By Christina Tynan-Wood
Who says studying has to come before screen time? Direct kids to the right websites, and they can hang out online with their friends and classmates, be entertained, and learn all at the same time. From sites that help students keep track of homework assignments and join study groups to ones that provide educational videos, we've got kids of all ages covered. Read on, then let your child log on.
All ages, free
Pointing to that dusty copy of Merriam-Webster on the shelf and trying to get your kid to look up words on his own is so 1980s. The Free Dictionary makes vocabulary building fun. Your child just has to type in a word to learn its meaning and hear it pronounced (to save him the embarrassment of mangling it). This site is a great help for those homework assignments that ask kids to find words with similar meanings. It will even translate words into several languages. If your child still groans when you say, "Look it up," tell him about the games like hangman or the online spelling bee — at least he'll be playing with words.
Bottom line: This digital dictionary makes vocabulary building a breeze.
All ages, $9.95/month (free features too)
If Saturday-morning cartoons were educational, your job would be a lot easier, right? Welcome to BrainPop. This educational tool will have kids laughing, begging for "just a few more minutes," and learning (science, math, social studies, health, and art). Heck, you can even offload the birds-and-bees talk to BrainPop to get the ball rolling. Your child can test his knowledge at the end of each short animated video. When he's not around, you may find yourself seeking knowledge from Tim and Moby — the animated dude and his robot who seem to know just about everything. There is some free stuff, but a membership (you want one of these) is $9.95 a month.
Bottom line: Clever cartoons will have your kid begging for more ... learning.
All ages, $9.95/month (free trial period)
Kids love to watch videos, right? So why not let 'em look up every one the Discovery Channel has ever made on the subjects they're studying and bone up the fun way? With Cosmeo, they'll move to the head of class in no time. The Curriculum Explorer finds documentaries that match your state’s learning requirements by grade. Or dial up a recorded lecture by a teacher who can explain how to do that maddening math problem, and let your kid watch it — over and over if necessary. Or use the math solver to plug in an equation and get a step-by-step explanation. There are even hundreds of games that help kids learn the times tables, master punctuation, and other stuff.
Bottom line: The best of the Discovery Channel's documentaries in one handy spot.
Preschoolers and up, free (books can be purchased as apps for 99¢ to $2.99 each)
Worried that the time your little one is spending on the computer or iPhone would be better spent reading? Steer him to this site, and turn that fascination with technology into book time. MeeGenius goes one better than a book by reading to kids while highlighting each word. And, for a personal touch, you can edit classic stories so that the princess (or frog) has your child’s name. Older kids can rewrite the stories entirely, inserting the inevitable rude humor into Goldilocks or Jack and the Beanstalk. All good fun as long as they are reading and writing. And if you can't be there to read bedtime stories, you can record yourself reading any of the books and send a link to it via email.
Bottom line: Encourage little readers with customizable e-books.
Grade schoolers and up, free
Google is good at answering most questions, but WolframAlpha is a real know-it-all. Ask it anything — a math problem, what happened on a particular day in history, or the population of Romania — and it's got the answer.
And it is always learning. Instead of sending users to another source for information, this "computational knowledge engine" answers questions as completely as it knows how. It’s particularly good at math problems, since the site is built on Mathematica, but it will take a stab at answering anything. It even has mobile apps so your kid can get answers to her questions wherever she is. Is that cheating?
Bottom line: With WolframAlpha, your kid never has to be stumped again.
Middle schoolers and up, free (PSAT prep: $19/year, SAT prep: $23/year)
Ever had an English teacher who made you see the hilarity of Chaucer, learn the insults of Shakespeare, or feel the terror of Poe? Wouldn’t you like to bottle that for your kid? Done. Send him to the Shmoop study guides for a light and fun — but A quality — crash course in literature and history. Aimed at middle school, high school, and college students, the site helps them get their papers written by filling up those blank pages with an outline, notes, and — eventually — a well-researched report before they can freak out.
The content is written by PhD students, and it’s like dropping into a hip, graduate-level class written for anyone in the aforementioned age groups. Oh, there’s math, civics, economics, and PSAT/SAT prep too. Fun, funny, and sure to light a spark (and maybe bring up your kid's grades).
Bottom line: Hip online courses that make material relatable for older kids.
High schoolers and up, free (pro plan: $5/month)
An inability to keep track of assignments can be the undoing of the brightest yet disorganized students. Planners get lost; memory is fickle. But kids always know where to find the Internet, and most of them never lose their cell phones.
Soshiku, an online course and assignment tracker, lets high school and college students send assignments via text to a course planner, invite friends to discuss homework online, and keep track of when things are due. It will even send reminders right to their phone. Can a paper planner do that?
Bottom line: Now teens have less of a reason to flake on homework.
High schoolers and up, free (see below for classes with instructors)
Kids love social networking, and it turns out it’s a great way to learn a language. On Livemocha, they can sign up for language classes that promise fluency by using world-class curriculum and personalized feedback from staff experts. For practice, kids can socialize and get pointers from native speakers around the world. The site might even improve your teen’s English, since the idea is that members trade advice. So in exchange for help with her French, she can help someone with their English.
Basic classes, which use plenty of multimedia to keep kids entertained, are free. Classes with instructors — in English, French, Italian, German, and Spanish — are $150 a year or $20 a month.
Bottom line: How do you say "friend request" en español?
High schoolers and up, free (see below for premium membership)
Facebook may be a time waster for teens, but social networking can still be a great way to study. At Cramster, high school and college students study together — either in groups with classmates or in subject- or textbook-specific groups with kids from anywhere — in subjects like humanities, writing, calculus, statistics, and chemistry. They can also get help with homework; ask questions about their classes or textbooks; and pick up pointers from teachers, parents, and others who are knowledgeable about the subjects they are studying.
The site offers study guides, math tools that show the steps for solving difficult problems, and lecture videos. Some resources require one of the two premium memberships: $8.33 or $12.50 per month, depending on the features.
Bottom line: Cramster brings study groups into the social-networking age.