Parents, these are tough times. Not only are you likely (hopefully) working at home right now in an attempt to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, but you’ve also probably become an unexpected teacher, tracking your kids’ homework and praying they maintain their brainpower while “sheltering in place.” We’re all about Gravity Falls marathons, but it would be nice if our kids were able to absorb some knowledge during these uncertain weeks that isn’t Mystery Shack-related. And honestly, it wouldn’t kill us grown-ups to learn something new either.
Just in case you’re not already adept at drafting color-coded grade-school curricula, we’ve pulled together a few series available on streaming that can expand you and your kids’ purviews. Whether it’s exploring their country’s ancient history or letting them find out if their parents are actually as dumb as they suspect, we have a wide variety of programs to fill in some hours.
Some outlets are already ahead of the curve: Nickelodeon just announced the launch of #KidsTogether, “a global, multiplatform prosocial initiative using its most popular characters and talent to engage with kids and families on tips for staying healthy and also ideas for activities to do together while in the home.” The network is also making its pre-K arm, Noggin, free for the next 60 days, so that kids can enjoy popular shows like Bubble Guppies, Paw Patrol, and Blue’s Clues & You! Washington state’s PBS station, WETA, has a “Stuck At Home Survival Guide,” which contains activities and advice for how to talk to kids about the virus. PBS has compiled a collection of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood videos and resources, like a video about a germ-fighting superhero. (When in doubt, turn on PBS.) And Amazon just announced that it’s making a bunch of shows that were formerly only available to Prime members free for everyone, including original series like Pete The Cat, Costume Quest, Tumble Leaf, Bug Diaries, and Creative Galaxy, as well as some seasons of PBS shows like Arthur, Odd Squad, and the delightful Peg+Cat.
If there are educational series not listed below that you would like to suggest, please do so in the comments. Like we said, we’re all learning.
This beyond-picturesque series, produced in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund, uses the silken tones of Sir David Attenborough to navigate wilderness areas that were filmed over the course of four years in 50 countries across every continent. The photography is so impressive, like an issue of National Geographic come to life, that your younger kids won’t mind it isn’t animated, and older kids will hopefully appreciate the mesmerizing natural drama. This eight-episode Netflix series offers valuable windows into little-seen terrains, showing the damage of climate change on the permafrost or the amazing abundance of species prevalent in rainforests. “This is way better than a car chase, because it’s real,” commented one of my fellow viewers as a flock of seabirds went diving into an unlucky school of fish. “Oh, that’s the bird that looks like it’s been divorced three times,” offered another. (Our Planet may also inspire some hilarious in-home commentary.) And if all this glorious footage helps steer your offspring toward an eventual science major, all the better. [Gwen Ihnat]
For a brief gateway into the worlds of historical figures like Leonardo da Vinci and Amelia Earhart, younger kids (ages 6-10) may appreciate the Calvin And Hobbes-like animation of PBS Kids’ relatively new Xavier Riddle And The Secret Museum. There are shades of From The Mixed-Up Files Of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler in this 2019 series, as pals Xavier, Brad, and Yadina find a hidden laboratory in a museum that enables them to time travel, and they visit various notables like Abraham Lincoln, George Washington Carver, and Helen Keller back when they were younger. The voices can get a little cloying for adults, but its refrain—“Kids like you can change the world!”—remains valuable. And why not follow up the Dickens episode with a viewing of A Christmas Carol, or da Vinci with a look at his virtual gallery at the Louvre, or the Julia Child segment with one of her famous recipes? [Gwen Ihnat]
Availability: Check local listings for availability, or stream on PBS Kids and YouTube
Did you know that Sesame Street is a pretty effective and evergreen learning tool? Maybe that doesn’t quite register as breaking news, but when you have a 7-year-old with a developmental delay who has ostensibly moved on from Elmo, Big Bird, and the rest of the colorful block, such revisits are a welcome surprise. This month we’ve found ourselves turning to YouTube so that she can hang out with her old monster pals in between “classes.” Now, “Sesame Street play time” has turned into opportunities to build vocabulary, learn about geometric shapes, and get acquainted with the scientific method through music, which helps her retain information in ways that aren’t really possible with “traditional learning” right now. The YouTube channel also has helpful designations like “Songs,” “Shorts,” and the wormhole of “Old School.” One day I’ll have to explain that Janelle Monáe and Nick Jonas are famous musicians and not her English and math teachers, but that’s a lesson for another day. [Shannon Miller]
Availability: Check local listings for availability, or stream on YouTube
So exhausted that you just can’t make it through the alphabet one more time? Pretty sure you’ve forgotten how to count? Just put your pre-K kid in front of a few Brain Candy videos on Amazon Prime. What the alpha- and number-based videos lack in Sesame Street-level creativity, they make up for in highlighting what kids like: retina-burning colors, a cute dog, and many, many monster trucks. It’s like a board book come to life, a reliable fall back when you just want the littlest kids to focus on the basics for a bit. Eventually dump trucks show up to help with colors and prepositions are examined. It’s not one of those shows parents will be able to stand longer than a few minutes, but 3-and-up kids will likely be mesmerized. [Gwen Ihnat]
Availability: Amazon Prime
This program first ran in 1978 (with follow-up seasons in 1994 and 1997), but the grainy texture of these clips doesn’t make them any less fascinating. In Connections, host James Burke walks you through how innovation never moves in a straight line, and how things you would never believe are related are connected in some very strange examples of cause and effect. Burke will start out talking about something like malaria, move on to Galileo, and wind up having a gin and tonic in front of a telescope funded entirely by the sale of quinine. In case you get lost (probable), there’s a helpful midway wrap-up entitled “How did we get here?” Burke’s enthusiasm might spark curiosity even in the surliest teen about how the advancement of horse stirrups led to the dawn of telecommunications. While YouTube clips are spotty, fortunately this entire series has been preserved on the Internet Archive. [Gwen Ihnat]
Availability: Some clips on YouTube, full episodes at archive.org.
