Back-to-School Guide

Start the year off right

Every school year, kids encounter new concepts that build on the previous year's learning. For most, the bulk of this work is in the core subjects -- language and reading, math, science, and social studies. Tackling new concepts and engaging in schoolwork can be difficult for some kids but exciting for others, and it can vary from subject to subject. Look ahead for what's to come with these engaging apps, websites, and games. From letter writing and counting to quadratic equations and the water cycle, these enriching activities help kids build a range of essential academic and 21st-century skills -- and have fun at the same time!

(And don't forget to tell your kids' teachers about Graphite, our free site to help teachers find the best apps, games, and websites rated for learning!)

Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are conducted by expert reviewers and are not influenced by the creators or by our funders. When you use our buy links to make a purchase, Common Sense Media earns a small affiliate fee from Amazon or iTunes. As a nonprofit organization, these funds help us continue providing independent, ad-free services for educators, families, and kids while the price you pay remains the same. We appreciate your support.

Guide Details

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toschoolwego

Tell your friends about our Back-to-School Guide on Instagram or Twitter using the hashtag #toschoolwego. On August 23, we'll pick two random winners to receive a $25 gift card to the app store of your choice so you can load your device with your favorite picks from the guide.

 

 

Our Learning Ratings

We rate media for both age-appropriateness and learning potential based on developmental criteria from some of the nation's leading authorities. We make recommendations about which age each title is appropriate for. Then we evaluate the learning potential with these ratings: BEST, VERY GOOD, GOOD, FAIR for learning, or NOT FOR LEARNING.

 
Best: Really engaging, excellent learning approach.
 
Very Good: Engaging, very good learning approach.
 
Good: Pretty engaging, good learning approach.
 
Fair: Somewhat engaging, OK learning approach.
 
Not for Learning: Not recommended for learning.
 
Not for Kids: Not age-appropriate for kids; not recommended for learning.
 

Who Made This Guide?

Common Sense Media is the leading independent nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of kids and families by providing the information, education, and independent voice they need to thrive in a world of media and technology.

Who Made This Guide?

This guide was made possible through the generous support of SCE and The Grable Foundation.

Ages 2-6

Language & Reading

READ AND WRITE WITH A PURPOSE

For little ones new to reading, literacy practice includes forming letters, learning letter names and sounds, and word recognition. With these fun apps, sites, and games, kids can trace letters on the tablet screen, identify letter names and sounds, and match words to their images.

AGE
3
LEARNING

Charming site tracks kids' progress in learning games.

AGE
4
LEARNING

Letter names and sounds for preschool practice.

AGE
4
LEARNING

Froggy friends help preschoolers learn the alphabet.

AGE
4
LEARNING

Step-by-step method, animations make writing letters fun.

AGE
4
LEARNING

Sequel to learn-to-read fave offers even more -- for a fee.

AGE
4
LEARNING

Classic reborn as e-library has great selection, high fees.

AGE
4
LEARNING

Brought to you by the letter "F" -- for fun.

  • Give your kids opportunities to practice writing letters with a range of tools, including finger paints, crayons, and chalk.
  • Start your own "image box" by cutting out pictures from magazines and collecting photos of family members for your pre-reader to name. Write the matching word or name on the bottom of the image.
  • Encourage a love of reading: Take your kids to the library, read books together, and encourage your kids to read to you.

Math

IT ALL ADDS UP

To develop early math skills like number sense, counting, basic addition, and shapes, younger kids need activities that make abstract ideas concrete. Kids might manipulate number rods on a tablet to understand quantities and addition or work with 3-D shapes to start learning basic geometry.

AGE
4
LEARNING

Kids learn numbers with beloved Muppets.

AGE
4
LEARNING

Hundreds of math activities can build skills and confidence.

AGE
5
LEARNING

Online math game adjusts in difficulty as you play.

AGE
5
LEARNING

Younger kids' version of great math app holds its own.

AGE
5
LEARNING

Math concept work with clear instruction and fun rewards.

AGE
5
LEARNING

Amazing starter geometry app is fun and comprehensive.

