Cynthia’s List of Top Children’s Programming

Children’s television programming comes in an array of flavors and colors, from the excruciatingly banal to the completely off the wall and mind-bogglingly strange, to stuff that makes you want to pull your hair out. Finding something that is in line with your core beliefs as a parent, and won’t drive you crazy at the same time can seem like a nearly impossible task. When choosing programming for my son Odin, I look for 4 key components:

Educational – Whether it’s prosocial behavior or the alphabet, something positive and useful needs to be imparted to my little one’s mind.

Direction – Instead of programming that employs cuts to characters and scenes every 4 to 5 seconds, I look for long takes, tracking shots and pans. No matter how educational and creative a show may be, if it’s comprised mostly of three to five-second cuts, flashing colors, or strobing lights, it’s out. All that flashing from one character to the next is too much for a little brain to handle. Long shots that follow a scene or set of characters allows young minds to focus and process information.

Voice acting – There’s nothing like bad voice acting to ruin a perfectly good show. If voices are high pitched or screechy, they tend to grate into my brain and tense my shoulders. Parenting is stressful enough without having a child’s program push you towards the edge of insanity.

Excitement Level – If a show is overly stimulating, (flashing images, super energetic music, characters yelling, etc) it gets shut off.

So with the former in mind, here are my top picks of television programs for kids.

Pre-school (age 2-4)

Credit: Nickelodeon
Photo credit: Nickelodeon.com

Blues Clues (1996-2006) – Produced by Angela Santomero, Todd Kessler, and Traci Paige Johnson, this Emmy award winning and critically acclaimed show combines child development and early childhood education theories, along with leading-edge animation and production techniques to aid young viewers in comprehending new concepts. Viewers follow Blue, an animated blue-spotted dog, and her owner as the two play the game Blue’s Clues. The game consists of Blue leaving clues in the form of paw prints on items or concepts. After all three clues are found and drawn in the “handy dandy notebook,” the host pieces them together with the help of children off screen who offer advice to help work out the answer. Originally the show was hosted by Steve Burns (Steve), and then later by Donovan Patton (Joe).

Educational areas: critical thinking, problem-solving, self-esteem building through learning, learning through repetition, abstract-thinking, sign language
Watchability for parents: I personally like Blues Clues and find it easy on my nerves. There’s no flashing scenes, the storytelling is smooth and fun, and everyone stays calm. While I’m partial to host Steve Burns slightly snarky faces and comments, Donovan Patton is also wonderful and brings a very upbeat energy to the show.
Excitement level: low – perfect for winding down or quiet time.
Special notes: Actively watching with your child will increase their attention with the show. Ask if they see the clue while the host is still searching for it. Having them point out clues will help develop attention to details and language skills.

Credit: Zinkia Entertainment
Credit: Zinkia Entertainment

Pocoyo (2005-2007) – Created by Guillermo García Carsí, Luis Gallego, and David Cantolla, and produced by Zinkia Entertainment, Cosgrove-Hall Films, and Granada International. Sparsely animated, Pocoyco’s sets consist of white backgrounds, characters, and a few objects like toys or palm trees. The show centers around Pocoyo, a curious three year old boy dressed in blue and his two close friends; Elly an athletic pink elephant who excels at dance and golf, and Pato, a facetious duck with a green bowler who love his creature comforts and being clean. Through their adventures, Pocoyo, and his friends learn the importance of sharing, respect, and friendship. The English version is narrated by the amazing Stephen Fry, the Castillian Spanish series by José María del Río, and the third season called Let’s Go Pocoyo is narrated by Stephen Hughes.

Educational areas: critical thinking, problem-solving, empathy and respect building, prosocial behavior, creative play
Watchability for parents: I love this show for its long camera holds, tracking shots of characters and stark backgrounds. Plus Stephen Fry is a fantastic narrator. Pocoyo is Odin’s favorite show at the moment, and after watching the first two seasons countless times, I’m still not sick of it. I rate it high on the watchability chart for sure.
Excitement level: low to moderate – episodes can end on a high note with dancing that can mildly amp little ones, but as long as you don’t mind a little bum shaking, there’s nothing to worry about. Let’s Go Pocoyo is a bit flashier, and might not be the best for excitable children.
Special notes: Much like Blues Clues, Pocoyo involves children who are heard off screen answering the narrator’s questions. Actively watching along with your child, prompting them to answer questions posed by the narrator will help build language skills.

Credit: Universal Animation Studios
Credit: Universal Animation Studios

Curious George (2006-present) – Based on the children’s book series by the same name, the animated series is produced by Universal Animation Studios, Imagine Entertainment, and WGBH Boston. The show, like the books, follows George (actually an ape, not a monkey), as he explores the world he shares with the Man with the Yellow Hat. As George tries to understand the world, he experiments using the scientific method to arrive at answers to things that puzzle him. The first season was narrated by William H. Macy and subsequent seasons by Rino Romano.

