The Apple App Store and Google Play are chocked-full of educational apps for your kids, some excellent and some schlock. Separating the wheat from the chaff is no small task; thankfully Graphite (a spin-off from Common Sense Media) does an excellent job highlighting and reviewing the better ones. This list from Education Next is super-helpful too.

But in both cases, the focus is overwhelmingly on apps that teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. Maybe because that’s what schools are most focused on, or maybe those subjects present fewer design challenges for app builders.

But that leaves a gaping hole: The teaching of history, geography, science, art, and music, what you might otherwise call “content knowledge.”

This is a big problem for three reasons:

  1. Those subjects are important in their own right;
  2. They are treated as after-thoughts by most elementary schools, making them even more critical to cover in out-of-school time;
  3. They are essential if kids are going to actually learn how to read.

That last point is worth lingering on. As E.D. Hirsch, Jr. has argued for thirty years—and cognitive scientists have since proven in the research lab—teaching content is essential to teaching reading. While it’s important for children to learn to decode the English alphabet, they also have to grow their vocabularies and background knowledge. Those two things are intimately intertwined and closely correlated with broad knowledge of the world.

The ability to pick up any text and make sense of it depends in large part on knowing at least something about the subject matter. A book about Tyrannosaurus Rex won’t make much sense to a boy who’s never been to a museum to see dinosaur bones, even if he can spell out the words. A book about Harriet Tubman won’t make much sense to a girl who’s never learned about slavery, even if she knows how to decode.

So if your son or daughter can sound out words (or even if he or she is still working on it), you need to see building knowledge too as an essential, non-negotiable component of building literacy. I’ve long argued that high-quality educational TV can help. So too can the right apps. Here are some you might consider. (Have other suggestions? Post them to the comments section. And thanks to Fordham intern Kate Stringer for curating this list.)


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BrainPOP Jr.: Social Studies has engaging videos that teach American history, ancient history, biographies, holidays, economics, and citizenship.

Britannica Kids

Britannica Kids: US Presidents teaches and quizzes kids on U.S. Presidents.

Timeline Civil War

Timeline Civil War has interactive content that explains civil war history.

Timeline WWII

Timeline World War 2 teaches kids about the events of World War 2 using interactive timelines, photos, videos, and facts.

Ancient Rome

Ancient Rome for Kids uses facts, games, and voice-overs to teach ancient Roman history.

Timeline Battle Castles

Timeline Battle Castles covers Medieval history with videos, photos, timelines and facts focused on battles and castles.


Nat Geo Marine Missions

Marine Missions teaches kids about the science and geography of the oceans and how to protect ocean species.

Barefoot World Atlas

Barefoot World Atlas has an interactive 3-D globe teaches children about world, cities, and people.



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BrainPOP Science uses video to teach science.

Nat Geo Kids

National Geographic Kids teaches history, science, and technology through articles, games, and quizzes.

Sids Science Fair

Sid’s Science Fair; PBS Kids teaches Common Core science and math concepts, like sequencing, classification, patterns and charting and charting.

NASA Rocket Science

NASA’s Rocket Science 101 teaches kids about rocket science, what goes into a space mission, and launching spacecrafts into orbit.

Kid Weather

Kid Weather covers meteorology, temperature conversions, weather conditions, and safety tips.

The Elements

The Elements explores the elements with 3-D visuals and examples of how they function in the world.

Ansel and Clair

Ansel and Clair: Jurassic Dinosaurs Lteaches kids about dinosaurs, geography, and zoology.


GazziliScience teaches the water cycle, parts of a plant, the four seasons, and other life science foundations.


Sea Life teaches kids about ocean life with images and sounds of aquatic creatures.



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BrainPOP Art uses videos to teach art.

Faces iMake

Faces iMake - Right Brain Creativity teaches kids how to make collages using symbolism.

Art HD

Art HD shows artists and their work, and quizzes kids to test knowledge


Art Authority allows you to view artwork from ancient times through today and compare great works to other artist’s pieces.


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BrainPOP Music uses videos to teach music.

My First Classical Music App

My First Classical Music App- teaches kids about famous composers and instruments behind classical music.


Opera Maker teaches kids about famous opera and lets them create their own.

Policy Priority:

Mike Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, executive editor of Education Next, and a Distinguished Senior Fellow for Education Commission of the States. An award-winning writer, he…

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