Navigating Netflix’s ever-expanding television library in search of a show your kids will not only enjoy, but benefit from can be a daunting task. After fiddling with strategic search phrases and trying to decode hyper-specific categories like “coming-of-age animal tales” or “race against time”, you’re likely to grow flustered and succumb to the whines and whims of your impatient little one. Before you know it, the latest movie mega-franchise hero is prancing around your screen in LEGO form and your child is checked out. It’s not that we’re inherently against shows like LEGO Jurassic World: The Indominus Escapes, we just want you to make the most of your kids’ precious screen time.
We looked at a few ingredients for shows your kids will find nutritious and delicious. First off, a great children’s show should be intellectually nutritional. Kids are walking sponges and every content interaction is an opportunity to expand their understanding of our world. Because there is so much drek out there designed to sell us another branded piece of plastic, sniffing out integrity can be challenging, too. Lastly, a great kids’ series should avoid risqué themes, that way you don’t have to worry about having conversations you’re not ready to have. Sex-ed is better left to the parents, right? (There’s no stopping our little flower buds from blooming eventually, so until then let’s keep it clean, right?)
We sifted through reams of kids’ titles on the world’s fastest growing streaming platform to bring you, in age-appropriate order, starting at around 3-years-old and ending in the tweens.
15. Super WHY! (3+)
Super WHY! is remarkable for whipping up a perfect stew of reading comprehension, research skills, problem solving and literary revisionism in a hyper-formulaic format. Every episode features a “super big problem” faced by four diverse friends (one’s a pig) from Storybrook Village who “look… in a book!” to solve it. They’re transported into the story and must change the narrative to overcome obstacles using their budding literacy skills. Then things get really neat. They’re rewarded sparkly letters for each vanquished hurdle that are ultimately thrown into the Super Duper Computer to spell out a solution to said problem.
14. Sofia the First (3+)
Picking up where the Disney Channel movie left off, Sofia the First follows a courageous and determined young girl whose recently discovered she’s royalty. While describing it as The Princess Diaries for toddlers wouldn’t be inaccurate, it would shortchange this affirmative, character-building show. Sophia learns and relearns that being a princess means caring for others, developing principles and taking responsibility. The show also serves as a healthy gateway drug to other Disney darlings via cute cameos by the who’s who of princesses. Jasmine, Cinderella, Ariel, Belle and Aurora, whose movies may still be too edgy for your little one, all make an appearance.
13. Charlie’s Colorforms City (3+)
In what might be the longest gestating toy-to-screen adaptation since the Ouija Board, the iconic Colorforms toys that debuted in the early ’50s and developed into a toy category all their own have inspired Charlie’s Colorforms City, a show geared towards early childhood development with a refreshingly organic integration of the classic vinyl clingers. Charlie, cleverly depicted as an anthropomorphized Colorforms logo, is a boy that utilizes his world of simple interchangeable shapes to solve life’s little problems by slapping them together to build what he needs. Whether that’s a rocket ship to deliver his birthday invitations or a rainbow-colored afro to make a baby giggle, Charlie teaches us that with a little brainstorming and a lot of imagination you can materialize any idea, no matter how hare-brained it may be.
12. PJ Masks (4+)
With superheroes having all but conquered American pop culture over the last decade or so, it was only a matter of time before we started marketing capes and tights to toddlers. The catchphrase-heavy PJ Masks follows a trio of friends that fight crime in their animal-themed jammies come nighttime. Because the show skews so young, the stakes are kept hilariously low with the recurring troupe of villains generally out to just ruin people’s days. When “Greg becomes Gekko, Connor becomes Catboy, and Amaya becomes Owlette” to foil the annoying schemes of scientist Romeo or Luna Girl, who’s really into moths, we’re treated to surprisingly poignant lessons on true friendship and the need for cooperation.
