Fun Learning for Free: 14 Top Educational Apps for Kids
Why not 15, you may ask? These are all apps I’m familiar with, and can recommend. When I counted up, there were fourteen of them; simple as that.
So, what are they?
Click one to jump straight to the relevant section of the article
English, Maths (or Math in America) & Coordination
English, Maths, Science, Geography & Technology
English (Literacy), Maths, Creativity & more
Technology (Computer Aided Design)
Technology (Office Suite)
3D Digital Art
Technology has so many uses, so why not let children’s learning be one of them? While I wouldn’t advise kids spend their every waking moment staring at a screen, time in front of a computer, tablet or phone can be put to good use. There are some excellent programs out there, and lots of them (like those listed above) are free, or at least have a free version.
So, let’s look at these apps (or software, or programs, if you prefer; the terms are often used interchangeably these days) in turn. In this article, we’ll see what each of them has to offer.
Childsplay is a collection of educational activities suitable for pre-school children. It focuses on the fundamentals, covering topics like maths, letters, alphabet and spelling. The program also covers keyboard and mouse training, which, despite living in an age of touchscreens, remains a skill that little ones still need to learn. Traditional computers aren’t about to disappear anytime soon – just ask anyone who’s tried working through an office document on a tablet.
When Childsplay opens, it has the option to enter a username to login with. The main screen offers a selection of puzzles and memory-training activities that make use of sounds, images, letters and numbers. There are also activities that work on hand/eye co-ordination, utilizing classic games like pong and pacman. Data can be logged to monitor children’s progress. The software works on Windows, Mac and Linux.
GCompris Educational Software
GCompris is an educational software suite designed for children aged two to ten years. It’s well rounded, covering several areas such as reading, arithmetic, science, geography and games – mainly of the educational variety, of course. It even includes learning to use a computer itself, with exercises designed for keyboard, mouse and touchscreen practise.
In total, GCompris offers over 100 separate activities. The free version of the program is referred to as a Demo, but there’s plenty in there to be going on with. Should you wish to unlock all of the features, the full version can be obtained with a one-off purchase.
GCompris runs on Windows, Mac, Linux and Android, too (sorry, no iPhones/iPads here). However, it is available for Raspberry Pi. Don’t know what a Raspberry Pi is, or want to learn more, click here.
Creativity should never be understated when it comes to children. The temptation is to focus too much on academic areas, but where would we be without the arts? Can you imagine what a sad place the world would be with no music? And that’s where Incredibox comes in.
As the app itself says, “Incredibox helps you create a mix very easily by managing a band of beatboxers”. Unfortunately, it appears as though the free “Web Version” is only designed to work in a computer’s web browser*, and the Android and IOS apps are paid for only. Here we’re looking at the free web version.
*I did manage to get Incredibox’s “Web Version” to work on an Android mobile device as follows. Install the “Firefox Browser fast & private” app from the Play Store, go to Incredibox’s website and select “Request Desktop Site” from Firefox’s dropdown menu. Hopefully, you should now be able to run it.
Once the software opens, first pick a version. The free software allows a choice between Alpha, Little Miss, Sunrise, and The Love. Different Incredibox versions have varying vocal effects – there is a reasonable wide range available, even at no cost (obviously more choice is available in the paid for product).
After picking one and loading the software, a group of musicians will appear on the screen. Various sound clips are located beneath them. Simply drag and drop a clip on to a character and that musician will start making the associated sound. Some vocals are more percussion-based, while others are more melodious.
It’s an impressive app, allowing anyone to become a musician – or create decent sounding mixes, at any rate. The free web demo will not allow you to export the finished mix. However, you can still share it with others (email, Facebook and Twitter are all supported). The software will even generate a unique URL (web address) that can be given to friends so that they can listen to your children’s masterpieces.
IntelliJoy Early Learning Academy
This one is mobile only. Sure, there’s a website (as above), but to actually use the software, you need to install the app on your Apple or Android device – using the Play or App Store, respectively. It can be run on both phones and tablets; I would suggest the latter is the better option to make the most of the larger screen.
IntelliJoy is bright and vibrant and should definitely appeal to its intended audience (ages 3 to 5+). We’ll only be using the free version here. You have to pay for the full version, which has more features, but there’s plenty to entertain your young ones at no cost (and see if they like it, before deciding whether it’s worth paying for further activities – remember, app developers need to make a living too, and at least this way there’s no annoying ads).
