Our Best Educational Apps for Traveling Kids
Best Educational Apps for Traveling Kids: Our list
What are the best educational apps for traveling kids? We’ve been asking ourselves this question since 2013. That’s when we first left our desk jobs, pulled the kids out of school and started traveling. This meant we started using our laptops and other devices for education, navigation, accommodation and more.
I can tell you that we’ve gone through a lot of educational apps for children: apps for teens, apps for tweens, travel apps, reading apps and language learning apps. Finding the best educational apps can differ from family to family. The list below is only a fraction of the iPhone and iPad apps that we’ve used.
Our best educational apps: different from yours?
There are many, many more online resources we could mention. The list below, however, have been the best educational apps and websites for our family. These have stood the test of time. We continue to use most of these regularly. The others listed we consider some of the best educational apps we’ve used, and still recommend despite our kids outgrowing them.
For this post, I’ve divided up what we consider the best educational apps and websites by subject matter. At the end of each section you’ll find apps that the kids have grown out of. There are dozens of drawing and photo apps that I just didn’t include. Otherwise, the piece would be far too long. Instead, I tried to keep it to the most relevant areas of conventional education.
What are the best educational apps and websites for our kids? See below:
This app turns an iPad into a virtual guitar teacher. Both of our kids had guitar classes when we lived in Penang, but it’s tough to keep up with music lessons when you’re traveling around. Yousician turns guitar lessons into a game similar to the Sony Playstation’s Guitar Hero series.
It teaches chords and fingering through colors and graphics, and then has heaps of songs to practice with. Using the iPad’s microphone and speaker, the kids play along to Yousician’s “bouncing ball” style chord progressions. The mic pics up what they’ve played and then scores them on accuracy. They love it.
Yousician is also available for piano, bass and ukulele. We pay for USD $119.99 for a one-year subscription, and we pay all at once because it’s less expensive that way. That works out to $9.99/month, which is much cheaper than an actual guitar teacher whom you’d pay by the hour. Yousician certainly doesn’t replace a real teacher, but if you’re moving around, it’s one of the best alternatives.
READING, WRITING & GRAMMAR
This is our favorite app of all-time. Out of all of the best educational apps listed here we recommend this one the most. We told the GotPassport family about it when we met them in Penang. Their daughter fell in love with it, too.
News-o-matic is essentially an online newspaper for kids — and sometimes written by kids, as well. New editions arrive on our devices four or five times a week, with articles covering everything from international politics (India, Taiwan, Brazil, etc) to oil prices to sports, science and technology.
Keeping up with current events
Sure, there are stories about pop culture, cute animals, and wacky headlines thrown in as well. However, I’ve been satisfied with the balance between fluff and real news content. They turn even serious events like floods and elections into something kids will read about. The app is made by an American company, and the topics they choose to cover often reflect that. Overall however, I’d recommend it to parents of any nationality, as they cover issues with a fairly even hand.
We’d consider this one of our best educational app for traveling kids. It features video and “read to me” functions, and offers vocabulary lessons along the way. The app’s team runs lots of contests to engage readers. For example, they’ll have scary story contests at Halloween, and frequent polls to see how readers think about certain issues in the news.
They also have a lot of kid-written content. My daughter was once featured for a book review she wrote (she loved Louis Sachar’s novel, Holes). Some time later, she wanted to write for them again — this time about the Fallas festival here in Valencia. I wrote one of the editors to see if it was possible, and they said yes! I’m sure it helps the app editors, having content for free, but it really made my girl proud to see her first byline in a magazine that she actually loves to read.
The Kindle App
We have two actual kindle devices, and prefer for the kids to read on them. That said, the Kindle app is handy on the iPads when the kindles are occupied. There is research suggesting that the light emitted by iPad screens (and laptops and TVs, etc) can make it more difficult for the brain to fall asleep. Look it up for yourself if you’re interested. Since the kids want to read before bed we encourage them to read on their old, e-ink kindles at night. During the day, the kindle iPad app is fine. We still believe in the power of real tangible books. They build a relationship the way pixels cannot. But books are heavy. The kindle app is essential for carrying heaps of reading material without the weight and bulk.
We love audio books on road trips, and this is where Audible comes in. Attached to my Amazon account, audio books are easily downloadable and ready to listen to in minutes. After reading the Percy Jackson series together, we turned to audio versions of the Odyssey and the Trojan War.
On a road trip to Grand Canyon from Atlanta in the United States, we listened to Inkheart and The Golden Compass. It actually made the kids excited about long drives. No matter your kids ages and comprehension levels, we recommend pausing the story occasionally to review. We talked about what was happening in the story. We made sure everyone was clued in and if everyone understood the full context of events. We made predictions and talked about how we felt about certain characters and if we would have reacted the same way they did. It was amazing.
