As a parent of young children, I’ve gone back and forth on my screen time philosophy. At times I have declared we are a no-screentime household until something good crosses my radar and I slip back. My inner dialogue goes a little like this: “Did I just fry my kid’s brain today with too much screen time? Are we missing out on good content by not watching the show the other moms are talking about? Am I a #badmom for letting my kids watch this?”
The World Health Organization suggests limited or no screen time for children under 5 years of age, and in our house, we stick to the “limited” side of the spectrum. I believe there is merit in watching certain television shows. Especially when we watch together, my kids can benefit from shows that help them learn vocabulary, social skills, or science concepts.
Researchers at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center found there are benefits when we interact and capitalize on learning opportunities while using digital media. In a report published in 2011, they noted that there is a special space available for learning when we are watching and interacting together with our kids. We can help them deepen their curiosity, make sense of what they’re watching, and build connections to their own lives.
With all the streaming services available these days, my house definitely has many options for finding the right shows for our kids. Between Amazon Prime, Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, Sling, and live tv through the antenna (we cut cable—can you tell?), there is so much out there as long as we use it right.
Netflix, which my three-year-old daughter calls “Necklace” (and we don’t correct her because it’s just too adorable), reigns supreme with my kids. The Netflix library is always evolving, so it’s up to me as the parent to make sure I’m up to speed on the best shows for my kiddos. Below are some of the best ones that promote learning and give you and your kiddo plenty to talk about. Ask your child these questions to help you gauge their understanding of the episode. See if they can retell the plot from the episode they watched—this is an important reading skill they’ll develop later in school.
- Ask the Storybots. This show features characters that learn about a range of topics from outer space to emotions to how things work, and your child can learn alongside them! The characters answer the question “Why?” through fun and catchy music videos that captivate young audiences. (My kids’ favorite episode is “What Happens When You Flush the Toilet?”)
- The Magic School Bus and The Magic School Bus Rides Again. The original and the reboot versions have fans of all ages! This beloved show reaches young kids with fun adventures and silly characters, and it also teaches older kids about important scientific concepts like weather, space, and states of matter.
- Charlie’s Colorforms City. This preschool series features Charlie, who imagines new places and experiences. Young kids will enjoy the imaginative, colorful nature of the show as it reinforces spatial awareness and understanding.
- Word Party. Little audiences will love this show that teaches both academic and social emotional skills. It features lessons about how to handle conflict and confusing situations while also teaching the alphabet and basic spelling. The cute animal babies will draw your child in, too!
- Motown Magic. This cartoon show introduces little learners to iconic music from the Jackson 5, Smokey Robinson, and so many more. Its bright and colorful scenes highlight the beauty in art and music while featuring an 8-year-old boy with an impressive imagination. (This is a favorite in our house as we are big Motown music fans!)
- Octonauts. Focused on teaching about marine life and habitats, this series features an adventure team that explores the world’s oceans. They rescue creatures and work to protect their habitats. These eight cute animals are sure to captivate your little one as they learn about the environment.
- Puffin Rock. Puffins are such interesting creatures, and this series follows a sibling pair as they navigate the world around them. It’s based on the real Puffin Island off the coast of Ireland. This series teaches empathy and about many different creatures.
- Dinotrux. The fictional prehistoric world mixes two favorite topics–trucks and dinosaurs–as it teaches young kids about being helpful and compassionate rather than intimidating and isolated. Each part-dinosaur, part-construction vehicle character learns about friendship and teamwork as they embark on fun adventures.
- Treehouse Detectives. Tapping into the helpful nature of preschoolers, this show is about a brother and sister team who set out to help their friends. They work to collect clues and problem-solve to figure out the answer to a mystery.
- Transformers: Rescue Bots Academy. This animated robot series will become a favorite among superhero fans. The entire series focuses on the importance of teamwork as well as the true meaning of being a hero.
What I like about most of these shows is that the episodes are relatively, and sometimes even super, short. This helps me manage my kids’ screen time. When I say, “You can watch one episode of Motown Magic,” it really means they can have 15 minutes of TV time.
This is definitely not an exhaustive list. Netflix and other streaming services have so many great shows—especially if you watch together, discuss what you’re seeing, and keep screen time to a minimum.
By Caitlin Hardeman, former third through sixth grade teacher specializing in English Language Arts.