7 top educational apps for the holidays

Adios, ballistic birds. Our tech expert finds the snazziest new smarts-boosting apps.

By Christina Tynan-Wood

BrainPOP featured movie

Ages: Elementary through middle school

Tim and Moby — a dude and his robot — are a smart, goofy pair who answer questions about science, language, history, math, art, health, and technology via short, silly cartoons (followed by a fun quiz). Brainpop.com (monthly subscriptions start range from free to $6.99 per month) is an educational site that teaches kids how the world works. For the full subscription price you'll get unlimited access to learning cartoons on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, along with access to Brainpop's wealth of fun online academic games and activities. The featured flick is usually tied to the calendar, from a current event or holiday to historical facts or a famous person's birthday.

Bottom line: Terrific kid-friendly educational media delivered daily

MapMaster

Ages: Elementary school and up

When my game-obsessed teen asked where Dublin is, I knew it was time for a geography cram session. Since he loves to steal my Android to play games, I showed him MapMaster ($1.99), a geography game that uses his innate need to score points to trick him into learning. The game shows a map of the world and asks you drop a pushpin in famous places, capitals, and cities. The closer your pin comes to the right spot, the higher you score. As your gameplay improves, so does your geography knowledge. Curious kids can dig deeper and learn about where their pushpins have landed, too.

Bottom line: A satisfying game that teaches advanced geography

Presidents vs. Aliens

Ages: Elementary school and up

Who knew learning basic presidential facts — nicknames, quotes, dates in office, party affiliation, predecessors, successors, historical events — could be such addictive fun? On Presidents vs. Aliens ($0.99 on iTunes, for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad), you answer multiple-choice questions by choosing the correct president's head. Get it right and you get to toss that head at a swarm of space aliens in an attempt to knock them out of the sky. Three right answers in a row earns you another president — and all of his facts. The gameplay is so silly and engaging that it's futile to resist learning facts that'd otherwise be too boring to contemplate.

Bottom line: Addictive fun with dull presidential facts

Magic of Reality

Ages: Middle school and up

Want to get your child genuinely excited about science? This is your app. In Magic of Reality ($12.99, iTunes, iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch), Richard Dawkins and Dave McKean examine — in text, through interactive activities, and with fantastic animated art — the real magic of science. After this awed exploration of gravity, evolution, DNA, tsunamis, and more, Potter's wand-waving will seem utterly mundane. The app is stunning and engaging, just like the book it's based on. Younger kids might enjoy this content with you, but an older student will dig in and discover that magic spells aren’t nearly as amazing as the wizardry of scientific understanding.

Bottom line: Beautiful, magical, fascinating — and scientific

Britannica Kids: Ancient Rome

Ages: Late elementary school and up

Ready to debate the rise and fall of the Roman Empire with your tween? This app from Britannica ( $6.99, iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch) is one of several subject-specific apps from the encyclopedia kings; others cover snakes, solar systems, and dinosaurs. This one's loaded with the history of Roman art, architecture, leaders, mythology, and gladiators. Kids will be riveted by the puzzles, videos, memory games, and quizzes. The interactive games are so addictive that you might be forced to lay down the law about how much time may be spent learning about Rome.

Bottom line: Turn your tween into a (Roman) history buff 

The Elementals

Ages: Kindergarten and up

It’s not often that learning the periodic table can be described as fun and whimsical. But that's what The Elementals (free for the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad) achieves. It’s a simple tool that gives each element a face and personality. Hydrogen, for example, has an atomic weight of 1.00794 and 1 orbiting electron. So it’s portrayed as a small, eager creature with one little white bug constantly circling its head. Uranium weighs in at an atomic weight of 238 with 92 protons. So it’s an imposing creature animated by a mass of swirling electrons. Touch the screen, and the element you're playing with chases your finger. A simple, but effective — and very cute — reference and study aid.

Bottom line: The leg up your child will need in chemistry later, but will actually enjoy learning now
 

Motion Math Zoom

Ages: Kindergarten through middle school

Math can be fun! Young kids learn math by playing with toys that demonstrate the concepts, bringing abstract descriptions to life. That’s why teachers like manipulatives, like base ten blocks, to help teach core concepts. Motion Math Zoom (free demo; upgrade to full version for $3.99, iPhone, iPad touch, or iPad) turns that idea into a game that illustrates hard-to-grasp concepts like negatives and decimals. Kids have to understand how .01 is different from 1 and .1 to score and move on in the game. Just playing the game illustrates the concepts, letting kids learn through trial and error. Kids can play at their own pace, or you can amp up the pressure by turning on “The Needle” to impose a little time pressure.

Bottom Line: Learning place value has never been so fun
 

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.