After dozens of hours testing gaming sites, we recommend PBS Kids for students and teachers.
Games are the undisputed queens of classroom fun, but they can also be exceptional tools for learning. Great educational games get students to think critically, create, and experiment with new ideas. The problem is, a lot of games that claim to be educational are little more than dressed-up quizzes that challenge students to recall facts, faster and faster. These games might hook students, but they don’t actually teach much, or lead to the kind of deeper, high-interest learning that helps students master content.
With this in mind, we've taken a look at the most popular websites for educational games to try to find those sites that support true game-based learning. We dug into each site's learning design, feedback loops, and supporting resources for learners and educators. We also kept an eye out for ads and overall look, feel, and ease of use. It's important to note that the sites we looked at were those that offer a range of self-directed games for learners to choose from as opposed to curricular programs that guide learners through a series of games.
Best overall: PBS Kids
Out of all the articles we've done comparing tools in a particular genre -- from quizzing to typing to screencasting -- this was the easiest choice. PBS Kids is just simply on a different level from every other educational game site when it comes to pedagogy and game-based learning. There's a clear focus throughout PBS Kids on thoughtful, game-based approaches to learning objectives. Great educational games find ways to accomplish learning objectives through novel game mechanics. Bad educational games are basically digital worksheets. PBS Kids is the former -- each game seems to have a new, unique spin on learning content that gives students agency and helps them be creative. There's also quality feedback that communicates to learners that getting something wrong isn't bad, but part of the journey.
PBS Kids is also easy to recommend because it's free and doesn't feature any ads or commercialization. So many other sites are riddled with ads (unless you pay for a subscription) and even then don't have the best privacy policies in place to protect students. PBS Kids is the exception, not only offering a completely free product without ads, but having good policies in place that scored very well on our privacy evaluation. This makes PBS Kids a trustworthy product schools and families can turn to.
The final thing that PBS Kids does so well is its content coverage. There's just about everything you'd want for early learners on the site, and best of all a lot of the subject areas are mashed together, so that kids are never learning one kind of content but building skills in a cross section of domains at any given time, from science, art, reading, and math to emotion identification and music.
BrainPop, like PBS Kids, is a huge name when it comes to elementary school learning. But while PBS specializes equally in video and games, BrainPop's focus is predominantly videos covering just about any kind of content that might come up in an elementary school classroom. That said, BrainPop still earns a spot on this list, because they do have a solid library of easy-to-recommend and high-quality educational games.
But while all of PBS Kids's games are created by PBS, BrainPop does a great job of curating the best educational games from across the web alongside their own games. The third-party games come from some of the better developers and publishers of learning games, including a hefty dose of research labs as well as giants like iCivics. This all takes place on a sub-site called GameUp, where you can browse the games by subject and even by those that make use of BrainPop's novel SnapThought tool, which lets students screenshot their play and then annotate it for assessment.
Note that BrainPop Jr. also has a games section, but it's a lot less impressive and doesn't receive the same recommendation from us.
Maybe worth a look (with a paid upgrade): Arcademics
Outside of PBS Kids and BrainPop, there's not much we'd recommend without a lot of caveats, or in limited scenarios. Out of that bunch, Arcademics is probably the best option, but you'll need to pay for the features we think make it stand out.
Arcademics has a wide variety of simplistic -- but also addictive -- games with a big focus on multiplayer. These aren't groundbreaking games, and we wouldn't even call them examples of game-based learning, but they do help students develop fluency with facts they've already learned. Most focus on fast recall of facts or solutions to equations. A paid account is a must, though, since it'll remove the annoying ads and also add progress-tracking and customizable content that can better help teachers integrate the tool into classrooms.
Paid, comprehensive math program: DreamBox
We didn't consider DreamBox officially as part of this list, but it's worth mentioning. While everything else we looked at is a grab bag of sorts, DreamBox is a carefully thought out program. It's self-paced, so students play through games and grow their skills over time. The program is designed to adapt as students struggle or succeed. So if you're looking less for one-off games and more sustained learning -- and you're willing to pay for it -- this is one worth checking out.
See everything we considered
The tools we call out here are a small slice of everything we looked at. If you prefer to do your own evaluation, find every tool we considered in our Top Picks list Websites for Reading, Literacy, and Math Games.
You can also use our site's search to browse our full library of reviews.
To help organize our evaluation of educational games, we looked at a few key features and functionalities:
- Advertisements and privacy
- Content coverage
- Customization and adaptation
- Equity and accessibility
- Learning design and quality
- Visual design
Why trust us?: Our evaluation process
Our team of editors and reviewers (all current or former educators and/or researchers) painstakingly looked at dozens of educational gaming sites and their games for this article and narrowed down 13 of these for deeper evaluation and consideration. Each site went through a rigorous evaluation process by both a reviewer and an editor. This involved hands-on testing (including, in some cases, in classrooms or other real-world scenarios), rating according to our research-backed 14-point rubric, communication with developers and other educators, and finally a written review. We also consulted our vast library of from-the-field reviews submitted by practicing educators. All told, each site underwent at minimum of four to six hours of testing and evaluation.
Is there something we missed? You can request a product for review using this form.
Image courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.