“Free online games!” shout the websites and blogs, vying for your attention. But over time we’ve become skeptics. We know that the free online games may not actually be free and may be full of screen-freezing technical glitches, besides. The games, moreover, may not hold a child’s attention or prove to be educational.
That’s why we decided to look for free online games that could keep kids busy when parents are at work or otherwise occupied, an option all parents need from time to time. We looked at various websites and the games they offered, actually playing the games to see how they stack up.
The results were surprising. Many of the games we found were terrible. Games billed as “educational” were often nothing of the sort. And way too many of the websites offering “free” games wanted money. Worst of all, a lot of the games simply didn’t work, freezing our computers, or refusing to respond to our clicks and commands.
Strange to say, the worst offenders turned out to be the websites with the strongest brand names. We would have expected Sesame Street, or Dr. Seuss, for instance, to be dependable brands. To the contrary, the bigger names got our lowest marks for their offerings.
The following review is not scientific or even comprehensive. It reflects only our personal experience. We tested games offered in articles we found on Google that claim to offer the best of free online games for children.
It may be that your computers and devices are better than our and that games that refused to cooperate for us, work well for you. If so, we hope you’ll tell us so in the comments. We’d also love it if you could let us know about free online games you’ve discovered that are both educational and enjoyable for children.
Free Online Games: Pre-Reading Skills
To keep this review manageable, we narrowed our field by focusing on free online games for preschool literacy skills. We looked at online storybooks that children can follow, and phonics, alphabet, and rhyme games for the pre-k crowd.
Ease of Operation
We looked for games that were easy to operate and glitch-free. We feel that nothing is more frustrating than setting a kid in front of the computer only to have the child find that the game doesn’t work. When this happens several times in a row, you end up with one seriously cranky child, so this is an important consideration.
We also looked for games that were really free, and not just suckering you in, making your child really, REALLY, want to play, only to then demand your credit card information. Working moms don’t want to have to spend their salaries amusing their children. Otherwise they might as well stay home! When parents are at work and kids are at home, parents need inexpensive solutions. This is why we looked for websites that weren’t gaming us with false claims of free offerings.
Here are our findings:
Sesame Street ★★ (2 stars)
We were sure that Sesame Street, based on its strong brand, was going to give us wonderful games full of educational value. Sesame Street’s reputation is the reason we began there in our search for free online games. Alas, the offerings on the Sesame Street website were poor.
The first game we tried, Rhyme Time, refused to work. We tried going in and out of the game several times, but it just refused to respond to our clicks and commands. Weirdly, we saw exactly the same game offered at the PBS website, and there it worked just fine. It turned out to be a decent game, in terms of its educational value. A child might actually learn some rhymes. But the speed of the game, though adjustable, and set on high, was so slow we couldn’t imagine a child would have the patience to play for long.
Next we looked at Grover’s Story Circle. While this game worked just fine, it didn’t seem to offer much value. Children have to “color” the page in order to have it read to them. But coloring isn’t really coloring. It’s only about moving the mouse over the page until it fills in with color. What we call “stupid work.”
There’s no pointer to help children follow the words in the story. Nor are the words highlighted as they are read. That means that children have no way to connect individual words to the sounds they hear. We would think that Sesame Street could do better. But children do have a choice of three stories, there are English or Spanish language options, and the game can be configured to single or multiple players. A child can also choose the character that will read and narrate the stories and game.
A third game, Super Elmo’s ABC Jump was only okay. Kids get to “jump” from cloud to cloud by choosing the correct letter out of a choice of two letters. It wasn’t very exciting. Just the same thing over and over again. Choosing the letter, jumping on clouds. *yawn*
PBS ★★★ (3 stars)
Next we tried PBS, figuring hey, their stuff has got to be educational. But when we went to the PBS Kids page, we found a lot of time-wasting games sorted according to age and popularity. Further down the page, the games were sorted by topic but not by age, which surprised us, considering the PBS brand. We would have thought more care would be taken in what was offered and how it was presented.
We looked at PBS reading games, and to our dismay, found that many of the games were not even current. We clicked on Problem with Chickens and got a “page not found” error. We next went to PBS Princess Presto’s Spectacular Spelling, which looked good. But the sound disappeared on the second page. We reloaded the story and this time, no sound on the first page.
The PBS storybook section was a mixed bag. Planning an Elephant’s Party had great illustrations and the words were highlighted as they are read aloud. But when we tried The Election Problem, there was a sound problem. Two pages would work fine, then no sound on the third.
Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood looked like fun, but the words weren’t highlighted as they were read and this time the sound cut out in the middle of the page. We checked out the Arthur Comic Book So Funny I forgot to Laugh and found it slow-loading. We liked the way the speech balloons appeared near the characters as they spoke their lines. This was similar to highlighting words or using a pointer, and is meant to help children to connect sounds to symbols. But the voices of the various characters all sounded alike to us, and we still thought it would have been more effective to highlight the words within the speech balloons.
