Cool, Creative Video Games For Your Kids To Play While Social Distancing

Cool, Creative Video Games For Your Kids To Play While Social Distancing
Everything (Screenshot: Steam)

Hi! I’m Keza MacDonald, a video games journalist of 15 years’ experience with two small kids and a teen stepkid. I’m currently The Guardian’s games editor and I also run a podcast for gamer parents called Spawnpoint (if you play games yourself, give it a listen). In an effort to do something useful in these extremely challenging times, I’ve put together this big list of kid-appropriate games to help out anyone who’s stuck at home in the next few months.

This article is republished with permission from Medium.

I’m a big believer in games as a fulfilling and worthwhile activity for kids—but finding the right ones is tricky for a lot of parents and just like with TV, you don’t want them sitting in front of something too overstimulating/violent/low-quality etc. Feel free to share it with anyone you know, especially any non-gamer parents who need advice.

The Rules:

  • These are not “educational” games as such, as that’s not my expertise, but that doesn’t mean kids won’t gain anything worthwhile from them

  • That said, I’ve prioritised games with a creative or learning elements

  • These games should all be fun for adults, too, and many allow you to play together with your kids

  • Absolutely no games with ads, dodgy purchases or timers that bug your kids to spend money

  • No violent games are included, except mild fantasy or comedy violence

  • Age suitability is my informed opinion; PEGI age ratings may differ, and they’re not set in stone.

MEGA TIP: If you have an Apple device you can sign up for a month’s free trial of Apple Arcade, which lets you access loads of high-quality games for free (including lots of the ones below). Definitely a good time to try that out.

NOTE: I’ve had a lot of requests for games suitable for children with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). I’m not an authority on that, but I have gotten in contact with some experts and other parents and will put together a separate guide as soon as possible. In the meantime, many of these games have been greatly enjoyed by friends’ kids with ASD, especially Minecraft!

TODDLER AND PRESCHOOL (ages 2–4 approx)

At this age, I find that kids respond best to apps and games that just let them play in an open-ended way, rather than ones with levels, goals, scores, etc, which can be too difficult or restrictive. Touchscreen controls work best, so these are all playable on phones and tablets. These are recommendations for imagination and exploration-based games that most 2 or 3-year-olds can play by themselves, but it’s always fun to sit with them and observe and ask questions about their play.

Toca Boca—These apps are themed after the kinds of imagination play that kids this age love: kitchen, doctor, train sets, etc. They let little kids play around and experiment: what happens if I do THIS? There’s a Toca Boca game to suit any child’s interests, from vehicles to vets. I can especially recommend the Toca Kitchen, Toca Hair Salon, Toca Store and Toca Birthday Party ones, which my 3-year-old loves (and could easily play at 2).

Available on: Apple devices, Android devices

Sago Mini—Like the Toca apps, these are all about playing with a theme: babies, apartments, superheroes. The art style isn’t too garish, the games are easy to understand and very fun and imaginative to play with. In Sago Mini Apartment, for instance, you visit different animals on different floors and play music with them, construct mad ice cream creations, do some gardening, all sorts.

Available on: Apple devices, Android devices

Most of the Cbeebies tie-in apps—e.g., Hey Duggee—are quite fun and make an effort to pull in educational elements (numbers, shapes, etc). Quality-wise they vary—my kid needs a lot of help figuring out the Hey Duggee puzzle app, for instance—but none of them are terrible.

Available on: Apple devices, Android devices

LEGO Duplo World is good for open-ended learning play, though you do need to pay for a bundle of activities. It’s got a number train games that my kid particularly likes.

Available on: Apple devices, Android devices

YOUNGER KIDS (ages 5–9 approx)

At this age kids can get to grips with a game controller and start really appreciating some of the awesome games on Playstation, Xbox and Nintendo. NB: many of these games would be appropriate for younger kids in terms of content, but you’d have to play with/for them if they’re finding it tricky to control.

Yoshi’s Crafted World—A lovely and incredibly cute game starring little colourful dinosaurs. Everything in the game world looks like it’s hand-made—the levels are made out of cardboard, yarn, boxes, buttons, et cetera. I found it was good inspiration for craft projects as well as good fun.

Available on: Nintendo Switch

See also: Kirby’s Epic Yarn, which is similar, on Wii/3DS

Minecraft—There’s a reason this is one of the most popular games in the world! It’s also used in classrooms to teach everything from geography to engineering. Minecraft puts you in a vast world made of blocks, complete with mountains, rivers, underwater cities, all sorts. In Creative Mode you can build whatever you like out of said bricks, and in Survival Mode you adventure underground, gathering materials to build shelter and fighting off spiders, zombies etc. For a totally non-violent experience go for Creative Mode and turn on the Peaceful setting, which removes enemies from the game.