  • Help your kids recognize times when you use basic math in everyday life -- like cooking, driving, or paying for an item with cash.
  • Ask your kids' teachers for a math unit schedule so that you know what they're currently working on in school, then direct them toward relevant challenges within the games, apps, or sites they use.
  • Point out shapes in your everyday surroundings, and encourage your kids to replicate them using modeling dough or clay.

Science

EXPLORE OUR WORLD

From plants and animals to the characteristics of Earth and space, science for young kids is all about inspiring curiosity and discovering the world. Kids can play games to compare characteristics of different animals, pick up science-related vocabulary at an interactive science fair, and learn about the planets, moon, and sun as they accompany their favorite characters on an adventure through the solar system. 

AGE
3
LEARNING

Sweet friends help preschoolers learn about animals.

AGE
3
LEARNING

Excellent example of educational interactive television.

AGE
4
LEARNING

Engaging app lets kids experiment, explore with TV faves.

AGE
5
LEARNING

Animated educational content for kids to explore, for a fee.

AGE
5
LEARNING

Facts and features enhance space discovery, Dr. Seuss style.

AGE
6
LEARNING

This deep-sea dive is teeming with fish and education.

  • On your next zoo trip, ask your kids to point out animals' characteristics. See if they can identify similarities and differences between animals. If you don't live near a zoo, try a pet store.
  • Mark your calendar for upcoming cosmic events like lunar and solar eclipses or meteor showers. Kids will love learning about and witnessing these spectacular shows (as well as the chance to stay up late!).
  • Set up simple science experiments at home. For example, fill a tub or bowl with water, and have kids predict which objects will sink or float. Watch them take in the results.

Social Studies

DEVELOP A SENSE OF TIME AND PLACE

Who am I, and where am I from? For young kids, early social studies skills involve gaining an understanding of different communities and cultures, as well as learning the basics of geography and mapping. They might learn about other cultures through gameplay or develop a better sense of place by using a tablet's zoom features to explore an interactive globe.

AGE
4
LEARNING

Online learning game set in a big open world is a cut above.

AGE
4
LEARNING

Virtual Chinese New Year with perfectly designed games.

AGE
5
LEARNING

Fun mini-games help introduce young kids to world cultures.

AGE
5
LEARNING

Discussion starter for kids and parents to play together.

AGE
6
LEARNING

Delightful way to learn about animals, people, and more.

AGE
6
LEARNING

Learn about birds by solving a fun mystery.

  • Visit a community landmark with your kids. Give them a box of crayons or markers and a pad of paper (or, digitally, with a tablet) and ask them to draw what they see.
  • Have your kids use blocks to build a city. Use paper, pencil, and scissors to cut out labels for streets, buildings, landmarks, etc.
  • Take your kids to a local event that allows them to experience the art, food, and traditions of different cultures.

21st-Century Skills

PREPARE FOR A CHANGING WORLD

In our increasingly global and digital society, skills like problem solving, media creation, and teamwork are highly valued and rewarded. Young kids can jump right in and start acquiring these skills early on as they cooperate with friendly monsters to play learning games, think creatively to solve an alien family's problems, and create their own animated pirate stories.

AGE
4
LEARNING

Engaging and funny interactive adventures are pure joy.

AGE
4
LEARNING

Kids learn storytelling basics as they create cartoons.

AGE
3
LEARNING

Cute storyline for problem solving; great family fun.

AGE
5
LEARNING

Kids make fanciful facial art using everyday objects.

AGE
5
LEARNING

Kids develop scary-good logic skills with Mike and Sulley.

AGE
6
LEARNING

Fantastic app teaches emotions, coping strategies for kids.

  • Provide kids with a variety of materials for creating art, including items you might not think of as art supplies -- like food or natural elements such as sticks and leaves.
  • Reinforce cooperation skills by playing games that involve solving puzzles or reaching a goal together.
  • Encourage young kids to become problem solvers by asking them to suggest solutions to everyday problems. For example, if a wheel on one of their toys is broken or missing, ask for ideas on how to fix it. What could you use in place of the broken wheel?