Starfall ★★★★★ (5 stars)
Our next stop was Starfall. Here, everything was properly grouped according to age and topic and there was a large selection of pre-k literacy games. While the topic page interface was blah, the games themselves were wonderful.
At a glance, all games appeared to be free of charge. When we went deeper, however, we saw there were items we could not access. An about page informed us that “All essential activities for learning to read are free. Complete access for all activities, including expanded math and reading content for K-2nd grade and additional songs and rhymes are available with an inexpensive Starfall membership; only $35 for an entire year.”
While this was disappointing the free stuff on offer at Starfall was both good and educational, and there was a nice selection to boot.
From the free section, we tried an excellent Make a Word game incorporating the short “a” sound in “an”. The Learn to Read game Zac the Rat was a good follow up, using both highlighting, pointing, and interactive graphics to illustrate the short “a” sound. These games are great at helping children connect sounds to symbols, the most important aspect of learning to read.
Next we clicked on an interactive video, The Robot and Mr. Mole, designed to illustrated the long “o” sound. This too, was of excellent quality. We then played a matching long vowels memory game. The last seemed more about testing memory than teaching long vowels, but if your child is already playing games designed to teach long vowel sounds, this game deserves inclusion and offers educational value, too.
We found Starfall to be a treasure trove of valuable, educational games, the majority of them free of charge, as advertised. The Starfall website restored our faith in the concept of free online games for children, proving that such games could be all we wish them to be. This is one to bookmark.
Learning Games for Kids ★★★★★ (5 stars)
Learning Games for Kids may not have had as many amazing games as Starfall, but what it did have was fine and free, and all of it worked well. We played a nice Rhyme Game, and watched the Short Vowel Lesson which was a catchy animated song video, then checked out the selection of three preschool storybooks. We chose Buggy Bugs from the three books on offer. We were pleased to see a pointer that allowed children to follow the words as they were read. Learning Games for Kids is exactly as advertised: educational free online games for kids, and we offer our heartfelt stamp of approval.
Education.com ★★★★ (4 stars)
Our next stop was the selection of kindergarten games at Education.com. There was a filter to sort the games according to topic and the games were all fine. Our main drawback here was that we found we had to click twice to get to the games, and then click another two times to play the games: a total of four clicks to arrive at the starting point of a game. This is annoying. Why make kids or their parents jump through hoops to play the games?
While we deemed the games decent, even good, we thought some of the games seemed too old for a preschooler, for instance, the School Bus Spelling Game, the first game we tried. The next game we tried was Long O Words Spelling. When we clicked the icon for this game we were required to register or sign in with a social media account. We signed in with Facebook, and were then asked to fill out a form. Happily, we saw were able to skip past the form. The game was good, but very similar in design and level to the School Bus Spelling Game.
We tried a rhyming game next, the Rhyming Words Match Up, and found it very good. We moved on to the Long and Short Vowel Sort, followed by Long Vowel Word Hop. And that’s when we hit the paywall. We’d hit our free limit of five games per month.
The good news is the user’s free limit refreshes each month. But it’s going to cramp your style if your kid is having a really great time and suddenly hits that paywall. You may not wish to return to the website, knowing how disappointing it is to kids to hit a limit on their gaming.
Education.com is, in short, a mixed bag. Decent games, but you have to jump through hoops to play them. The games may be too difficult for little ones, and kids are bound to hit the paywall just as they’re beginning to have a good time.
Teach Your Monster to Read ★★★★ (4 stars)
Our next stop was Teach Your Monster to Read. An excellent effort, we thought this game was really well done and compelling. The graphics and narration are a cut above the competition. And it really is free!
We did have to register and sign in. But this allows the website to track the user’s progress, so the game starts where you left off the last time you played. We see this as a positive. The minute we registered, by the way, we had a nice explanatory email from “Alex” who directed us to the website’s FAQs and said he welcomed user feedback.
We did have two issues at Teach Your Monster to Read. The first sound in the game is the “s” sound. It was a little difficult for us to understand the sound. It wasn’t a human voice, but something more mechanical, and the enunciation of the sound fell short, in our opinion. We also had trouble maneuvering ducks into the proper pond. The ducks were somewhat disobedient and it was tricky to get them where they needed to be—perhaps too tricky for a preschooler.
Seussville ★★ (2 stars)
Our final stop was the game section of the Dr. Seuss website, Seussville. Here we must state that the weird contemporary music that plays during loading time is a serious migraine trigger—but maybe that’s just us. We also didn’t see any way to sort the games according to topic. We tried a combination storybook and game, Fox in Socks. There was no pointer or highlighting of the text as it is read, but we liked the game, finding it creative and well executed, and definitely educational.
Next we tried Fishing for ABCs, which refused to load. We just got that annoying, headache-producing loading music at length until we gave up. The consensus? Your child might like these games, when they load, but keep out of the room if you’re prone to migraines!
So there you have it, the good, the bad, and the indifferent of free online games for children. We hope we saved you some time, and offered some educational fun, as well. Use the comments section to tell us about your own free online game finds. We’d love to learn from your experience!
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