Available on: everything (phones, consoles, tablets, etc)

See also: Terraria, which is very much like Minecraft but from a different perspective.

Luigi’s Mansion—Slapstick Ghostbusters-esque game where you explore a haunted mansion and hoover up ghosts. Not actually scary, but prob best for 7+. Has puzzles that are quite tricky and might require adult help.

Available on: Nintendo Switch (Luigi’s Mansion 3), Nintendo 3DS (Luigi’s Mansion 2)

Animal Crossing—In this game you move to a desert island and spend your time planting flowers, catching bugs, fishing, growing fruit trees, decorating your house, and chatting to animal neighbours. Kids will need to be able to read to get the most out of this, but it’s super chill and nature-focused, with lots of real-world bugs and fish. They can visit friends’ islands online as well, if they have a copy of the game too—good for socialising without physical contact.

Available on: Nintendo Switch, Nintendo 3DS/DS

Everything—Fascinating experimental game designed by an artist, where you control and explore everything from subatomic particles to creatures to entire solar systems. Good to get you thinking.

Available on: PS4, Nintendo Switch, PC

Just Dance—A dance game to get everyone moving, if you like pop! There are a million versions of Just Dance but all of them are approximately the same, except for the song selection: you imitate eccentric dance routines for points.

Available on: everything

ABZU—A game about deep-sea diving where you meet lots of real-world sea creatures and have plenty of time to just swim around and have a look. Nice environmental message too.

Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch

Nintendo Labo—This is expensive but really cool. The game comes with cardboard models that you make yourself, and which you can then use to control the games, like super advanced Lego. For example, you might spend a half hour building a cardboard fishing rod, then use it to play a game where you catch ocean fish. Teaches kids lots about engineering and coding principles in a friendly way.

Available on: Nintendo Switch

Snipperclips—This is a clever wee game for two players where you have to think up creative ways to solve puzzles but snipping shapes out of paper—e.g., you have to work together to get a basketball into a net or get a pencil into a sharpener. Excellent for two kids to play together or for parent/kid play.

Available on: Nintendo Switch

Wii Sports, Wii Sports Resort—If you have a dusty Wii hanging around in your house, now is an excellent time to get it out and do some active play with simulated bowling, tennis, et cetera. Just as good as it was in 2006.

Available on: Nintendo Wii

Pokémon—I know this series annoys some parents in my acquaintance, but Pokémon is actually super complex and has kids holding all sorts of information and maths in their heads as well as trivia about virtual critters! If you’re looking for one to play together, Pokémon Let’s Go: Pikachu or Let’s Go: Eevee on Switch is perfect.

Available on: Nintendo DS/3DS, Nintendo Switch

Rocket League—Soccer, but with remote control cars. An absolute riot. Especially good for playing together. Not particularly educational but just an awful lot of competitive fun.

Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox, Switch

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild—This is a truly incredible game that feels like a proper adventure. Lets you explore a vast, green, beautiful fantasy world and challenges you to use your wits and curiosity to work out where to go, how to defeat baddies, and how to use physics and gravity to solve puzzles. Best for age 8+ as it’s complex and does have fantasy violence, but SO GOOD.

Available on: Nintendo Switch

Super Mario Maker—All the fun of old-school Mario, but also lets kids make their own levels, however mad or imaginative they may be. This has absolutely captivated many of my friends’ slightly older kids; it’s one of those games that invites the question “What happens if I do THIS?”

Available on: Nintendo Switch, Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo Wii U

Toca Life—These Toca Boca apps are sort of virtual, living dolls houses and come in many flavours: Town, Vacation, School, Hospital, etc. Lets kids create characters and play out stories as they would with physical toys.

Available on: Apple devices, Android devices

The LEGO Games—There is a LEGO game themed after pretty much everything popular with kids, from Harry Potter to Star Wars. They are all cheerful and comedic, easy to play, and any violence is done to bricks. Ideal for playing together with kids, like playing through a family movie, though they can be a bit frustrating sometimes.

Available on: everything

Rayman Legends—Wonderful musical, colourful, gently bizarre run-and-jump game that’s fun to play together.

Available on: Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo Switch, PC

Untitled Goose Game—Slapstick comedy game where you play a goose in a quaint little English visit and your job is to make life difficult for everyone by, say, stealing their pint glasses or shoes. Very funny.

