Whether studying for school or just learning for fun, your child can get a lot of useful information from the web. But how can your kid use the web effectively as a reference tool? Searching Google or Wikipedia is all very well, but sometimes the quality or accuracy of online resources leaves a lot to be desired. What’s more, many resources aren’t particularly kid-friendly in terms of content, style and readability.
Fortunately, there are some fantastic reference websites that are great for kids, if you know where to look. In this article, you’ll explore over 30 top-quality kid-friendly dictionaries, encyclopaedias and reference sites on a variety of topics, from arts and humanities through to science and biographies.
While there is something special about a thick hardcover dictionary on your bookshelf, online dictionaries have their advantages too. They’re (usually) free, they’re updated regularly, they often have spoken audio pronunciations, and they’re searchable.
Here’s a selection of some of the best online English-language dictionaries out there:
- Oxford Dictionaries is an online version of the classic Oxford English Dictionary. There are complete, searchable British and US English dictionaries with audio pronunciations for each word. There’s also a thesaurus, as well as tons of useful articles on grammar, style and current usage.
- Dictionary.com is another good, easy-to-use US and British English dictionary. Each word definition includes an audio pronunciation, synonyms, examples of usage, etymology, quotes using the word, a “difficulty index”, and even the word’s Scrabble score!
- Merriam-Webster has an excellent US English dictionary, thesaurus and concise encyclopaedia. The site also has some fun word quizzes, as well as some great “Ask the Editor” videos explaining tricky grammar issues, word etymology and more.
- Visual Dictionary Online, also by Merriam-Webster, is a fantastic dictionary for kids that explains words and terms using beautifully-drawn, annotated images. It’s a great way for kids to explore words and meanings.
- Vocabulary.com’s dictionary is a super-fast way to look up a word. As soon as you start typing, it presents you with a list of the most likely results you’re looking for. In addition, unlike other, stuffier dictionaries, Vocabulary.com’s definitions are down-to-earth, humorous, and fun to read. Also check out The Challenge for a fun way to learn new words!
- Wiktionary is the dictionary equivalent of Wikipedia: an open, collaboratively-edited online dictionary available in a huge variety of languages. Word entries include UK and US pronunciations, etymologies, synonyms, images, and links to Wikipedia entries where appropriate.
- YourDictionary is actually several dictionaries in one, pulling definitions from its own dictionary as well as Webster’s New World College Dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary, Wiktionary and more. You’ll also find a thesaurus, a Scrabble word finder, and lots of other handy resources.
Does your kid need to find out about a famous person’s life for a school project? Or perhaps they’re just interested in finding out about a well-known figure. Here are a couple of great sites for reading biographies online:
- Biography.com is a fantastic one-stop resource for finding out about famous people. You can browse or search for people to access their detailed biographies. The articles include images and often entire documentary videos that you can watch online. There are also lots of great articles on past and current events and people, and even a fun famous lookalikes section.
- YourDictionary’s biography site includes in-depth, searchable biographies taken from the Encyclopedia of World Biography, supplemented by their own articles. There are also lots of good supplementary articles including quick facts, timelines, and common questions and answers.
If your kid needs to look something up for their science project, or wants to explore a science topic in detail, there are some excellent free reference websites that they can use:
- Dynamic Periodic Table is a fantastic online periodic table of the elements. Clicking each element brings up detailed information from a variety of sources, including Wikipedia, WebElements, Periodic Videos, the Photographic Periodic Table and more.
- The Encyclopedia of Earth contains detailed articles on environmental science. Topics include earth sciences, climate, biology, and related aspects of history, archaeology and environmental policy. It’s a great place for your kid to find out about the natural world, and humans’ interactions with it.
- The Encyclopedia of Life has a mission to document all of the 1.9 million living species that we know of. Its content is drawn from the Biodiversity Heritage Library and other databases, and new content is added all the time. Each species gets its own page, which includes detailed information, videos, sounds, images and maps.
- Encyclopedia of Science by prolific science writer David Darling contains thousands of clearly-written articles on a wide variety of science topics. Search the site, or browse through the A-Z list of topics to discover all sorts of interesting science facts!
World facts and figures
Does your kid need some quick facts on a country, or would they like to explore some fascinating global statistics? Here are some websites they’ll find really useful:
- The CIA World Factbook is the place to go for facts and figures on over 260 countries around the world. Each country’s page is packed with detailed information, including its flag, a map, photos, geography, demographics, economy, energy production and lots more.
- The OECD Better Life Index reveals information on the quality of life in over 30 countries. Topics include housing, employment, community support, education, and work-life balance. You can browse the index by country and topic, as well as create your own better life index, based on the things that matter to you.
- Worldometers presents various world statistics in real time, including population, economic data, media use, environmental damage, energy use and health statistics. It’s fascinating to watch, and really helps give you a sense of perspective when it comes to world facts and figures!
- SkyscraperPage is one of the more unusual reference sites on the web! It’s a database of skyscrapers and buildings in over 6,000 cities worldwide. Each building includes a drawing and information about the building’s height and usage. Does you kid want to know the tallest skyscraper in a city? Do they need to find out which of two buildings is the tallest? This is the site for them!