So what do you get?
When you first open the app, it asks you to select your child’s academic level. And that’s it, you’re in. If you don’t want to do anything more, you don’t have to. However, the app can be customized, if you’d like to take things further.
The app’s homescreen can be reached either by relaunching the app, or by tapping the left pointing arrow in the top left corner of the screen. From here, you can change player (if you’ve set up more than one child), turn the sound on and off (headphones could be a wise investment), or start the activities.
The “Parents Zone” is a particularly nice feature, as you can customize the experience for your child (or children), picking a different avatar for each of them, for example. “Offline Mode” is another useful function. With this, you have the option to download all of the activities so if you’re going somewhere with no internet (or you don’t want to use your mobile data), the app will run without an internet connection.
Intellijoy covers a range of curriculum areas for your youngster, including (but not limited to) the following: Literacy (letters and words), Maths (shapes, numbers and counting), Creativity (art and music), and the World Around Us (home, work and animals).
Kodu Game Lab
Kodu is made by Microsoft, and is great for teaching creativity, problem solving and storytelling. It’s an IDE (Integrated Development Environment), which is just a fancy way of saying an application that provides programmers with the tools they need to develop their software – it has this in common with Scratch (which we’ll look at later). The two pieces of software are both visual programming tools, and yet the way each of them works could not be more different.
Where Scratch keeps you in the project editing window, Kodu drops straight into your own 3D world. As the name suggests, Kodu Game Lab is focused around game creation. You can try out a bunch of sample games to begin with and tweak them, or build up from nothing. Tutorials are available to guide you on your way, starting with the very basics.
Selecting “Load World” from the Main Menu, for example, and then entering the “First Tutorial” steps through adding a Kodu (the odd-looking character shown opposite) into your world and then making it controllable by programming your keyboard’s cursor keys. The 3D scene editor is great fun, as you can test and play your game continually as you develop it.
As you might have guessed, being Microsoft, Kodu works on Windows PCs/laptops and Xbox One. Game controllers can be used, as the platform supports both Xbox 360 and Xbox One controllers (both of the wired variety). Your game creations can then be shared with the Kodu community, swapped over Xbox Live, or transferred between different machines via a USB drive.
Who doesn’t love playing with LEGO? LeoCAD isn’t officially endorsed by LEGO, but that hasn’t stopped the developers turning everyone’s favourite bricks virtual. Imagine combining LEGO building blocks with CAD (Computer Aided Design) software, and that’s pretty much what we have here.
The intuitive interface with its workspace on the left, tool windows on the right, and toolbar at the top, let’s kids jump right in and start creating models without having to spend too much time learning the software. Pieces can be moved and rotated, and the position and orientation altered. A timeline shows the steps used to create a model (which could them be printed off in order for someone to follow and actually build said model with real LEGO), and a handy search box allows for finding parts if you’re not sure what categories they’re located in.
This program is great for children with an interest in engineering or design, construction or building. Despite the relatively straightforward layout (compared to other CAD software), this one’s definitely for older kids, but they can start simple and build up. There’s all the parts you’d expect, and plenty more besides (it even includes the little LEGO figures). LeoCAD also covers LEGO Technic parts and Duplo bricks.
The website has a useful “Documentation” section, which includes a couple of tutorials to get things going. The program runs on Windows, Mac and Linux, and is LDraw compatible, which means you can share and download models from the internet.
Where would we be without Microsoft’s beloved Office suite? Well, we could be using Google Apps, or LibreOffice, but there was a time when Microsoft ruled the roost. Now there are multiple programs that will serve our productivity requirements. But do children really need to learn how to use fully-fledged office software with its myriad menus and functions? I’ve heard various arguments on this, but regardless of where your opinions lie, it’s a good idea to get kids familiar with the basic concepts of word processing, spreadsheets and presentation software, and OOo4Kids is the perfect way to do it.
Trimmed down and simplified just enough to make it more accessible, and yet still retaining all the tools your young ones may need, this software is a great way for them to start learning their way around a good, functional office suite. The official website isn’t in English, but don’t let that put you off. If you’re using Google Chrome, it will offer to translate it for you, and you can choose the language version of the software to download. Click the Download button to get started, or “Telecharger”, if you haven’t translated.
OOo4Kids is available for Windows, Mac and Linux. Note. Windows has both an installer and a portable app. If you’d like to know more about what a portable app is, click here to read my article on that very topic. When you open the software, it will load a welcome screen from where you can choose which program you require. The options are as follows.