Educational areas: critical thinking, problem-solving, empathy and respect building, prosocial behavior, math and reading skills
Watchability for parents: I find Curious George to be funny, entertaining, and educational. The voice acting is fantastic.
Excitement level: I can see potential excitement when George gets himself into trouble, but, for the most part, kids will be so enthralled by what’s happening on the screen they should be glued to their seats. The show does contain rapid cuts in order to convey action, but the overall content overshadows this drawback for me.
Special Notes: I wasn’t sure if I would like the animated t.v. series since I’m not a fan of the books, but I was pleasantly surprised. I love the use of the scientific method and experimentation George’s uses  to find solutions to problems. Yet, that being said, I can see kids emulating George in real life, and some of the antics George gets into can be dangerous. Making sure your children know the difference between the cartoon and reality should curb any potentially dangerous stunts. Again, I advocate actively watching with your little ones.

4-7 Years

Credit: BBC
Credit: BBC

Sarah and Duck (2013-2015) – Created by Sarah Gomes Harris and Tim O’Sullivan, and produced by Karrot Entertainment for the BBC, this understated and sweet animated series follows Sarah, a 7 year old girl, and her best friend Duck, a mallard. Together they set out on simple and imaginative adventures while exploring the kooky little town they call home and the interesting characters they find there. Narrated by Roger Allam, most notable for his career in theater.

Educational areas: critical thinking, problem solving, empathy and respect building, importance of friendship, creative play
Watchability for parents: I find this to be a wonderfully drawn and voice acted show. Nothing about it grates on my nerves. Plus I love ducks.
Excitement level: very low – one of the reasons I love Sarah and Duck is its mellow atmosphere. Perfect for winding down after a busy day.

Credit: Hasbro Studios
Credit: Hasbro Studios

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (2010-2014) – Around since the 1980s, this reboot was overhauled by Lauren Faust who breathed new life into the My Little Pony brand. The show follows six archetypal characters as they navigate friendship, outside obstacles, and insecurities.

Educational areas: critical thinking, problem solving, empathy and respect building, prosocial behavior, importance of friendship
Watchability for parents: I’m a cartoon lover at heart, and My Little Ponies was a cherished childhood toy, so naturally I love the show. I love the message of forgiveness, friendship, acceptance, and fun. Being a musical theater nerd, I’m also a huge fan of Danial Ingram’s original songs written for the show.
Excitement level: low to medium – some of the characters are more excitable than others (Pinky Pie), but the rest of the cast tends to balance everything out.
Special Notes: This is a great show to chat with your children about, especially if they are already in school and interacting with other children. It has such a wonderful message, and can be a great conversation starter about so many interpersonal issues kids face growing up.

Credit: PBS Kids
Credit: PBS Kids

Dinosaur Train (2009-2013) – Most preschoolers love dinosaurs and trains, so why not combine the two? This is exactly what producers The Jim Henson Company did. Dinosaur Train follows a family of Pteranodons and their adoptive son Buddy, as they travel millions of years through time on the Dinosaur Train. The mission is a simple one: find out what type of dinosaur Buddy is, and learn as much as they can about their scaly brethren.

Educational areas: life science, natural history, paleontology, science vocabulary, promotes curiosity about the natural world, stimulates discovery and investigation
Watchability for parents: If you like science, history, and dinosaurs, you are gonna love Dinosaur Train. While Odin is still to young to understand or appreciate this fantastically educational show, I hold onto the hope that one day it will replace Pocoyo as the go to show when I need to make dinner.
Excitement level: low – this is a very mellow show, especially if your kids is enthralled with dinosaurs and or trains.
Special Notes: I have always had a love for the sciences, so this gem is a keeper in my book, and I look forward to watching it with Odin when he’s older.

All Ages

Credit: PBS
Credit: PBS

Sesame Street (1966-present) – The thought child of Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, Sesame Street came to life through a study conducted by the Carnegie Corporation to see if television could be used as an educational tool to help prepare young children for school. Two years later, Jim Henson and his Muppets joined the show, turning Sesame Street into the iconic program we know today. The 40 plus years this pioneering piece of educational programming  has been on the air is an testament to its educational content. Kids enjoy Sesame Street just as much today as they did when it first aired on PBS in 1966.

Educational areas: early literacy skills, early numeracy skills, critical thinking, problem solving, empathy and respect building, prosocial behavior, creative play
Watchability for parents: I find both the human characters and “monsters” to be likable and endearing. Many are recognizable from our childhood with a few exceptions; Cookie Monster now eats more than cookies, Oscar is green instead of orange, and Snuffy is no longer Big Bird’s imaginary friend. The musical guests and interludes are a personal favorite.
Excitement level: At times, Sesame Street can be a bit in your face, fast paced, and very bouncy bouncy for kids, so if your child is particularly excitable, just know that scenes are short, and the next bit will probably bring the tempo down.
Special notes: If a full episode intimidates you, they run about an hour, you can try the official Sesame Street YouTube channel. Here you can find clips and music videos spanning most of the show’s run making it easy to pick and choose what you want to watch, and even create playlists of your favorites pieces.