Here are some useful reference sites for those times when your child needs to look up a geographical feature, or explore an area of land in detail.
- World Atlas contains maps and information covering thousands of worldwide features, including countries, lakes, rivers, seas, oceans, mountains, time zones, and lots more.
- Google Maps, it goes without saying, is a fantastic way to explore any place on Earth from above. Pan and zoom to browse the world, search for specific features, or use Street View to explore places on the ground. (Don’t forget Google Earth too!)
- Old Maps Online is a fascinating collection of old maps that you can view online in detail. Zoom in on a country, then click the maps on the right to view them. Great for both geography and history research!
Online encyclopaedias, like online dictionaries, have a few advantages over their paper versions, including lower (or no) cost, frequent updates, and searchable entries. Here are a few of the best ones:
- Simple English Wikipedia is a version of the popular open encyclopaedia that uses simple English — perfect for kids. While it’s not as comprehensive as the main Wikipedia, the articles are generally much shorter and easier to understand, and the smaller number of articles means that your child will find it less overwhelming than the full-blown site.
- Encyclopaedia Britannica is an online version of the well-known general-knowledge encyclopaedia. The quality of the articles is — as you’d imagine — superb, and on the whole easier to read than, say, Wikipedia. Most of the articles are free to read online. Some articles are only shown in shortened form, requiring a subscription to view the full article (which, compared to buying the full set of hardcover encyclopaedias, is modest!). There’s also a version specifically for kids.
- Encyclopedia.com lets you search lots of encyclopaedias, dictionaries and other online reference sources, including the Columbia Encyclopedia, Oxford’s World Encyclopedia, and the Encyclopedia of World Biography. You can access over 200,000 entries, as well as images, videos, and newspaper articles.
Arts and humanities
There are many fantastic reference websites to help your child learn about humanities and the arts. Here is a selection:
- Google Cultural Institute is a Google initiative that aims to bring many of the world’s best artworks and museum exhibits online for anyone to access freely. Currently there are three main sub-sites to explore: the Art Project, which contains detailed photos of artworks from over 40 countries; Historic Moments, a series of exhibits covering various significant world events; and World Wonders, which contains beautiful imagery of some of the most amazing places in the world.
- Poetry Foundation is a great place for your child to refer to and explore poetry. There are over 12,000 poems on the site, from Lewis Carroll and Oscar Wilde through to Yeats and Shakespeare. You’ll also find a detailed biography of each poet. You can even browse poems that are good for children.
- SparkNotes features free online study guides to help schoolkids through some of those tricky works of literature, from Shakespeare to Sartre. There are also notes on history, politics and the sciences, and many notes come in both text and video versions.
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a great website for philosophy studies. It’s a huge body of reference work, covering pretty much every philosopher and philosophical concept over the last 2,500 years or so.
- The World Digital Library is an amazing online collection of cultural artefacts from all over the world. It covers topics ranging from science and technology to philosophy and the arts. The content includes books, journals, maps, movies, photos and sound recordings.
Learning a language has never been easier for kids, thanks to the huge range of online resources available today. Here are some useful reference websites that can help your child with their language studies:
- WordReference is an awesome reference site for language learners. As well as including dictionaries for over 15 languages, WordReference features verb conjugators for Spanish, French and Italian, language-learning forums, and even word games.
- Forvo is an online pronunciation guide that includes user-contributed audio pronunciations of words in different languages. This is a great guide if your child is studying languages and is not sure how best to pronounce a particular word. There’s a huge range of languages on the site, from English to Klingon!
- The Oxford Dictionaries site, which I covered earlier in the article, features more than just its English dictionaries. It also contains excellent Spanish, Arabic, French, German and Italian dictionaries, as well as Spanish grammar guides and verb tables.
General reference websites
Finally, as well as the specialised reference sites we’ve looked at so far, there are some excellent general reference websites that your kid may want to bookmark to help them with their studies:
- Wolfram|Alpha is an excellent general-reference research tool. It’s a bit like a search engine on steroids. Rather than just returning a list of websites, its search results contain an assortment of useful data about the topic you searched for. Search for “tiger”, for example, and you’ll get its scientific name, its taxonomy (in text and graphical formats), its properties such as average size and weight, and even its genome data. A great way to get the facts on anything quickly.
- Infoplease is a huge reference site featuring an atlas, encyclopaedia, dictionary and thesaurus all rolled into one. You’ll find detailed, illustrated articles on almost every topic under the Sun. There’s even a homework help section for those times when your kid gets stuck on their schoolwork!
- Fact Monster is a kids’ reference website from the Infoplease folks. It contains tons of fun facts and figures and is designed for kids aged 8-14. You’ll find a dictionary, an atlas and lots of almanacs, all searchable from the search box on every page of the site.
I hope you found this list of kid-friendly reference websites useful for you and your child. Do you know of any other top-quality online references for kids? If so, please feel free to post them in the comments below. Happy learning! 🙂