Ages 7-12

Language & Reading

READ AND WRITE WITH A PURPOSE

In the middle grades, literacy practice focuses on strengthening reading and speaking skills and introducing the writing process. With these fun apps, sites, and games, kids can expand their vocabulary, compose original stories, and build basic online researching skills.

AGE
7
LEARNING

Audio, visual prompts help boost kids' communication skills.

AGE
7
LEARNING

Fast-paced word game teaches wide range of vocabulary.

AGE
7
LEARNING

Symbol dice for telling stories, sweet and simple.

AGE
10
LEARNING

Read, write, share -- there's no wrong way to enjoy a book.

AGE
10
LEARNING

Collection of credible info is a great research tool.

AGE
10
LEARNING

Vocabulary-exercising puzzler is an imaginative treat.

  • Try to model speaking and language skills for your kids. Use complete sentences to explain what you're doing. Encourage them to ask questions.
  • Talk with your kids about how to find websites with accurate, trustworthy information.
  • Create "found poems" with your kids. Have them cut out words and phrases from magazines and rearrange them to make original poetry.

Math

IT ALL ADDS UP

To develop key math skills like fact fluency and an understanding of algebra and geometry concepts, kids in the middle grades need engaging activities that give them plenty of practice. They might explore a mysterious town full of spooky houses as they solve addition and subtraction problems or find themselves challenged to dissect a range of unexpected shapes as they study the concept of area.

AGE
7
LEARNING

Addictive dino zoo simulation helps kids learn about money.

AGE
7
LEARNING

Great math practice with fun story, entertaining characters.

AGE
7
LEARNING

Fantastic math site engages kids through problem solving.

AGE
7
LEARNING

Fun games, friendly guides help kids build math fluency.

AGE
5
LEARNING

Kids learn concepts of algebra in stellar game app.

AGE
10
LEARNING

"Brain-training" mini-games cover math, reasoning, logic.

AGE
10
LEARNING

Tough but fun geometry puzzles for brainy players.

AGE
11
LEARNING

Handy math reference gives bite-sized explanations.

  • Talk about math and numbers as you go about your day, modeling solving backward problems. For example: "I need to choose five fruits for your school snacks this week. How many ways can you make five?"
  • Provide consistent time for your kids to practice math facts. To become fluent more quickly, kids should practice regularly for shorter periods of time (15 minutes each day).
  • Relate geometry to real life with your kids by pointing out the shapes of things like honeycomb and eggs.

Science

EXPLORE OUR WORLD

From plants and animals to the characteristics of Earth and space, science for kids in the middle grades is about developing the skills of a scientist -- like asking questions, making observations, collecting data, and examining their findings. With these great apps, games, and sites, kids can document and share info about the plants and animals they see in their own neighborhood or learn about something more serious (like cancer) through action-filled gameplay.

AGE
8
LEARNING

Save the planet with these terrific learning activities.

AGE
9
LEARNING

Six fun games turn cancer treatment into a winnable battle.

AGE
10
LEARNING

Exciting mystery teaches about physics and electricity.

AGE
10
LEARNING

Online community encourages citizen science.

AGE
10
LEARNING

Excellent tool encourages appreciation of the universe.

AGE
11
LEARNING

This exceptional evolution sim is a masterpiece.

  • Encourage your kids to identify organisms inside and outside your home so they can see that biodiversity is all around us.
  • Use Mobile Observatory from different locations to see how a few miles -- or more, if you travel -- change the view of the sky. Discuss what is and isn't different about the sky view from the different locations.
  • Take kids to the local science museum to see electricity demonstrations in real life.

Social Studies

DEVELOP A SENSE OF TIME AND PLACE

For kids in the middle grades, social studies skills involve gaining an understanding of historic events and deepening their awareness of history in the making. Kids can learn about ancient Egypt or the Mayan civilization through gameplay or develop their knowledge of today's news with sites that present current events in ways they can understand.

AGE
7
LEARNING

Fun, interactive way for kids to learn about the world.

AGE
8
LEARNING

Fantastic app makes historical figures relatable for kids.

AGE
8
LEARNING

Fun, empowering way to learn about America and its states.

AGE
10
LEARNING

Cartoony learning adventure about ancient Mayan culture.