Credit: HIT Entertainment
Credit: HIT Entertainment

Pingu (1986-2010) – Created by Otmar Gutmann, Pingu is a BAFTA award-winning British-Swiss stop-motion animated television series. Produced by Trickfilmstudio and The Pygos Group for Swiss television, the show centers around a family of penguins living in an igloo at the South Pole. The show is engaging for audiences of all ages, however the lack of regular speech (the penguins have their own language) may make it difficult for younger views to follow more complicated plots. Odin loves Pingu, and upon hearing the theme music, drops everything to watch. Because he is so young (18 months) I actively watch with him, asking questions about what the penguins are doing and explain what’s going on.

Educational areas: critical thinking, problem solving, empathy and respect building, prosocial behavior
Watchability for parents: While the penguins “talking” can get annoying at times, I find the lack of background music makes it a perfect candidate for low volumes creating a great show to actively watch with your kids or as a quiet time show.
Excitement level: low to moderate – this is a very chill show, however some of the antics Pingu gets into can cause a little excitement, but it’s short lived.
Special Notes: One of my favorite aspects of Pingu is the prosocial model it demonstrates to both kids and parents. Pingu will pull a prank, or do something without thinking, and instead of his parents yelling and causing a fuss, they help him fix the problem. I love this about this show. Parents need reminders on how to act and positively reinforce good behavior just as much as kids need to learn these skills.

Credit: Two Little Hands Productions
Credit: Two Little Hands Productions

Baby Signing Time! & Signing Time! (2006-2008) – Using a multi-sensory approach (auditory, visual, and kinesthetic), Signing Time! focuses on teaching children as young as 6 months American Sign Language (ASL). Created by sisters Emily Brown and Rachel de Azevedo Coleman after Coleman discovered her twelve month old daughter, Lea was deaf. Initially they began taping the show as a means of teaching family and friends ASL to communicate with Lea, and it took off from there. Winning several awards and nominations, the show uses original songs, animation, and children demonstrating the signs to help engage viewers, both young and old, to learn ASL.

Educational areas: American Sign Language, language development, vocabulary building, preverbal communication, promotes parent-child bonding, increased fine motor skills
Watchability for parents: Host Rachel de Azevedo Coleman not only looks like she’s having a great time, she spreads her positive attitude around your living room. She has a great voice and sings with enthusiasm without being over the top or annoying.
Excitement level: low to medium – the show can reach some high energy points with fast paced songs, plus kids are engaging their whole bodies when they repeat signs, so it can get a little hectic. However, each episode ends with a slow song, taking the tempo down for a nice calm ending.
Special Notes: Thank goodness someone had the presence of mind to teach hearing children ASL. Odin is now 18 months and says around 10 words, and only when he feels like it. As for signing, he know almost 20, and signs new ones weekly, and he’s not the only one learning. I have under my belt about 75 words I use when I’m talking to him. I wish I had taken ASL in college instead of French. I’m finding it way more useful and fun.

Credit: Viacom, 2009
Credit: Viacom, 2009

Ni Hoa Kai-Lan (2007-2009) – Based on creator’s Karen Chau upbringing in a Chinese-American household, Ni Hoa Kai-Lan follows 7 year old Kai-Lan and her adorable anthropomorphic animal friends as they go on imaginative adventures, learn how to be better friends, teach viewers about Chinese culture, and a little Mandarin along the way. Ni Hoa Kai-Lan was nominated for an Emmy in 2010.

Educational areas: prosocial behavior, critical thinking, problem solving, empathy and respect building, imaginative play, Chinese culture, Mandarin language
Watchability for parents: I can’t stand Dora the Explorer. There I said it. It’s not that I’m opposed the show completely. I just can’t stand that stupid map. It’s so irritating! I find none of that in hereKai-Lan is a sweet, endearing show about the importance to patience, friendship, respect, and valuing yourself and others. Getting to learn about Chinese culture and Mandarin on top of all that puts it way above Dora in my opinion.
Excitement level: low – this is a very slow paced show with colorful animation, and long camera holds.
Special Notes: Even though the show is geared for preschoolers, I’m placing it in All Ages because of its content and language aspects. Studies have shown that introducing your child to a foreign language before the age of 5 allows them to build critical pathways that are lost in later life.

That’s my ten cents on children’s programming for what it’s worth. Children are going to like what they like, and there’s really nothing we as parents can do about that. Yet, I figure culling the herd of inane and superficial shows I personally find unredeamable, and giving Odin the choice of a few to watch I that fulfill my above criteria is better than giving him free rein of the airwaves.

Cynthia Varady

Cynthia Varady

Cynthia Varady is an award-winning freelance writer and co-owner of the book review website, DuelingLibrarians.net. She currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and son. Cynthia has her BA in English Literature from Sonoma State University, and her Masters in Library and Information Science from San Jose State University. Occasionally, Cynthia can be found voicing characters in casual video games, including Stella in the Aveyond series. She is presently working on a young adult fantasy novel.

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