Create a text with Writer – this is effectively Word
Create a presentation with Impress – use this for Powerpoints
Create a Calc sheet – for your Excel spreadsheets
Open a document
While not usually part of the traditional office suite, the “Draw” program is a handy little addition with a range of useful shapes.
Tone’s Tip. Documents can even be saved in Microsoft Office file formats (albeit the older type), should you prefer, instead of the native file types. Either change the “Save as type” option when saving an individual file, or set the defaults in “Tools – Options”, as shown above.
Scratch is a fantastic piece of software – entire books have been written about it, and rightly so. In today’s world, coding has never been more important. As more and more of us make use of (and become increasingly dependant on) technology, we need people to program our computers. Coding isn’t for everyone, but if it appeals, there are some fantastic career opportunities.
The trouble is, with what can be such a daunting proposition, where do you begin? Diving headfirst into line after line of code would be enough to deter all but the most motivated of individuals. This can be especially so with children, where often you’re looking for a visually appealing option.
Welcome, then, to Scratch; a visual programming editor. Scratch greatly simplifies the process of writing programs. It does so by using building blocks that you drag and drop into place. Each of these simulates a specific function, like making an object move, or creating a sound. Don’t be fooled by the colourful, easy to use interface. Scratch can be used to create interactive stories, games and animations, some of which are surprisingly complex.
You can set your little ones up with a free Scratch account so they can login to the online editor and save their work, or alternatively Scratch has an offline editor available to download. You can install this on Windows, Mac or Linux, should you prefer to use the software without an internet connection.
If you opt for the online version, once your child signs in, he or she will be presented with projects (this is how Scratch refers to programs) created by others in the Scratch community. Any project can be clicked on to take it for a spin. There’s also a help page that includes starter projects, or the budding programmer can start from scratch (forgive the pun) and create a new project. This loads the project editor which is where the magic happens, and where the most time will be spent. Even though there isn’t a single line of code in sight, the software helpfully introduces programming terms, such as naming characters Sprites.
The Scratch website includes a range of tutorials to get children started, or help them when they’re stuck, all just a mouse-click away. Once a project has been completed, it can be shared with others to enjoy.
Sadly, this program is not longer under active development. For that reason, I was tempted to leave it off the list. However, it’s still available to download from the official website, and I’ve had no problems running it (even on Windows 10). Plus, it’s such a cool piece of software, I just had to keep it in.
Sculptris provides a sphere as its base that can be easily shaped and moulded, which makes it easy for anyone (not just children) to get started. Think of it as virtual clay that you can push and pull using a range of different tools, such as pinch, crease, flatten and grab. Further spheres can be added as required. Toggle the F1 key on your keyboard to view the on-screen Quick help.
The software provides two modes: Sculpt and Paint. It opens in Sculpt mode, so as to mould your model. By default, this employs symmetry (where one side is a mirror image of the other), but this can be turned off if not required. The material itself can be altered to suit personal taste – there is an impressive-looking reflective gold finish, if that’s your bag.
Children should export each model as a mesh for safe keeping (Sculptris supports both Wavefront OBJ files and ZBrush GoZ files). This can be imported back into Sculptris itself, or even used in other software, such as Pixologic’s (the maker of Sculptris) own commercial product, ZBrush.
The program’s second mode, Paint, wraps (or maps, if you prefer) a texture onto a model so that, as the name suggests, it can then be painted. Note. This is a one-way process, so models should be saved (exported) first, in case they need to be modified later.
Sculptris is a great starting point into the world of 3D digital art; which is used in areas such as movies, computer games, illustration and product design. The software is available for both Windows and Mac. Check out the gallery on the project’s website for inspiration.
Here’s one for older kids (or even adults, come to that). Stellarium describes itself as a “planetarium for your computer” – a must-have for anyone interested in astronomy. Don’t know your Ursa Major from your Big Dipper, this is the perfect way to learn. From shooting stars to tails of comets, a simulated eclipse to supernovae, Stellarium has it all.
Put a 3D night sky on your children’s computer. The software contains a default catalogue of over 600,000 stars and 80,000 deep-sky objects. There’s an in-depth User Guide available to download as a pdf. It could be the start of a new hobby. Then, if they take an interest, you could even invest in a telescope for a spot of true star gazing. If nothing else, your little ones should learn that the Milky Way isn’t just a chocolate bar!
