When I put together this list of top-rated games of 2015, I noticed that though the tools varied in target grades and subjects, they shared some key things. As Mitch Resnick of the MIT Media Lab has argued, if you want to know if a tool is good for learning, first look to see if it aids kids' creativity and expression. I think many (if not all) the tools on this list get kids there, but they don't all take the same path. Some of these tools explicitly help kids make things while others foster thinking and reflection skills that complicate and expand their understanding of themselves and their worlds. They show us how great games can be for learning and inspire others to follow their lead.
Price: Free, Paid ($29.99/month and up); Platform: Web; Grades: 7-12
Construct 2 is a Web-based 2-D game-creation tool that's professional-caliber but still great for novices. It has great features for publishing and ample support.
Price: $1.99; Platform: iOS; Grades: K-3
In Crazy Gears, kids experiment with a variety of tools and moving parts to build a simple machine. Teachers can use Crazy Gears to introduce kids to machinery, physics, and other STEM topics without the need for a machine shop and stock of gears, rods, and pulleys.
Price: $7.99; Platform: Android, iOS, Kindle Fire, Fire Phone; Grades: Pre-K-1
DragonBox Numbers joins the other games in the DragonBox series as a stellar example of seamlessly incorporating important mathematical concepts into a fun game environment. The three play areas offer a good combination of free exploration and goal-oriented challenges.
Price: $14.99; Platform: iOS; Grades: Pre-K-K
With a focus on rhyming and phonetic sounds, Endless Wordplay gets kids to practice decoding how letters and letter combinations represent sounds that form words. It's a stylish and good attempt to address the peculiarities of the English language in which letters make all sorts of different sounds depending on the words they're in.
Price: $2.99; Platform: iOS; Grades: 1-3
Fruity Fractions is thoughtfully designed to build kids' understanding of fractions and to dispel major misconceptions. There's excellent Common Core State Standards alignment built right in: Kids drag and drop to partition shapes into equal parts, meeting all fractions standards for first and second grade and most of them for third grade.
Price: Free, Paid; Platform: Windows, Mac; Grades: 5–12
One of the best creation tools available for aspiring game developers. Its drag-and-drop programming system allows new designers to jump right in. When they want access to more flexible or nuanced behavior for game objects, these would-be designers can switch over to the built-in scripting language.
Price: $2.99; Platform: Android, iOS; Grades: 2-8
Inventioneers is a fun physics game that challenges budding engineers to design inventive solutions to puzzles. It's an engaging supplement to units on force and motion and has nice connections to NGSS.
Price: Free; Platform: iOS; Grades: 3-6
Monster Heart Medic is an excellent supplementary resource for any life science or health curriculum. Kids can learn about cardiovascular health and tests that are typically done to diagnose heart problems.
Price: $5.99; Platform: Web; Grades: 5-10
Motion Force is a thrilling physics game that teaches the basics of Newton's laws of motion and how to apply them. For teachers, there's an excellent NGSS and CCSS-aligned curriculum.
Price: $2.99; Platform: Android, iOS, Kindle Fire, Fire Phone; Grades: 1-4
In Mystery Word Town - Sight Word Spelling, a band of robbers has stolen some gold and hidden it -- and themselves -- in buildings around town. Kids have to spell words to go through doors and windows in search of the gold, as well as the outlaws. Spelling is the educational focus, but the fun and critical thinking have potential to take learning beyond.
Price: $14.99; Platform: PS4, Xbox One, Windows; Grades: 5–12
Developed in cooperation with Upper One Games, the first indigenous-owned video game developer in the U.S., Never Alone is an adventure puzzle game with side-scrolling, platforming elements based on Inupiat (Alaska Native) lore, tales, and characters.
Price: $2.99; Platform: Android, iOS, Kindle Fire, Fire Phone; Grades: Pre-K-1
Thinkrolls 2 follows the same smart, fun format as Thinkrolls, adding new science concepts such as density, force, electricity -- and even a little science fiction: a wormhole. The learning is fun and challenging, gently introducing students to sophisticated science concepts through play.
Price: Free; Platform: iPad; Grades: 1-6
Words for Osmo turns your tablet into an old-school wordplay board game. But here, the digital element ramps up fun and expands learning. The range of difficulty means every student can be challenged, and the variety of word packs -- and the option to add your own -- makes it really versatile for fun and learning.
Price: $4.99; Platform: Android, iPad, PC, Mac, Kindle Fire; Grades: 3-8
There aren't many classic educational games; Zoombinis is one of them. It's back and better than ever with a whole new look and feel tuned to today's students (and nostalgic teachers). Immersive, engaging logic puzzles get students thinking critically and helpful, age-appropriate hints and instructional narration help them out along the way.