Online science games for kids: What makes a good one?

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My editor put the question to me recently: “Tom, can you do a little research on good online science games for kids?” Turning to the web, I found several sites that offer games for kids to learn about all kinds of science – PBSKids, EdHeads, Ology, and Science Kids are just four that I came across, and the Children’s Hospital Trust has developed games as part of its Generation Cures website. But the question I couldn’t get out of my head was, “What makes a good science game?”

For starters, I asked my six-year-old son, the one who asks me every night at dinner, “Dad, what was the coolest science that you heard about today?” (Word to the wise: explaining stem cells and zebrafish to a six-year-old can be tricky.) His reply: “Thoughtful games, Dad. I like games that make me think.”

His is a viewpoint that postdoctoral fellow Jason Kahn appreciates. “I think a good science game should help children think about the world around them, make predictions, test them, and see how those predictions pan out,” says Kahn, who helped develop a game that teaches kids skills for dealing with stressful situations. “A more open-ended game that makes children engage in exploration and the scientific process would be better than one that encourages rote learning about science. After all, scientific knowledge is constantly changing, but the process of questioning, hypothesizing, experimenting and understanding data or outcomes remains solid and foundational.”

“Games have a huge teaching potential, and that potential is greatest if the educational message is included in an intentional, purposeful way,” says David Bickham, a staff scientist in the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s. “The more a game’s story and educational message are integrated with each other, the less mental energy it will take the child to process them and the more effective the game will be. So a game about math detectives who have to find out who is stealing the numbers from all the street signs by plotting the pattern of thefts to predict the next crime is going to be more engaging and make better use of the kid’s mental energy than one where the math exercise is tangential to the game.” builds science games that include their television characters, a strategy David Bickham says can help make the games more effective learning tools.

Bickham notes that many online educational games tie in very effectively with content in a different medium, like a TV show. “Ten years ago, a lot of these games were simply tacked on to TV programs because the conventional wisdom was, ‘You have to have an online presence,’” he says. “That isn’t the case any more. Developers and producers are working to make continuous educational programs across platforms, and are much more conscious about reinforcing educational messages from TV programs. This can keep kids engaged, because by keeping the same characters and storyline, you let the children learn with characters with whom they’re already familiar.”

Kahn also thinks context is important. “A good game can be fun, enjoyable and relevant, with a lot of science behind it, but you may need to have someone guide the child through the scientific concepts that are being explored.” There are games with great physics concepts behind them, he notes, “but they’re not explicit and you wouldn’t necessarily focus on them while playing the game. Playing it with someone who can help the child frame questions around the physics and encourage experimentation within the game brings in the context and turns the game into a teaching moment.”

But when is the right time to start introducing your child to educational online games like these? “ There’s research suggesting that children have an early window right around age 2 or 3 where they are really ripe for learning from television educational content, so preschool or even early elementary school age could be a good time for your kid to start exploring well-designed educational media,” says Bickham. “In terms of computer and online games, though, you have to find something that the kid will use and enjoy. I would say that parents should play a game themselves, see what they like about it, watch their child play it, and make sure it’s not something that is only advertising a particular service, product or brand.”

So tell us: Do you and your kids play any online science games? And if so, which ones do you like? Let us know in the comments!