Yes, Jeopardy! If you forget to catch the Daily Double every day (the show is still running the episodes it filmed before its virus-related production shut-down), the classic game show is available on Netflix and can easily be turned into a screaming-match trivia contest for your own family. Because sometimes the Jeopardy! gods are kind and toss us an all-ages category like “Young Adult Novels.” And sometimes we realize that our geography knowledge has waned while our middle-schoolers’ has expanded. And some day, our kids are finally going to figure out that we’re not as smart as they think we are, and what better way to find this out than when you’re all watching the greatest-of-all-time Jeopardy! showdown between Ken Jennings and James Holzhauer? If you somehow burn through all the episodes, there are some interactive games on the Jeopardy! website; you can even play it on Alexa (including a teen version) for some valuable non-screen time. [Gwen Ihnat]
Availability: Check local listings for availability, or stream on Netflix or at jeopardy.com
Word Girl ran for several seasons on PBS Kids (2007-2015) and remains a classic for parents looking for a sneaky way to expand their kids’ vocabularies. Each Word Girl episode contains a valuable new word or two, and depicts terms like “eerie” or “disorderly” in an effective narrative that grade-schoolers are likely to remember. Word Girl’s Becky Botsford is the best kind of hero, a plucky fifth-grader with Superman-like alien powers who defeats various criminals while trying to balance her regular life with friends, family, and school. Parents will enjoy celebrity voices like H. Jon Benjamin, Kristen Schaal, and Patton Oswalt, while kids will gravitate toward Becky’s relatable plights, like getting caught up in another superhero’s bullying. Try sticking the landing by using the episode’s special words in a sentence, then asking your kids to do the same. Maybe even keep a list of words you’ve learned to add more of a sense of accomplishment to your at-home whiteboard. [Gwen Ihnat]
Availability: Check local listings, Amazon, PBSKids.org, some clips on YouTube
The flip side to Our Planet is the intriguing Night On Earth, which uses infrared technology to reveal what goes on in the deep of the jungle or at the bottom of the ocean after the sun sets. Spoiler: There’s a lot of feeding going on (the keyword at the top left of the Netflix screen is “fear”), which adds a huge dose of suspense to the nighttime images as predators like jungle cats head out in search of adorable prey. You’ll also spy a plethora of unexpected elements, like a herd of elephants strolling out to take a bath, with the heat sensitivity of the camera revealing a fernlike capillary pattern on their skin. It might be too intense for your youngest viewers, but middle-schoolers and up will be riveted. [Gwen Ihnat]
This expansive four-part docuseries premiered back in the fall of 2018, but it’s an evergreen watch. It’s a wide-ranging look at the history and culture of indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere, from South America to Mesoamerica to the banks of the Mississippi River. But Native America places just as much emphasis on the present, reminding us that the descendants of those who survived colonialism and Manifest Destiny are still finding ways to thrive. Interviews with Native American artists, scholars, and authors tap into contemporary issues as well as present-day celebrations. Producers Julianna Brannum and Gary Glassman have balanced the series’ entertaining and educational elements, including bringing the past to life with starkly beautiful animation and a propulsive score. You and your kids are bound to learn something from Native America, and all the gorgeous aerial photography will leave you feeling a little less homebound. [Danette Chavez]
Availability: Check local listings, or stream now through the free PBS portal here, or anytime at the member portal here.
Also check out some previous A.V. Club TV/streaming kids’ guides: