The best educational apps and games to jumpstart the school year

Getting the brain back in school mode may be as easy as spending some quality time with an iPhone or iPad.

space travel app iphone
Credit: Derek Walter
Learning is fun!

Parents everywhere grapple with the question of how much “screen time” to allow for their children—and part of the challenge to this question stems from how many apps and games are mindless diversions.

So to help you out, we’ve pulled together a group of higher-quality choices that are both educational and fun. Any guilt you have about screen time will be vastly diminished when your kid is learning about the solar system, practicing multiplication, or using logic to solve a puzzle. Check out some of our top choices for making learning something that can happen anytime.

MORE: Back to school stuff for the discerning techie (or techie-in-training)

astro cat
Professor Astro Cat's Solar System

The solar system is already a pretty fascinating place, and one that many children immediately gravitate towards. However, it can’t hurt to have a space-traveling feline here to help out. 

That’s the case with Professor Astro Cat’s Solar System ($4), which offers several interactive models of the solar system and useful facts. Later, it tests your child (or maybe you!) with fun quizzes. The suggested age range is for those from six to eight years old, but even older kids will find a lot to enjoy with all of the facts and games inside of this cool app.

sushi monster
Sushi Monster

When you think sushi, it’s typically wassabi and tasty rolls that come to mind instead of math equations. But get ready to expand your mind, because this clever game from Scholastic should find a way into your child’s folder if you want them to have some math practice.

To play Sushi Monster (free), you must serve up numbers that match the product or sum demanded by the sushi monster. With enough right answers, you can advance to more difficult levels. It’s an excellent mind exercise that disguises itself as a game.

star walk kids
Star Walk Kids

For many, Star Walk was one of those first apps that blew open the possibilities of what the iPad could do—you may have shown friends or family members the magic of holding an iPad over your head to identify stars, constellations, planets, and other celestial bodies.

Star Walk Kids ($3) takes that same magic down to a kid-friendly level, with cartoon-style illustrations and facts that are consumable for tinier humans. But there’s still a lot of value to be found, as the app gives kids a great overview of how the universe looks and is laid out. 

tinycards iphone
Tinycards - Flash cards by Duolingo

Duolingo makes one of the best language-learning apps for iOS. The company has put this same level of skill to work with Tinycards (free), which is a far more engaging way to do flash cards than using buckets of ink to write out physical ones.

The app gives you a number of different topics to choose from if you want to just explore what is out there to learn. Or you can create a custom batch of cards for your own use, which could be a vital and fun way to do some studying for those inevitable tests that are coming.

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DragonBox Algebra

Algebra is way more fun when it’s accompanied by dragons—hence the game DragonBox Algebra ($5). The target group here is for kids from six to eight, but don’t underestimate the appeal of picking a cute dragon avatar and using it to solve multiplication problems.

The game starts out with simple problems, using cards, characters, and simple games to introduce the concept of multiplication—which is essentially adding up groups together. It might take a while to get a hang of it for those closer to five or six, but it’s worth the effort for a visual instructional tool.

slice fractions
Slice Fractions

For some, dealing with fractions is one of those concepts that can be a challenge to pick up, but Slice Fractions ($4) makes it much easier to swallow.

If you’re a teacher, then you may want to consider its dedicated school edition. It has the same levels at the main app, but gives you access to a teacher’s guide that lays out everything that students can learn. Plus, it unlocks all of the levels at once, so you can jump ahead to a specific concept or switch between concepts for different student groups. 

robot factory
The Robot Factory by TinyBop

There’s a large movement in education to turn kids into “makers,” and future jobs will require today’s kids to think creatively about how to make things and solve problems. The Robot Factory ($4) is an excellent game that will foster this type of thinking. Kids can create, test, and play with their own virtual robots that can be customized an endless number of ways. It’s a great option for fostering open-ended creativity into an educational game instead of just a linear option where you go straight through from one level to another.

minecraft
Minecraft: Pocket Edition

If you haven’t already, it’s time to embrace Minecraft ($7 for Minecraft Pocket Edition, the iOS version). Compared to some of the other options out there in the gaming world, there’s much to be thankful for if your child has jumped on the Minecraft bandwagon. That’s because Minecraft requires exploration, building your own world, and critically thinking through problems. Yes, there are zombies and other creatures—but it’s practically a bloodless affair, which is something you can’t say about every game that is marketed to teens and even younger kids.

skyscrapers
Skyscrapers

Sometimes you need an app that isn’t directly tied in to an academic subject. Yet such experiences can still be rewarding, teaching critical thinking, creativity, and giving your child a chance to explore.

That’s the case with Skyscrapers ($3), which allows for designing all the pieces of a building, checking out what goes on inside, and saving it should a fire break out. It’s an open-ended adventure, which is an ideal setting for positive screen time.

cookie cats
Cookie Cats

Everyone loves cats.

OK, maybe not everyone—but feeding some cartoon cats who demand cookies has the promise for a fun adventure. Cookie Cats (free) is a match-three puzzle game that requres you to think about which cookies to select in order to meet the needs of those demanding felines. It requires quick thinking and paying attention, which are surely skills that are good to have. The game obviously takes a couple of drops from Candy Crush—it’s worth paying attention to those in-app purchases so these cats don’t turn into a money pit.