If you’re skittish about getting your toddlers addicted to new TV shows or cartoons, we get it. Any parent who has binged the best TV shows on Netflix knows that good TV can be a many-edged sword. Really great TV can be entertaining and enriching, but because toddlers are just starting to understand the real world, introducing them to the pretend world of TV can be tricky. So, selecting a good TV show for your kid that may end up being their first TV show is actually a bigger deal than you think.
“The main key, as in all parenting, is to know your kid,” says Marie-Louise Mares professor in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Some kids are pretty easily scared, others really love excitement, some adore anything to do with trucks, others are crazy about puppies.”
Besides individual preferences, children generally learn best from short, clear visual demonstrations rather than lots of talking or singing. And make sure you’re there to help them make sense of it all. “Young children often seem to have a hard time grasping that TV content actually applies to the real world. So parents can really help them by pointing out connections — ‘That’s just like you and Timmy!’ — or asking the kid to make connections.” Here are some options that check all the boxes.
This is a gem hiding in plain sight. Were you aware there is a relatively brand-new children’s cartoon in which each episode is based on a Beatles song? Yeah, we didn’t figure this out until very recently either. Since 2018, the series Beat Bugs has been chronicling the adventures of some very musical bugs who live in a specific backyard. Every episode starts with “All You Need Is Love,” but each story will revolve around one song written by the Fabs. For example, the first episode is called “Help!” and it’s about one of the Beat Bugs getting trapped inside a glass jar. Sometimes big celebrities do the Beatles covers which includes big names from Rod Stewart to Pink. Really!
Not every Beatles cover on the show is great, but in a world where so much kids’ music is the worst, the Beat Bugs, at least, have good taste.
Tumble Leaf (Amazon Prime)
Tumble Leaf is one of the most gentle shows on this list. It’s also a show in which the characters aren’t constantly complaining or getting hurt or freaking out. Of all the shows on this list, Tumble Leaf is one of the few that really is about exploration. The animation style is partially stop-motion, so it has a kind of old-school vibe. Imagine Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, but actually made for kids and a little weirder. Nothing really makes sense in Tumble Leaf, but the message is one of patience and exuberance. The main character, a blue fox named Fig, has a pretty great catchphrase: “Let me figure this out.” Figuring things out with patience and beauty is a rare thing with kids’ shows. Tumble Leaf actually has both.
Pete the Cat (Amazon Prime)
Based on a book series by Kimberly and James Dean, the TV version of Pete the Cat differs from the source material insofar as it’s a little more specific. It’s also a show that tries to indoctrinate children with having good taste in music. Seriously, the songs Pete and his friends sing about the various things they deal with are catchy and well-written. That’s probably because actual musicians Elvis Costello and Diana Krall are involved, and play the voices of Pete’s mom and dad. A lot of kids shows claim to “rock.” This one actually does and, best of all, it’s not annoying.
Octonauts straight-up kicks ass. Imagine a mash-up between classic Star Trek and The Life Aquatic, only it’s all animals who live on an underwater station. This is, perhaps, the only toddler cartoon that can also be called a bonafide adventure series. The music feels like the score to the Incredibles and the constant sea creature dilemmas are legitimately cool. Best of all, each episode ends with a “creature report,” where you learn that the sea animal encounter by the crew was actually real, and you learned some cool facts about it. Like, for example, did you know there was such a thing as an immortal jellyfish? Me neither. The Octonauts also get points for having a tight wordless theme song that could easily fit in a Bond movie.
Puffin Rock (Netflix)
Want to watch a relaxing show about puffins doing cute things while the whole story is narrated by Chris O’Dowd, who, if we’re being honest, sounds a little drunk? Puffin Rock isn’t the most overtly perfect toddler show of all time, but it does have a pygmy shrew named Mossy, who is doing his best to normalize farting. That fact, combined with the soothing tenor of Chris O’Dowd’s voice is enough to make this one a huge winner.
Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood (PBS, Amazon Prime)
You’ve heard of this one.
A hugely popular re-imagination of the classic Mr. Rogers characters, the key to the impact of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is the constant repetition of lessons learned in the form of jingles. Whether Daniel — the toddler son of the original series’ tiger puppet — is learning to deal with feelings of jealousy or sadness, adapting to the arrival of a little sister, or finding value in sharing, the straightforward stories allow constant repetition of songs in an effort to help toddlers remember behavioral cues without downplaying the big feelings they’re experiencing. Daniel also often doesn’t wear pants, but there’s a good reason for that.
Word Party (Netflix)
A collaboration between Netflix and the Jim Henson Company, Word Party’s aim is to help young children expand their vocabulary. Short and sweet, the TV show follows a group of diaper-clad baby animals as they learn new words, frequently turning to the audience — the “big kids,” as they call viewers — to help them learn what words mean and how to use them. It’s cute, quick, and easily digestible for toddlers.
Dinosaur Train (PBS Kids, Amazon Prime)
Another Jim Henson Company treasure, Dinosaur Train is required viewing for children who love dinosaurs — in other words, most toddlers and kids. The program follows a family of Pteranodons and their adopted T-Rex sibling as they board a train to visit a different species of dinosaur each episode, learning about their diets, behavior, and more. Each episode is paired with a short segment further exploring real-life science with a live-action paleontologist. The laser focus on species makes each episode a lesson unto itself, especially given the show’s focus on lesser-known beasts.
Doc McStuffins (Disney+)
This long-running series takes place in the imagination of Doc, who spends her days helping mend her sick toys, allowing children an analog for real-life illness as well as emotional hurdles they might encounter. Each episode includes a “check up” sequence where Doc uses clues around her to make a diagnosis and eventually teaches her toy friends not only how to mend themselves, but how to deal with their problems and prevent future trouble.
Bookaboo (Amazon Prime)
A relatively recent addition to Amazon’s growing children’s library, Bookaboo centers on an aloof dog puppet who happens to be the world’s greatest drummer. Trouble is, he has to read a book before he performs. Cue a steady stream of celebrities — actor Michael Sheen, singer Paula Abdul, astronaut Chris Hadfield — who sit down to read with the excited puppet, sending him into a frenzy and running for his drums. It’s essentially an episode-length version of Reading Rainbow’s old story times, and one you can feel good about watching: For each episode produced, the TV show’s producers donate 1,000 books to those in need.
A show for toddlers focused on the pure, freeing power of a child’s imagination, Kazoops! follows the make-believe adventures of Monty and his best friend, an adorably cuddly pig named Jimmy Jones. Though not as overtly educational as some of the programs on this list, Kazoops! excels in its celebration of the imagination, and the real-world prompts that send the hero’s mind soaring in new directions offer ample fodder for further exploration. The kindle-rock soundtrack that accompanies each episode is guaranteed a place on most families’ playlists.
Sesame Street (PBS Kids, HBO Max)
Yes, it’s the most obvious entry on the list. But there’s a good reason: Sesame Street has been the gold standard for children’s entertainment ever since it debuted in 1969, and the show owes much of its longevity to its ability to change with the times. From the introduction of new animation techniques and musical genres to featuring characters on the autism spectrum, Sesame Street remains grounded in the zeitgeist — and it’s still plenty enjoyable for adults. For those still crying foul that it now airs new episodes on HBO, fear not: PBS still has the entire back catalog, with new episodes debuting nine months after their HBO premieres. It seems like a long time to wait for the latest “Cookie’s Crumby Pictures” parody, but it’s worth it.
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