AGE
10
LEARNING

Fab mystery lets you explore ancient Egyptian ruins.

  • Suggest that your kids write a story about their family's culture and customs.
  • Post a U.S. map on your refrigerator or wall to help kids catch a glimpse of it several times a day.
  • Talk with kids about why it's worthwhile to be well-rounded in news and not limit your reading to just one or two subjects.

21st-Century Skills

PREPARE FOR A CHANGING WORLD

In our increasingly digital and media-driven society, skills like digital literacy, self-directed learning, media creation, and creativity are highly valued and rewarded. Kids can dig in and expand these skills as they experiment with apps for coding, tackle fun DIY challenges, and build their own unique simulation worlds.

AGE
8
LEARNING

Fun PBS site introduces kids to engineering.

AGE
9
LEARNING

Maker community celebrates skill building and creativity.

AGE
10
LEARNING

Challenging puzzler teaches kids to think like programmers.

AGE
10
LEARNING

Complete fun challenges, learn how to be safe online.

AGE
10
LEARNING

Powerful sequencer lets kids create pro-quality recordings.

AGE
11
LEARNING

Sandbox-style game with open online play fosters creativity.

AGE
11
LEARNING

Great way for kids to learn critical thinking.

  • Encourage kids to step out of their comfort zone to try unfamiliar challenges and learn new skills. Point them to sites with video tutorials and a supportive community for inspiration.
  • Once kids have mastered basic programming concepts, encourage them to write their own programs using more advanced tools.
  • Talk to your kids about safe online behavior. How much personal information should you share on a social network? Should you ever chat with someone you don't know?

Ages 13-17

Language & Reading

READ AND WRITE WITH A PURPOSE

For teens, literacy practice is all about developing strong research and writing skills in conjunction with deeper analysis of a wide variety of texts. With these helpful apps, sites, and games, high school kids can engage with classic literature in interesting and interactive ways, learn to identify credible sources for research, and brush up on some of the more challenging aspects of grammar and writing.

AGE
13
LEARNING

Witty podcasts and posts offer language tips and tricks.

AGE
13
LEARNING

One-stop site for writing help is a good resource for teens.

AGE
13
LEARNING

Student search engine gives kids credible, relevant results.

AGE
14
LEARNING

Learn all about American poets and poetry.

AGE
14
LEARNING

An extraordinary study aid for the Bard's darkest tragedy.

AGE
14
LEARNING

Social reading app for this classic, whimsical tale.

  • When your teens share their writing with you, provide constructive praise, and ask them questions about their writing to guide them in revising.
  • Poetry changes when it's read aloud. With your teens, take turns reading poems out loud. What do you notice? Did anything jump out that you didn't notice on the page?
  • Talk with teens about how to find websites with accurate, trustworthy information.

Math

IT ALL ADDS UP

To build a solid understanding of more advanced math -- like algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus -- teens need engaging activities that allow for self-paced learning and give them plenty of practice. These solid apps and websites are appropriate for a range of ages and let high school kids pace their learning through high-quality tutorials and resources, along with engaging practice activities. Some of our picks are great for kids of all ages; a couple of the titles listed below can be introduced to younger kids but can also age up to teens 13-17.

AGE
10
LEARNING

Cool math tool is great for visualizing 3-D shapes.

AGE
11
LEARNING

Detailed math videos and practice -- from simple to complex.

AGE
12
LEARNING

Excellent tutorials on math, humanities, and more, for free.

AGE
12
LEARNING

Storehouse of data answers kids' questions -- if specific.

AGE
13
LEARNING

Rearrange and solve polynomials for deep understanding.

AGE
14
LEARNING

Clever study materials for teens merge humor and learning.

  • Ask your teens to demonstrate a concept they're learning in math class. A great way to solidify understanding is to teach another person.
  • Have your teens use their math skills to solve everyday dilemmas. For example, which pizza is a better deal -- a 15" medium for $14 or a 19" large for $21?
  • Brainstorm a list of jobs that require math skills with your teen. You might be surprised by what you come up with.

