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Learning Games That Put Play First

There's perhaps no more powerful force for learning than play. Yet so many educational games get bogged down in the business of teaching that they forget to let play work its magic. The best games let play breathe, allowing students to learn through exploration, imagination, and often failure. Whether it's through creative play that centers expression, sandbox-style play that focuses on experimentation, or puzzlers that support tinkering and deep thinking, games of all kinds -- even those not designed for schools -- have learning potential. In fact, some of the most memorable and effective learning can happen in play that feels chaotic, pointless, or "just for fun." The games on this list -- most of which weren't designed for schools -- offer these kinds of playful, informal learning experiences that kids and teens find irresistible. However, we also think these games offer teachers paths to connect play to curricular content.

Free and Free-ish Games

Chrome Music Lab

Irresistibly fun interactives can introduce musical concepts

Bottom Line: This accessible site is sure to dazzle students, but will need some inventive teaching and a lot of support to lead to deep learning.

Grades: Pre-K–8
Price:
Free

ScratchJr

Drag-and-drop programming is an effective intro for budding coders

Bottom Line: With a little adult help, this is a rich platform for getting kids into programming and digital creation.

Grades: K–2
Price:
Free

Codeable Crafts

Animate stories with accessible drawing tools and coding blocks

Bottom Line: Kids get a simple peek at computer programming principles by animating stories using their own creations.

Grades: K–3
Price:
Free

PBS KIDS

One-stop shop for a wealth of fantastic PBS KIDS educational content

Bottom Line: Robust collection of learning resources covers an impressive array of topics.

Grades: Pre-K–4
Price:
Free

Toontastic 3D

Flexible tool hands kids the reins for creative animated storytelling

Bottom Line: Despite some lack of variety and simple drawing tools, Toontastic 3D remains a terrific, versatile storytelling tool.

Grades: K–5
Price:
Free

Creatability - Experiments with Google

Explore and express creativity with accessible tools -- or make your own

Bottom Line: This simple way to create music has accessibility features that help engage kids of all ages and abilities.

Grades: K–12
Price:
Free

Scratch

Creative sandbox opens the door to coding in any subject area

Bottom Line: Scratch draws students of all types into coding and lays a foundation for future learning.

Grades: 2–12
Price:
Free

Contraption Maker

Solve problems, puzzles, brain teasers while creating wacky machines

Bottom Line: Hands-on problem-solving leads to great fun and independent learning with the right curricular wraparound to connect what kids are doing with what they need to know.

Grades: 3–8
Price:
Free, Paid

GooseChase EDU

Digital scavenger hunts provide dynamic, fresh learning experiences

Bottom Line: Students and teachers will enjoy the powerful learning of a modern scavenger hunt.

Grades: 3–12
Price:
Free, Paid

Geoguessr

Addicting gameplay jazzes up geography

Bottom Line: Game-based platform can get kids interested in world geography and expose them to different cultures on a surface level.

Grades: 4–12
Price:
Free, Paid

Little Alchemy 2

Flex alchemical muscles in amusing, discovery-based puzzler

Bottom Line: This amusing puzzle game encourages creativity, perseverance, and systems thinking, and with creative integration it can build interest in math, science, history, and literature.

Grades: 6–12
Price:
Free

Textadventures.co.uk

Play or design text adventures, but creation can get technical

Bottom Line: Text adventures can be a blast to play and make, but the Quest game-making tool, while offering some decent support, can be tough to use effectively without coding experience.

Grades: 6–12
Price:
Free

Geocaching

Leave and locate hidden packages in a real-world treasure hunt

Bottom Line: Kids learn problem-solving, teamwork, and mapping skills, but the site doesn’t provide instruction or explanations for most of those topics; educators will have to fill in the gaps.

Grades: 7–12
Price:
Free, Paid

Paid Games

Toca Town

Kids run the world with perfect mix of fantasy and reality

Bottom Line: Impressive open-play town lets kids explore and learn.

Grades: Pre-K–K
Price:
Paid

Thinkrolls Play & Code

Puzzle solving and building boosts problem-solving skills

Bottom Line: Delightfully adaptive and engaging experience offers opportunities to practice important thinking skills and essential habits of mind.

Grades: Pre-K–3
Price:
Free to try

Toca Nature

Create, explore, and enjoy realistic (but G-rated) virtual forests

Bottom Line: Virtual world is wonderfully calm, inspiring, and strangely addictive, but the range of its exploration is limited.

Grades: K–4
Price:
Paid

Simple Machines by Tinybop

Excellent elementary NGSS engineering practices embedded in fun games

Bottom Line: Fun gameplay lets kids explore important physics concepts in a solid standards-aligned context.

Grades: K–5
Price:
Paid

Breakout EDU

Physical and digital puzzle games epitomize collaborative learning

Bottom Line: Students will reap multiple benefits if teachers invest the time in preparing Breakout EDU games.

Grades: K–12
Price:
Paid

Busy Water

Solve, create, and share puzzles that gush with STEM learning

Bottom Line: This challenging yet kid-friendly set of logic puzzles wonderfully allows kids to solve problems and experiment with light science concepts.

Grades: 1–5
Price:
Paid

The Infinite Arcade by Tinybop

Simple game-design app has endless creative potential

Bottom Line: Letting students design, play, improve, and share their own games opens up opportunities for learning potential in many subject areas.

Grades: 2–6
Price:
Paid

The Robot Factory by Tinybop

Improve designs, collect favorites in robot creation sandbox

Bottom Line: A well-made and enjoyable STEM app that leverages what's great about play -- experimentation -- to spark engineering interest.

Grades: K–8
Price:
Paid

Crayon Physics Deluxe

Influential physics game is still a draw

Bottom Line: Instantly engaging and super accessible to learners of many ages and abilities, Crayon Physics Deluxe fuses conceptual science learning with a brand of playful problem solving that demands creativity.

Grades: 2–12
Price:
Paid

Minecraft

Spiraling sandbox of adventure and creation gets kids to dig deep

Bottom Line: An irresistible and seemingly limitless incubator for 21st-century skills that, with a little guidance, can chart new courses for learning.

Grades: 3–12
Price:
Paid

Sid Meier’s Civilization VI

Best entry in classic strategy series might not be best for classrooms

Bottom Line: As with all games in this series, Civilization VI is a great learning experience with the right support, but older, cheaper versions may be more practical for classrooms.

Grades: 7–12
Price:
Paid

Mars Horizon

Authentic space agency sim focuses on logistics, planning

Bottom Line: This sim is backed by major space agencies, so it's a neat and trustworthy way to learn about the challenges of past and future space exploration.

Grades: 6–12
Price:
Paid

Surviving Mars

Colonizing Mars is in our future, but why wait?

Bottom Line: Lots of potential and perhaps much better in a year or so of updates; use this in a class about space exploration and the harsh realities of colonization.

Grades: 7–12
Price:
Paid

Kerbal Space Program

Design and launch a rocket into space in realistic astrophysics sim

Bottom Line: This accurate rocket sim encourages trial-and-error learning and makes for great (and often explosive) physics and engineering experiments.

Grades: 9–12
Price:
Free to try, Paid

Svoboda 1945: Liberation

Poignant WWII investigation game plumbs a town's dark past

Bottom Line: An excellent game that could complement any curriculum on World War II.

Grades: 10–12
Price:
Paid

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