Through this app, we can access our local library in Atlanta and check out books for free. There are a few drawbacks, though. For example, it’s not as quick or easy as Amazon, and sometimes they won’t have the exact books the kids are looking for. Sometimes, they have to wait until someone checks a book back in, just like at the actual library. Another downside for us is that because we are out of the country, these books can only be read on the iPads, and not on their actual Kindle devices (if anyone knows a workaround for this, contact me please!). But hey, it’s free, and there are hundreds and hundreds of books available.
Reading Rainbow/ Skybrary
Our kids have outgrown this one, but this was one of the best educational apps for our kids when they began reading in English. I would recommend this app for native English-speaking kids up to about 8 years old. You could go higher as we did for ESL kids like ours were, but keep in mind that the stories are for the younger set. Our kids are too old for this now, but we used it daily for over two years. Just like the Reading Rainbow TV show it originates from, this app is all about getting kids to read.
It’s a virtual library, where each child with an account creates a profile by age and interests (sports, nature, friendship, adventure, history, etc) so they find the books they like best. Kids can keep up to five books in the app at a time, and can then read the book themselves or have the book read to them by a variety of narrators. You’ll need a wifi connection to download the books and watch the accompanying videos, but downloaded books can be read with or without internet.
When we used the app, we the kids to read whatever they wanted, but then they would have to choose several of those books to read back to us later. These are picture books — not chapter books — so judge for yourself whether or not they are on-level for your child. The app itself is free, but you’ll need a $9.99/month subscription to really get any use out of it.
Looney Tunes Phonics
This is for your kids to learn basic phonics. If yours are struggling like ours did when they first started learning English, this app certainly helps. Both of our kids are way past this now, but they got a lot of use out of it when they were learning to read and write in English. Both programs here use games to teach phonics and reading — the games occasionally stalled or crashed on our iPads, but that may be a problem on our end.
MATH, HISTORY & SCIENCE
What can I write about this that hasn’t been written already? What an amazing site, app and all-around public service. Khan Academy is a free virtual tutoring system that uses Youtube-style videos and the smart device interface to teach everything from basic arithmetic to quantum physics. And that’s just math. There are also entire curricula for biology, art, history, computer programming and many other subjects.
Our kids used Khan Academy for over two years, and only for math, but when they re-entered conventional — and academically rigorous — local schools here in Spain, they were actually ahead of their classmates, which was a huge relief: learning Spanish while attending almost all of your classes in Spanish is hard enough, so math (and of course English) were two of their classes where they were more confident and felt less pressure — except for when math class involved solving word problems, as you can imagine.
Time4Learning with Puffin Academy
This homeschooling website/service covers just about every subject you’d find in conventional school, but we used it mainly for grammar, science, history and social studies. You easily can track your child’s progress and adjust the rate of lessons, which were fun and entertaining for my younger one, but a little too playful and childish for my son, who was 11 at the time.
There were times when bad internet connections meant that they lost their work, and so they’d have to start over, which was frustrating, but overall I would recommend Time4Learning without hesitation. If you would like to use iPad, Time4Learning can be accessed using the Puffin Academy app.
This app consists mainly of clever animated videos that help explain a variety of subjects and topics. Most animations involve a boy and his robot friend discussing the subject at hand, but they’re funny, engaging and well-made for kids as young as 8 and up. I enjoy them, too.
Topics include everything from DNA and weather patterns to the life of historical figures like Ghandi, Benjamin Franklin and Afrikka Bambaataa (!). Tough subjects such as terrorism, the Vietnam war and puberty are covered as well, and quite even-handedly. We’ve had several years of value out of Brainpop already.
This is the most impressive and accessible physical science app I’ve used with the kids. It’s essentially “How it Works” for our bodies, but with much more information and infinitely better graphics. Kids can get an intimate and informative look at bones, muscles, the nervous system, the digestive system, and more. Most of the organs are covered, as well, with clever visuals to show how it all works.
There is no voice or text, which means the kids will get more out of it if you join them during a session and help explain things. My two have enjoyed examining the digestive system, watching food go through the stomach and intestines, and then making the colon pass gas and defecate. See? Education! The only fart app I’ll ever endorse. Their Earth, Weather and Machines apps are pretty great, too.
Turn on the wifi and point your device at the sky. There on your screen you’ll see constellations light up as you scan through the heavens, giving you a real-time look at what’s above you at that moment. You can even track the planets and follow satellites in (semi) real-time orbit. The app can even provide an approximate the time when certain objects are directly overhead — using your location information, naturally.
