kids and tv

10 Kids Shows That Are Actually Great

Photo: Netflix

Parents today have more control over what their children watch and enough options to do more than just filter out shows that are actively bad. What they still don’t have are the countless hours necessary to wade through the ocean of childrens’ programming for the few gems. And so we took it upon ourselves to try, applying the sensibilities of Vulture’s critics and contributors to find the best programming aimed at young children — mostly 3-to-7-year-olds, with a few notable shout-outs for older kids. (Please don’t take what follows as a recommendation to show Stranger Things to your kindergartner.) Some of these shows are good enough that you might form a shared television interest, and, at the very least, we have your next long car trip covered.

StoryBots

Where to watch: Netflix
Episode length: 25-30 minutes

In each episode of this Netflix series, the titular cartoon guide-bots answer a question posed by a real kid. Live action and cartoons are intercut with joyously non sequitur song breaks, and each episode features a guest star like Snoop Dogg or Tony Hale. My favorite one is “How do people catch a cold?” The bots start out in a doctor’s office—the doctor is played by Wanda Sykes—then journey inside a human body, where they encounter a friendly macrophage. The macrophage eats the virus, creating antigens that kick-start T-cells, which then activate B-cells to help white blood cells attack the cold virus. (Spoiler alert: If a virus gets inside your body, that’s how you catch a cold.) “Your body can defend itself / Your suffering will end with help / From an army / Of white blood cells in your body,” goes part of the oddly catchy song that concludes the episode.

Be honest: Did you know all of that? Pre-Storybots, I probably could have gotten “white blood cells” and “viruses” but definitely not all the other details. The other episodes are like that too: educational in a way that’s specific enough to be interesting no matter how old you are, unlike shows that are only interesting if you’re new to concepts like “letters” or “Grown-ups always come back.” I think the “How do airplanes fly?” episode might have taught me … rudimentary physics? —Emily Gould

Beat Bugs

Where to watch: Netflix
Episode length: 14-24 minutes

A cast of animated insects in an overgrown suburban lawn embark on adventures retrofitted to the lyrics of Beatles songs. In the tradition of 21st-century animation, the numbers are reinterpreted by celebrity musicians: Sia does “Blackbird,” Eddie Vedder does “The Magical Mystery Tour.”

Like its adult-jukebox forebears, Beat Bugs is a plotty but not particularly coherent show; the pleasure for grown-ups often lies in watching the acrobatics required to justify a narrative journey as absurd as “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Still, the bugs are adorable, the visual jokes are clever (humans are bumbling “gigants,” the bug zapper a mystical threat), and the lessons are sweet.

Creator Josh Wakely’s second jukebox show, Motown Magic, taps Sony’s thousands of Motown cuts to tell the story of an 8-year-old in inner-city Detroit who enters magical worlds through wall graffiti. It’s a touch less inventive than Beat Bugs, but wholesome and also maybe the most inclusive children’s show since Sesame Street.Boris Kachka

Great British Baking Show

Where to watch: Netflix
Episode length: 52-67 minutes

I started watching The Great British Baking Show soon after having a baby, when my brain felt too broken for anything higher stakes. There is little mention of winners or losers on the show, no monetary prize at the end, no cruelty. The judges are gentle with their criticism and sentimental with their praise; the contestants support each other. Everyone seems to cry at some point, but they are crying about a fallen cake or because their pie has a, God forbid, soggy bottom.

My son was 3 or 4 when he first sat down next to me while I was trying to covertly watch it. I remember not wanting to turn it off, then thinking, Hey! This show is wholesome. It’s about creative passion and self-belief! Focus and persistence. There’s nothing inappropriate. Maybe he can just watch it with me for as long as he will pay attention. And then: Wouldn’t it be nice if he grew up to be a baker? He could create tangible things and bring us croissants when he visits. Now invested in his interest, I started adding some of my own narration, for clarity and increased suspense. Like attention-span training wheels, I introduced the more rudely American concept of winning and losing into the show and tried to build excitement when the bakers’ time was running out. It took some training, but now that my son is 5, we are both all in. “Mom, want to watch the baking show?,” he says with big eyes, like it’s our special thing, and I think, Thank God, I really do. Meaghan O’Connell