Available on: PC, Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Gang Beasts—This is a comedy wrestling/punch-up game where everyone is a kind of clumsy jelly baby trying to chuck everyone else out of the arena. Comedy violence, but this had me and my older kid in stitches.

Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Planet Zoo—Lets you construct and manage your own zoo. Perfect for the animal mad. Quite complex, so parental help will probably be needed.

Available on: PC

Planet Coaster—Like Planet Zoo, except you construct your own theme park.

Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Farm, train and transport simulators—If you have a PC and a tractor, train or bus-mad child, you could actually have a lot of fun with Farming Simulator and similar games. You’ll have to be the one actually playing, though, as they’re quite complicated.

Available on: PC

Train Valley—Gorgeous track-building train game on PC with an appealing toylike look. One for older kids, or you can help them play.

Available on: PC

Unravel and Unravel 2—Puzzle games with an environmental message, where you play a little character made of string exploring the natural world and confronting what humans have done to it. Unravel 2 has a two-player mode, so kids can work together (or you can work together with them).

Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch

What the Golf?—Surreal, freewheeling comedy game that has absolutely nothing to do with golf and will make you laugh loads.

Available on: PC, Apple devices, Nintendo Switch

OLDER KIDS (age 10–12+)

This is when kids would usually rather play by themselves or with their friends than with you, but you can still introduce them to some great stuff that might feed their brains more than endless rounds of Fortnite (not knocking Fortnite, but variety is the spice of life and all that). I’ve focussed here on games with pro-social, environmental or other themes that might get older kids thinking about the world and their place in it.

Flower—Play the wind, and guide petals around, spreading nature over the spaces that humans have colonised. Has some moderate threat and thought-provoking themes that makes it better suited to older kids.

Available on: PlayStation, Apple devices, PC

Journey—One of the more beautiful games ever made, this is an unforgettable journey through a desert with environmental and emotional themes. Warning: the ending is very sad.

Available on: PlayStation, Apple devices, PC

No Man’s Sky—This game is literally a universe. Seriously—it simulates the entire universe and you get to fly around and explore it, landing on any planet you like. Unmissable for the space-obsessed, but can be rather slow and cumbersome to play. Online-enabled, so kids can explore solar systems with friends if they can’t see them in person.

Available on: PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4

Overcooked—One for the whole family to play together: you have to work as a team to create meals in mad kitchens aboard a ship, for example. Will definitely get everyone yelling at each other, but in a good way.

Available on: PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch

Subnautica—A game where you have to survive an underwater realm, creating structures and vehicles and gadgets to help you shelter and explore. Exercises resourcefulness and curiosity. (Editor’s note: Can be a little jumpscare-y)

Available on: PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4

See also: Shinsekai: Into the Depths on Apple devices

Mutazione—A game that you play by tending gardens and talking to people. Visit an island, meet the mutants who live there, learn their stories, and think about how things are not always as they seem. Quite good for mindfulness and thinking about what is means to be a community. 12+ for this one.

Available on: Apple devices, PlayStation 4, PC

Outlanders—Compelling city-building game with a chill art style. Create a town by planning out houses, roads, trees etc, and manage its inhabitants and their happiness.

Available on: Apple devices

Cities: Skylines—Overwhelmingly comprehensive city-building game on the PC, for all the budding architects and town-planners out there. This is a real time-sink, be warned.

Available on: PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch

Assemble With Care—This is ostensibly a beautiful game about fixing things for people, but it’s just as much about the stories of these objects and the folks who own them. Has lots of vintage 80s-inspired tech and sound to educate kids about what things were like In Our Day.

Available on: PC, Apple devices

Dreams—Basically a virtual artist studio where you can paint and sculpt whatever you like and then make your own games using your creations. If that sounds absolutely crazy, it is, but this is also the most extraordinary set of creative tools I’ve ever seen, and you can also explore the incredible things that other people have made with it.

Available on: PlayStation 4

Spider-Man—Not much educational about this superhero game, but it is a VERY GOOD superhero game, if you are looking for something for the Marvel-obsessed older kid (or parent).

Available on: PlayStation 4

Outer Wilds—A time-travelling space game where you explore a quaint capsule universe and uncover its secrets before the sun explodes and takes everything with it. Absolute brain-food—my favourite game of last year.

Available on: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC

Portal and Portal 2—Mind-bending, brilliantly written and intellectually testing puzzle games about physics and cake. These are classics.

Available on: PlayStation, Xbox, PC

Thanks for reading! I’ll update this post with further suggestions when I get time. And if you’d like to join my mailing list for gamer parents, you can sign up here.

Log in to comment on this story!