There are dozens of ways to integrate this app into learning opportunities, but we’ve mostly just looked up the constellations related to Greek and Roman mythology. The kids love the Percy Jackson book series, and the gods & monsters found within, so this has been a nice way to expand on that.
This may be the most popular language learning app ever. Great design, great interface, and lots of fun to play. Yes, play. Duolingo turns language learning into a game, and a game that’s fun to incorporate into your day. It keeps track of what you’ve learned, but if you don’t do it regularly, the levels you reach gradually deteriorate (like your memory), which means that you either have to keep up and play it regularly or repeat the same exercises.
This can be a drag if you skip a week (or longer) for some reason, because you have to repeat some of what you’ve covered to refresh the badges you’ve earned, but if you’re honest with yourself, you probably needed to review if you took a week off anyway, right?
If I had any complaint, it would be that the Spanish on Duolingo is Mexican Spanish, so many of the words are different than what people in Spain — our present location — would use. But this is a minor quibble.
This is one of the best apps for travelers for a variety of obvious reasons, but it has been one of the best educational apps for my kids since they started school in Spain. In August 2015 we put our son and daughter into locals schools in Valencia, Spain, where 70% of their classes are in Castellano (Iberian Spanish) while the other 30% are in Valenciano, the local dialect in Valencia).
We spoke very little Spanish when we arrived — like, maybe 10–15 expressions — and so we used Google Translate with real estate agents, shopkeepers, government officials and just about everyone else.
While Keiko and I relied heavily on the speech-to-text feature when talking to people, the kids used it to translate blocks of text from their schoolbooks. With Google Translate on the iPad, they’d take a picture of a textbook page using the app, and then use their finger to color-in the sentences they needed to understand.
It’s not perfect by any stretch — and if the text is spaced together too closely or in an odd font style, it may not work at all. That said, Google Translate on the iPad completely helped them a lot in the early months of school.
Stack the Countries
When it comes to geography, this is one of the best educational apps we’ve ever seen. Players must answer map-related questions. Correct answers will earn you countries, which you literally stack by dropping into a pile. The goal is for your pile of countries to rise above a certain marker, which means that you try to use the shape of the countries to your advantage to reach the marker faster.
This isn’t Tetris: you’re not trying to fill in the space, but rather reach a peak, so dropping a long, skinny country like Chile or Vietnam at a certain angle can help you reach the top faster. A wrong move, however, and it could fall off the virtual pedestal they land on.
The geography questions sound like this: “Which of these countries borders Brazil?” and “Ulan Bator is the Capital of which country?” These are some of the easy questions. They get harder — my knowledge of Micronesia and Eastern Europe was downright embarrassing.
The more you play, the better you get, and the more fun it is. I honestly don’t mind if the kids run to the world map on the wall and “cheat.” Not only does it help us learn capitals and borders, but it also helps familiarize us with the shape and relative size of a country. For example, I knew that Turkey was bigger than Greece, but when each cuntry dropped onto the screen during one session, it hammered that point home.
Designed by the same people who make Stack the Countries and Stack the States, this physics game teaches principles like weight, force, drag and gravity while kids build their own monster and then try to feed him by building devices to get the monster to his meal — or get the meal to the monster.
Different materials must be used: rope, wheels, springs, magnets, pulleys, propellers and (sometimes) rocket engines. The laws of gravity work the same in the game as they do in real life — or an approximation, anyway — so it takes some serious critical and mechanical thinking to get the whole thing to work sometimes, but the kids love the entire process. Big fun.
Chess, Backgammon, and more
This is a pack of several board games. We usually carry travel-friendly board games like chess and backgammon with us. However, in places like airplanes and restaurants, you can’t always set up a board.
In addition, our boy enjoys occasional games of chess and backgammon with his uncles in the States (sadly, I’m no competition for him). He’s used these apps to improve his skills on his own and then to play online against more formidable foes.
I think that this app is really popular Stateside — maybe worldwide — so I won’t dwell on it much since you probably know it. In brief: one player puts a smart device on his/her forehead. A word appears on the screen — an object, place or famous person, usually — and then the other player has to describe it to the person holding the device so that they guess correctly.
If they do, they tip the device up, which earns a point and they move onto the next word. It’s heaps of fun, and is a great way for ESL kids like mine to use English vocabulary to describe something.
What are your best educational apps?
Tell us your best educational apps and websites! What are the best kids apps for your traveling family? Did you find that your children’s app use changed while you were on the road? Leave your ideas in the comments below.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. This means, at no extra cost to you, we might receive a small commission if you make a purchase or book using those links. My opinions are my own and I only recommend places/services that I believe will genuinely help your travel.
Our Best Educational Apps for Traveling Kids was last modified: September 14th, 2016 by Jason Jenkins
Originally published at www.anepiceducation.com on June 23, 2016.