Science

EXPLORE OUR WORLD

From biology and chemistry to physics and engineering, science for kids in high school is about broadening their understanding of the various fields of science and developing the skills of a scientist. Teens might learn the principles of force and motion as they design their own roller coasters or play the part of a deadly virus as they try to infect their host through gameplay. Some of our picks are great for kids of all ages; a couple of the titles listed below can be introduced to younger kids but can also age up to teens 13-17.

AGE
12
LEARNING

Learn physics while designing your own roller coaster.

AGE
12
LEARNING

Impressive tool for stargazing, learning about astronomy.

AGE
12
LEARNING

Interactive app best for tweens, teens interested in robots.

AGE
12
LEARNING

Experiment-packed site has some seriously fun science info.

AGE
14
LEARNING

Be a virus, trick the immune system, and infect your human.

AGE
15
LEARNING

Health professionals tackle personal questions with candor.

  • Encourage teens to look online for hands-on activities that teach principles of motion. Many use simple tools like balls, ramps, or toy cars to explore those ideas.
  • Try a "citizen science project" as a family. Explore the range of online projects, and find something that grabs your interest, whether it's tracking butterfly migration or deciphering whale songs.
  • Suggest that your teens keep a field notebook, which they can use to record scientific observations about the everyday world.

Social Studies

DEVELOP A SENSE OF TIME AND PLACE

For teens, social studies skills involve gaining a deeper understanding of historic events, as well as learning about the workings of the economy and government. High school kids can learn about U.S. and world history through gameplay or broaden their knowledge of the economy with hands-on activities that show the complexities of balancing a country's budget. Some of our picks are great for kids of all ages; a couple of the titles listed below can be introduced to younger kids but can also age up to teens 13-17.

AGE
12
LEARNING

NYTimes blog gives young people fluff-free news, discussion.

AGE
11
LEARNING

Brilliant expansion makes strategy more edifying than ever.

AGE
12
LEARNING

Great graphics and interface make presidents come to life.

AGE
13
LEARNING

Game challenges players to balance federal budget.

AGE
13
LEARNING

World War II simulation focuses on history, strategy.

AGE
13
LEARNING

Sophisticated look back in time via geo-located images.

AGE
13
LEARNING

Cross-platform building sim shines with real-world graphics.

AGE
13
LEARNING

Multimedia presentation makes art history come to life.

AGE
14
LEARNING

Challenging trivia game teaches geography, shares results.

  • Explore local history with your teens. Take them to historical locations near your home, and help them make connections to your community's history.
  • Make learning and talking about current events part of your family's daily routine. Find and read reliable news websites, and share what you've learned.
  • If your teens are passionate about a particular cause, encourage them to actively participate in making change happen by writing letters, setting up a website or Facebook page, or attending related local events.

21st-Century Skills

PREPARE FOR A CHANGING WORLD

In our increasingly digital and media-driven society, skills like digital literacy, self-directed learning, media creation, and coding are highly valued and rewarded. Teens can dig in and expand these skills as they experiment with apps for coding, present school projects using multimedia tools, and organize their digital lives with cloud-based, collaborative tools. Some of our picks are great for kids of all ages; a couple of the titles listed below can be introduced to younger kids but can also age up to teens 13-17.

AGE
10
LEARNING

Fun platformer with a lovely story about friendship.

AGE
12
LEARNING

Innovative tool for programming on the iPad.

AGE
12
LEARNING

Fantastic online editor teaches kids to write the Web.

AGE
13
LEARNING

Freemium slideshow tool better on privacy than similar apps.

AGE
13
LEARNING

Organization tool helps kids manage their digital lives.

AGE
13
LEARNING

Powerhouse presentation tool has a multitude of features.

AGE
13
LEARNING

Easy programming tool teaches basics, has online sharing.

AGE
13
LEARNING

Empowering sim explores women's issues and activism.

  • Ask your teens to create a shared Google doc for planning your next family trip or upcoming event. Collaborate as a family by contributing ideas, research, and links to the doc.
  • Participate in online media sharing with your teens to open up conversations and model safe sharing practices. Try creating a family Flickr account.
  • Have your teens teach you how to create and edit a video or photo slideshow using media creation websites or apps they're familiar with. If this is new to them, create one together!