Traditionally, computer 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 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 computer games?” It’s a reasonable question! With so many different types of games and genres, you probably have, and just haven’t realized it.
The best computer 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 Computer 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 (PC, 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 (PC, Google Play, iTunes, Amazon, 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 in 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. Similarly, one of many educational benefits of Roblox is its ability to teach kids Lua coding.
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.
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 Computer 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.
Kerbal Space Program 2 (Available for PC and on gaming consoles)
Launch into outer space with the game that subtly teaches kids rocket science! The Kerbal Space Program series offers players the chance to explore the universe through a flight simulator while learning along the way.
The game’s recently revamped graphics, updated puzzles and challenges, and added layer of space colonization are sure to intrigue young minds and captivate imaginations while stimulating critical thinking skills.
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 loosely based on historical events, and the opponents display traits from their real-world civilization.
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.
Nancy Drew Interactive Mysteries (Available for digital download and disc format)
Featuring beloved literary sleuth Nancy Drew, these mystery games put players on the case of some seriously puzzling mysteries! Kids will be so engrossed as they explore haunted castles, spooky caves, and other fascinating settings, they won’t even realize they’re building math, memory, and logic skills as they unravel secrets and follow a trail of clues to the truth.
Made for ages 10 and up, each themed mystery contains puzzles, riddles, and other stimulating challenges that are woven into mystery stories kids will love.
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.
Again, computer 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.