Phineas and Ferb

Where to watch: Disney+
Episode length: 23 minutes

Eddie Rice (age 8): I can’t remember how I first learned about Phineas and Ferb. Maybe one of my friends showed it to me. But I love Phineas. He never stops talking. Yes, okay, fine — he’s sort of like me. Phineas is really cool, and I can’t believe how he manages to find all the material for his inventions. Like, you never see him buying it. Ferb doesn’t say much, but he also helps. They create inventions that should take a year, and it takes, like, only one day. Phineas and Ferb also have a pet platypus named Perry. He is actually a secret agent, flies around with a jet pack, and has a secret lab underneath their house. Perry is always fighting against his archenemy, Doctor Doofenshmirtz.

Andrew Rice (dad): The genius of the show is that the evil scientist is its moral center. Dr. Doofenshmirtz is a broad, Mel Brooks–style parody, with a comically bad German accent, and he is continually building silly contraptions with names like the “Melt-inator” and the “Poop-inator.” (After a while, the show starts referring to all his contraptions, generically, as “inators.”) But the running joke is that he is incompetent not just at science but at being evil. He often foils himself through decent acts and is insecure about his thwarted career ambitions. Doofenshmirtz, a divorced dad, longs to win the respect and affection of his too-cool teenage daughter, Vanessa, who is embarrassed by his efforts at world domination. Actually, he’s not even trying to dominate the world, just the “tristate area.”

Eddie: He’s not evil. He’s just had a tragic life.

Shaun the Sheep

Where to watch: Amazon Prime
Episode length: 20 minutes

The Venn diagram of shows that will appeal to both toddlers and grade-school elementary kids is very, very small. The number of shows that can do those things and also be legitimately endearing for parents? Essentially nil. The one exception I’ve found is a show called Shaun the Sheep, an animated series from the same company that made the Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run.

For toddlers, Shaun the Sheep works because of its simplicity and brevity. Stories are only five to seven minutes each (Amazon Prime collects them into 20-minute episodes), and because the show is nearly wordless, the narrative plays out in big, silly, visual ways. For older kids, Shaun is a font of humor, often playing on small-scale dramatic ironies and big broad payoffs — there’s a lot of generous slapstick, and the stakes stay pretty low. The thing I can’t get over is how well Shaun works for me, too. Some of it is the animation style, a witty claymation aesthetic that feels artful, textural, and personal. But most of it is just how sly it all feels, without ever sliding into being patronizing or mean. I hope my kids want to watch it forever. So far, so good. —Kathryn VanArendonk

Stranger Things

Where to watch: Netflix
Episode length: 42-77 minutes

The year my son was in fourth grade, it seemed like everyone in his class had seen Stranger Things, a show about kids being actively terrorized by otherworldly creatures. This was not true. But like all matters in which peer pressure is tangentially involved, it felt true. When he came home and asked if he could watch, I did what parents and caregivers do more often than they’re willing to admit: I made an impulsive decision. I told him yes, but we would watch together, and if he felt scared or nervous at any time, we could turn it off.

He never got scared. In fact, he was so engaged in the story that he wanted to keep going. For a kid more attracted to YouTube videos and Disney Channel sitcoms than movies or long novels, this felt like a breakthrough. My son was 10 at the time. If I had gone by the Common Sense Media guidelines, he might not have experienced that joy of being sucked into a story.

