A couple years back, I wrote a post—one of this site’s most popular, ever—about the best TV shows for teens and ‘tweens. I had dug into the topic because it seemed that all the great children’s television was (and has always been) reserved for little kids. That remains true—almost, dare I say, maddeningly so. With Netflix, Amazon, cable, and other streaming sites constantly rotating similarly splashy looking, “enriching” tot bait, finding a great program for my Pre-K’er is like trying to pick out the best piece of hay from a haystack. I don’t even know where to look first first anymore.
I realize that homing in on “TV shows” makes me sound like a borderline Luddite. Like many of his peers who could tap and swipe before they could speak full sentences, my five-year-old will almost always pass up a TV show in favor of trying to propel Mr. Crab to the top of a perpetually rotating vertical obstacle course on the iPad. But the fact is, while the science on this subject is early and mixed, from my mom perch, I do see benefits to my kids watching “passive” television and movies rather than frenetically “interacting” with apps. Mr. Crab makes my son, well, crabby. But when he watches a good show, especially when curled up next to one of his brothers or parents, his little body seems to relax. Some days, that’s just what the situation calls for.
As when I reviewed big-kid TV, I reached out to the fantastic thinkers at Common Sense Media, my go-to site for children’s movie, TVs and game reviews, for recommendations on preschool shows that really raise the bar when it comes to unique themes or lessons. Polly Conway, TV editor for the site, shared five of her current top picks. Two are probably familiar to you; the others might be new discoveries.
Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood
Inspired by the gentlest media of our own generation, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, it’s no surprise this program is a critical darling. Kids learn social cues, citizenship lessons, and a smattering of letter and number knowledge along with the curious little tiger cub who stars in the show.
Watch it: PBS Kids
Another exemplar of getting little kids to think about social-emotional concepts, Doc also emphasizes the fun of imaginative play, the importance of caring for others, and as a bonus, good hygiene. The Common Sense Media review of the show lauds how it pokes a few subtle holes into stereotypes, with Doc’s mom away at work most of the day and dad helping out at home.
Watch it: Disney Junior
The Stinky and Dirty Show
One of a growing number of gems produced by Amazon, Stinky and Dirty “is a great new show that helps preschoolers learn teamwork and communication,” says Conway. Based on a series of books by Jim and Kate McMullan, two hard-working, fun-loving friends—a garbage truck and backhoe loader—are constantly faced with challenges they must overcome together. The animation and dialogue are first-rate.
Watch it: Amazon
“This is a fun one from Netflix that lets kids be the teachers to a group of even younger learners,” says Conway. This unique premise is inspirational to little kids who might constantly feel like they’re on the receiving end of instruction from remote grown-ups. For toddlers and younger preschoolers, there’s some real skill development to be found here; and they seem to find the baby animals, created by Jim Henson’s production company, mesmerizing to watch.
Watch it: Netflix
Also from Netflix, Conway says her personal fave is a “beautifully animated, gentle and sweet show that teaches empathy and a little environmental science.” Puffling Oona, her baby brother, and pals explore notions of friendship, family bonds, and appreciation for nature. A perfect wind-down pick.
Watch it: Netflix
For more preschool show ideas, check out Common Sense Media reviews here and here. What are your family’s top picks for shows for the preschool set? Clue us in to more ideas in the comments here or on our Facebook page.