7 brain-building video games

You don't need to tell your child, but video games can be educational and entertaining. Our tech expert chooses this year's best that get kids moving and thinking.

By Christina Tynan-Wood

Once Upon a Monster

Ages: 4-8

This is Sesame Street like it never was when we were kids. Instead of parking it on the couch and sitting while Elmo and his buddies have all the fun, Once Upon a Monster (Xbox 360 Kinect) invites your tot to stand up and move, which we know is good for the body and brain. Your child isn't watching TV, he's playing: Jumping, swinging his arms, strumming virtual instruments, dancing, and helping an endearing group of monsters do everything from get dressed to run through the forest, throw a birthday party, and more. Elmo can’t go it alone! He needs your child to keep the action moving. And you can drop in to play along whenever you like. After a half hour romping with this high-energy, educational Muppet team, your child will need a nap.

Bottom Line: TV is so sedentary. Get kids up off the couch and engaged in this story featuring Elmo and Cookie Monster as they tour a book about monsters.

Kinect Sports Ultimate

Ages: Elementary through high school

“We can go skiing as soon as your finish your homework!” That’s the sort of bribe you can use at your house — on Tuesday even if the slopes are hours away — if someone finds the Kinect Sports Ultimate (Xbox 360 Kinect) under the tree. Bored with skiing? Play some darts, a few tennis matches, or a round of golf. You can even tackle a real physical challenge like football or baseball. It’s possible that exposing your kids to these "virtual" games that are fun, challenging, and even physically exhausting, might inspire them to take up the real thing. They probably won't perfect their backhand by playing Kinect tennis or develop the stamina they’ll need for football, but they'll certainly learn to keep score and learn the terminology and rules of each game. For a reluctant middle schooler, that might be enough to get them out on the court, slope, or green to give it a try And it makes for a great family game night — even if some of the family is in another town, because you can play opponents over Xbox Live.

Bottom line: If you own an Xbox 360 and the Kinect add on, this game makes for great family fun. It might even encourage a non-athlete to take up a sport. 


Ages: 4th grade through high school

The pen (or word, anyway) is mightier than the sword in Quarrel (free, available now for iPad and iPhone and early in 2012 for Xbox 360), an insanely addictive, war-over-territory game that is like a melding of Risk and Scrabble. You defend your territory — and claim more — by making the best word in each word scramble challenge. With cartoonish graphics and funny-if-slightly-annoying sound effects that will surely appeal to the SpongeBob fan set, this game will have your kids checking their spelling, trying to find words with X and Z in them, and discovering how having a stellar vocabulary is a powerful tool for world domination.

Bottom line
: Hard to argue with a (free!) addictive video game that builds vocabulary, improves spelling, and makes obnoxious noises.

Michael Phelps: Push the Limit

Ages: Middle school and up

Admittedly, you're probably not going to learn to swim while standing in front of the TV (you might need actual water for the real thing). Even so, Michael Phelps: Push the Limit ($50, Xbox Kinect), takes players into the mindset of competitive swimming by getting your kids off the couch and inviting them to dive into some invigorating upper-body work. The competitive swimmers in your family might even pick up some pointers on strokes from one of the greatest swimmers ever. You can race friends and family or take on 26-time world record holder Michael Phelps himself (or his on-screen avatar, anyway). Just like in the pool, a good dive and perfect turn can win an otherwise tight race. And Phelps is there to help you improve your start-time reaction, stroke, turns, and finish. No need to don a Speedo or goggles to play.

Bottom line: Finally, a fun on-screen sports game for competitive swimmers — or anyone who likes the sport. You might even improve your stroke under the council of super-star swimmer Michael Phelps.


Mercury Hg

Ages: Middle School and up

Who knew the periodic table of the elements could make for such obsessive fun? Set in a surreal, 3D version of the periodic table, Mercury Hg PS3 or Xbox 360 invites you to wind your way through mazes as you add element after element until completing the table. In truth, the periodic table is there to create a science-y feel to what is simply a fun, challenging, arcade puzzle game where a blob of mercury is your playing piece and you rotate a constantly changing periodic table to slide the blob to the goal. It’s a challenge to keep your mercury from splitting apart and slipping off the table into oblivion. Some levels require you to split your blob of mercury into pieces, change its color, and recombine it to create a new color. Your child may not memorize the entire periodic chart after hours of play, but at the least will have a great time playing around with the elements.

Bottom line: An unbelievable value for game play that makes science spirited fun.

Monopoly Collection

Ages: 6 and up

Monopoly was a staple of family game night when we were kids. But this console game version goes far beyond the cardboard and plastic set we played. In Monopoly Collection (Wii), it’s as if you and your family have been shrunk to game-piece size so you can move right in to live in Park Place, spend a night in jail, and construct your tenements from the ground up. And there is no need to buy another board to change the setting: Just choose from a menu that offers everything from the classic city-setting to jungle, arctic, or future.

Bottom line
: A classic game parents already love, animated and brought to life to the delight of younger (and older) folks. Family game night will no longer be plagued by lost plastic pieces and you will, for a change, be the one familiar with the rules of play.

National Geographic Challenge

Ages: Elementary through middle school

Gather the kids, make some popcorn, and throw a game night! National Geographic Challenge's puzzle and quiz party game will take your family around the world — using stunning images from National Geographic — as you race against each other for world domination. The quizzes are delivered in an inspired multiple-choice format that instructs as it takes you from the desert to the Antarctic and through all the continents through the ages. Even when it’s not party night, kids can play solo for a visual tour of the world.

Bottom line: Family fun that takes parents and kids on a visually breathtaking and educationally rich worldwide tour.

Christina Tynan-Wood has written for Better Homes and Gardens, Popular Science, PC World, PC Magazine, InfoWorld, and many others. She currently writes the "Family Tech" column in Family Circle and blogs at GeekGirlfriends.com.