Stellarium is available for Windows, Mac and Linux completely for free. There are also apps for Android and Apple (though these are paid for). There’s a web version, too.
So set the co-ordinates and up your go!
Tux of Math Command
This is the first of three Tux programs in my list. Tux, the penguin, is the official Linux mascot. There are a several Tux titles available, but not all of them are educational. As the name states, this one is a “math” program (or maths, here in the United Kingdom). The game can be played alone, or with friends (who said computers were anti-social!)
Players must save their cities by solving maths problems. Answering them correctly blasts the descending comets out of the sky before they can crash to the ground. The software goes from simple numbers right through addition, subtraction, multiplication and divide, even on to negative numbers.
A training academy helps would-be comet crushers get started before moving on to fleet missions. There’s also an arcade mode with its own Hall of Fame. A collection of different space backgrounds provide the backdrop, displaying the solar system, planets and constellations. So fire up those youngsters’ brain cells and get them ready to take on the free-falling space rocks!
You have to give it to the Tux titles; there’s no mistaking what they are – though Tux Paint is far more than a collection of virtual paint brushes. It’s like a child’s version of Photoshop (but with added “fun” sound effects), and although the interface is VERY easy to use, it actually contains a surprising range of artistic tools: line tool, check; shape tool, check; text and label tools, double check. There is even a collection of ‘Magic’ (special effects) tools, covering such advanced areas as blur, darken, emboss, fill (colour), noise, and smudge. And don’t forget the eraser tool – a must for anyone just getting started.
The program can run in windowed mode or full screen, and is great for children between three and twelve years old. The Tux cartoon mascot guides kids on how to use the software as they start out with a blank canvas. Don’t forget to download the optional Rubber Stamps (for use with the tool of the same name), as these provide images for a whole host of categories; Animals, Food, Natural forces, People, Space, Sports, and Vehicles are all included.
Tux Paint runs on Windows, Mac and Linux, as well as Android (although this is just an instruction manual for the software) and Apple IOS (an unofficial version). Remind your kids to save their artistic masterpieces – you could even print some of them off to display around the house!
Getting familiar with a keyboard, either physical or on-screen is crucial if children are going to be able to navigate their way around almost any kind of technology. Tux Typing has been around for years with the aim of helping kids learn to find the letters on a keyboard in the most fun way possible – by playing games.
Unfortunately the official website seems to have vanished, and I couldn’t find a reliable source to download the Windows software from. If your computer is running Linux, you should be fine as it’s in the official repositories of some of the most popular distros. Fret not, Windows users (and Mac, too), some enterprising youngster has re-created the program – at least, in part – using none other than the Scratch software we looked at earlier – I told you it was surprisingly capable.
Click the link above to open the Scratch version (Tux Typing 3). When the web page loads, click on the green “Go” flag (top left) to get started. You can then jump straight in by selecting “Play”, or set the “Difficulty”. I found the default setting quite challenging, so you may want to do this first.
You can click the red (Stop) symbol (also top left) at any point to halt the game, or the green flag to return to the menu.
Playing with text is a great way to experiment with words and look at language, and what better way than to add a touch of artistic flair? Welcome to Wordle! With this innovative tool, children can type a large collection of words (or copy and paste them) into the software.
The website calls them “word clouds”, and it uses your words to make them. You can set fonts, layouts and colour schemes. The size of a word is proportional to the number of times its entered. In other words, if you want to make a word appear larger than any of the others, enter it more times in your text.
Wordle is available for Windows and Mac. It can produce a range of designs and colours that would work well as a display. Print it off, share it online, show off your children’s wayfaring words.
And there you have it. 14 apps that should not just keep your kids entertained, but educate them too. I hope you found a few, if not all, of them worth investigating. Before finishing, I’d just like to talk briefly about child safety.
A Word on Child Protection
I realize this topic is not exactly educational – although it could be said that children do need educating about it – but I feel that, in any article that puts child and the internet in the same sentence, it’s worth mentioning. Protecting your kids online should be your number one priority when giving them access to computers – sadly, there’s far too much inappropriate content out there that they could accidentally stumble across. So, to help with this, here’s a couple of child friendly search engines you can use as, unfortunately, Google’s safe search alone just doesn’t cut it.
Also, consider the YouTube Kids app, as the full-fat version isn’t always the most appropriate place for children, especially young ones.