Does that mean that Stranger Things can be viewed by any child once they’ve hit their 10th birthday? It does not. Even when we put in the time to understand the contours of our kids’ fears, sometimes we still can’t anticipate what’s going to scare them. But it’s also not realistic to think we can build a force field around our kids that will shield them from all potential disturbing imagery. At some point, they’re going to get scared by something, and the most responsible thing we can do as parents is give them the tools to cope with that when it happens. My son is 12 now, and the last thing he would ever do is reach for my hand if he got scared. But I like to think that the knowledge that he still could makes it easier for him to deal with the Upside Down, on TV and in the real world. —Jen Chaney

Octonauts

Where to watch: Netflix
Episode length: Two 12-minute segments per episode

Octonauts is explicitly educational. Captain Barnacles (a bear) and his team of underwater explorers complete missions to help unusual sea creatures, and each segment features some idiosyncratic aquatic animal. Your children will know all the details about yellow-bellied sea snakes that you barely skimmed on the last trip to the aquarium.

Where Octonauts wins out over all the watch-alike animal-adventure shows, though, is its charming imagery and its heart-first emotional buy-in. Barnacles is the leader, Kwazii is the reckless humorist, and the Vegimals are peanut gallery, but the real heart of the show belongs to Peso the Penguin, the show’s sweet medical tech. He’s so anxious for the humpback whale with no family. He’s so overjoyed when an animal is healed. Problems are surmountable, as they always are, but Octonauts gives kids enough credit to let those problems feel real before fixing them. Plus, and this is no small thing: Its closing musical number absolutely slaps. —Kathryn VanArendonk

The Simpsons

Where to watch: Disney+
Episode length: 23 minutes

I studied The Simpsons in high school like it was a religious text. The mix of high and low, the dense layering, informed my own sense of humor. My son’s indoctrination began when he was 6, with the episode in season eight when Lisa tries to babysit Bart. Admittedly, he was too young for most of it. The B-plot about Springfield’s new outdoor mall for yuppies was lost on him, except for the part where Homer accidentally wanders into the fountain. But he loved when Rod and Todd Flanders were afraid of the moth and when Ralph Wiggum put his pants on his arms and said, “I dress myself!” (Both scenes I think about regularly, now that I’m a mom who has to fend off bug attacks and explain how pants work.) And he got emotionally invested in the plot, cheering for Bart but feeling for Lisa. Maybe it’s a little self-involved to try to make him love the things I love. But watching my son take pleasure in watching this thing that has given me so much pleasure was, in the recursive loop that is parenting, a pleasure in itself. —Izzy Grinspan

How It’s Made

Where to watch: YouTube
Episode length: 4-5 minutes

This is a cheater’s recommendation; How It’s Made was originally a TV show, and it bears little resemblance to native YouTube content. For kids with an engineering bent, though, kids who long to understand how the pipes work in their homes and who mutter “Now we remove the excess” to themselves after carefully pressing Play-Doh into a mold, short segments from How It’s Made are catnip. Watching doughnuts be extruded onto conveyor belts, watching gloriously identical groups of sharpened pencils slide off the assembly line—it’s informative, sure, but it’s also incredibly soothing. How It’s Made and the wide world of similar YouTube clips are also an essentially endless resource. Breath mints, rubber bands, LEGOs, balloons, canned soup. You’ll never look at mundane consumer products the same way again. —Kathryn VanArendonk

Peep and the Big Wide World

Where to watch: Amazon Prime
Episode length: Two 12-minute segments per episode

What Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is to social-emotional learning, Peep and the Great Wide World is to ecology. Peep, a good-natured chick, and Quack, a grumpy duck, as well as other onomatopoeically named friends, overcome gentle obstacles induced in part by their general failure to understand the natural world (a real deficit if you’re a bunch of birds). In one, they find a tasty-looking piece of bread that they save for later, only to discover when they return that it’s moldy, which is bad for them but good for their ant friends. But where Daniel Tiger is a visual and auditory irritant, Peep’s world is delightfully quirky and genuinely funny, in no small part because Joan Cusak provides voice-over commentary. The visual style is graphic and minimal—legs are sticks, bodies are basically balls — and Quack’s curmudgeonly disposition provides just the right amount of vinegar, which may be why, long after my daughter has moved out of the neighborhood of make-believe, she’s still entertained by Peep. —Genevieve Smith

*A version of this article appears in the December 23, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

10 Kids Shows That Are Actually Great