latest game in the incredibly popular Zelda series is an action-adventure sandbox game full of exploration and of course, Nintendo’s signature world-class gameplay.
The game has received many, many honors, including Game of the Year. In fact, the game is considered by many video game journalists (including this one) to be one of the greatest video games of all time.
All the games in the Zelda series are top-notch, but this is a landmark game in its own right. What really stands out (and is a deviation from the standard Zelda game) is the open-ended adventure that truly encourages discovery, exploration, and experimentation!
There’s just so much to this game and so much to do that parents and kids will enjoy playing it together as much as playing it alone.
Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64)
Nintendo’s first 3D Mario game has been proven to increase grey matter (brain size)! It’s true, a study used Super Mario 64 to demonstrate that playing video games directly affects and impacts regions of the brain responsible for memory, spatial orientation, information organization, and fine motor skills.
Aside from being a classic - it set the standard for 3D platform games that would come after it—the game (which plays like a cartoon) is easy to pick up, wickedly fun, and crammed with places and things to discover.
Nintendo Labo (Nintendo Switch)
It shouldn’t be a surprise that some of the best games on our list come from the Disney of the video games business. Nintendo Labo is an accessory for the Nintendo Switch that allows kids to create all kinds of gadgets out of cardboard—and invent news ways to play.
Each Nintendo Labo kit (there’s a Variety Kit, a Robot Kit and more on the way) comes with a stack of pre-cut cardboard that kids assemble into a gadget. The cardboard gadget is used with the Nintendo Switch controller and corresponds to the included game, so for example, these Toy-Con’s as Nintendo calls them, can turn the controller/Switch into a piano (to make music), a fishing rod (to go fishing), or robot (to attack stuff).
Labo is a maker-game creation factory kids go absolutely bonkers for. It has a wide appeal for all ages and is bound to spark your child’s imagination and creativity.
Learn more in our Parent’s Guide to Nintendo Labo.
Pet Bingo (Google Play, iTunes, Amazon)
Hiding the nasty medicine with some cherry flavor? We’ve been there. Here’s a digital version of that analogy. A Parent’s Choice Gold Award winner, Pet Bingo is designed for children K-4 and is a beautifully crafted edutainment title.
Pet Bingo teaches Common Core State Standards for math in a fun and interactive way. Kids learn addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, measurements, and geometry.
The game features several difficulty levels and adapts to your child’s skill and progress. As kids solve math problems, they’re awarded Pet rewards, like food or a pet name for example, to use in the Pet Store. Teacher-developed hints help kids not by solving the problem but by demonstrating the math concept. A report card let’s parents check in on progress and set up learning goals. Plus the game is free to play and has no ads or in-app purchases.
Solar System with Astro Cat (Google Play, iTunes, Amazon)
Teach your kids about the wonders of the universe with this charming educational game. Kids explore planets, stars, and more, while learning about astrophysics. Kids can build a spacecraft and fly a cat in a jetpack. Speaking of cats, Astro Cat and his trusty sidekick Astro Mouse are your guides.
The game costs a few dollars, but that’s a steal when you consider the amazing amount of content (and educational value) this game features. It’s incredibly simple with a straightforward interface.
Best Video Games for Kids Ages 9-12
Skills Learned: Cooperation, History, Planning, Brain Training
Pre-teens have likely already been exposed to video games. As parents, maybe you’re looking for something that’s a little more productive (and a little less violent) than the 18+ shooter they want to play. Those games are out there and they’re actually really good.
Fortnite (PC, Xbox, PlayStation)
Let’s go ahead and get this one out of the way. Fortnite is the incredibly popular third-person battle royale game you may have heard about it. It’s a fast, fun creative shooter with an interesting twist. Players try to rebuild after “The Storm” and protect themselves from the waves of zombie-like creatures that invade at night - and each other.
The weapons and gadgets are cleverly designed, and (thanks to Epic recently putting the Guided Missile in the vault) well-balanced. Plus, using the cool crafting mechanic to build fortresses and cover adds quite a bit to a shooter. The game is built on top of the Unreal Engine and very much strategy-based.
Did we mention the PVP version, Fortnite Battle Royale is free? Finally, there’s no blood in this game, but there is lots of action. Tip for parents playing with kids: learn to build cover, fast.
Civilization (PC, Xbox, PlayStation)
Sid Meier’s original 4X-strategy game has a simple objective: "Build an empire to stand the test of time."
Players explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate. The turn-based single and multiplayer strategy game spans eons, beginning in 4000 BC. Gameplay is based in historical events, and the opponents display traits from their real-world civilization—the Aztecs for example are a wealthy civilization and fiercely expansionist.
It’s an engaging RTS on several fronts—so don’t be surprised if it prompts discussion and interest in history.
The game has been copied and has spawned multiple sequels (which are all extremely playable; the latest version, released in 2016 is Civ VI) but for the money, nothing beats the original.
Sim City (PC, Xbox, PlayStation)
Sim City is a sandbox strategy game that starts out simple but blossoms into a layered and complex game experience. The game teaches kids about city planning, topics of engineering, property zoning, and community operations. It’s considered one of the best simulations out there, and for country kids that haven’t yet had access to a big city, it can be not only a fun and educational experience, but an eye-opening one.
Big Brain Academy (Nintendo DS)
Brain training games like BBA are intended to help kids and adults alike improve their memory and other cognitive abilities like computation, analysis, and identification. The game also allows for a player to compete with up to seven friends or family members to see who has the biggest brain.
Each exercise or quiz takes about a minute to complete. Other brain games like BBA make for good family bonding time, so be sure to check them out.
Again, video games do have benefits. We encourage parents to find positive ways to use them to motivate kids, as they can be effective educational tools as well as great ways to bond with children.
If you want to take the gaming experience a step further, consider introducing your kids to the possibility of making their own. With online courses in Roblox coding, Minecraft modding with Java, and other video game courses for kids, there are plenty of options to align with your child’s interests.