11. The Magic School Bus Rides Again (5+)
When The Magic School Bus first rolled through the grey box in our living room 25 years ago to the sweet sounds of Little Richard’s opening theme song, we exalted at the highlight of our elementary school storytime coming to life. Now you can relive the magic with your own kids and the Friz’s little sister Fiona at the wheel, voiced by Kate McKinnon. Everything special about the original is still intact, with delightful guest stars and zany field trips through the microscopic, galactic, Cretaceous and mostly overlooked parts of our time-space continuum providing a solid STEM overview for any age group. Plus, this time around Lin-Manuel Miranda serenades us through the opening titles. Seat belts, everyone!
10. Free Reign (6+)
Reminding us that Brits will always be more elegant and easier on the ears than Americans, Free Reign transplants the high-spirited Zoe, one of television’s strongest teenage role-models, from Los Angeles to the coast of England on a visit to her lovely mother’s ranch for the summer. In a nod to The Horse Whisperer, Zoe demonstrates the importance of heartfelt communication as she bonds with her majestic new steed Raven and grows closer with mom and grandpappy. Now in its third season, the show teaches us that spending time with parents and extended family can actually be enjoyable. It’s a double win if your kid is a horse lover, as there’s plenty of posh equine action to hold them over between the drama and class issues thrown at Zoe.
9. Brainchild (7+)
Simply put, Brainchild is Bill Nye for Gen-Y. An energetic young host walks us through the fundamental but no less fascinating building blocks of scientific thought using SNL-style sets, CGI, her magician friend and a puppet that took a wrong turn off Sesame Street. While the show places brain-racking questions we’ve all asked but have no answers to front and center (just how big is the universe?), the best thing about Brainchild might be in its subtext. Two out of the three co-hosts are young ladies and many of the scientific explorations veer into their social implications, such as self-esteem and positive identity that are so important to the tween set.
8. Project Mc2 (7+)
Project Mc2 is a stereotype-busting, STEM field boosting series that’s best summed up with a pilot-episode exchange describing its leading lady: “McKayla, that girl is definitely IAWATST” “Yeah, she is interesting and weird at the same time…” McKayla and her three teen girlfriends, each whizzes in their respective fields of physics, programming, and chemistry, are recruited by NVO8 – that’s pronounced “innovate” – a shadow organization of all-female secret agents. In this campy but self-aware show, it turns out girls really do run the world and they’re charged with protecting it using their brains and creative prowess. It’s a sorely needed message for any young lady finding her place in all this while trying to enjoy the ride – as new NVO8 agent Devon D’Marco says, “I’m putting the art, in smart.”
7. The Worst Witch (8+)
Based on an iconic British book series of the same name, and starring awkward Mildred Hubble, the action takes place in a boarding school complete with broom flights, and mischief. Student-professor tensions didn’t hurt its appeal. The Worst Witch is a lighthearted adventure soap set in Cackle Academy that’ll give schoolchildren with a flair for the occult a colorful mix of fringe role models and grand setpieces. As the show’s budding witches grasp at their newfound powers and navigate the complexities of pre-teen life, your kids will laugh and cry alongside Mildred’s missteps.
6. The Who Was? Show (8+)
Since 2002, the Who Was…? book series has effectively chronicled the life of every notable historical figure and their oversized head for students across the country whose elementary schools must have blocked phone reception. The television adaptation goes above and beyond Wikipedia, retaining the educational and celebratory vibe of the books but departing in deliciously campy ways. Part sketch-show, part animated-musical, the show has assembled an impressive roster of bright young performers who leave plenty of room to poke fun at the personalities behind their bulbous effigy while framing their historical achievements in straightforward, and pretty darn catchy tunes.
5. Total Drama (10+)
Piggybacking on the guilty pleasure of hate-watching mindless reality shows is Total Drama, an animated series of faux competition shows that nails the absurd trials and cringeworthy personalities that make it onto and are ultimately voted off these programs. Older kids whom you’ve regrettably allowed to watch reality TV will appreciate the concept, otherwise, the jokes might go over their heads. While it’s hard to make a compelling case for Total Drama as educational or values-oriented in any overt or earnest way, its power as a safe and savvy introduction to satire for the sophisticated little guy or gal with an edgier sensibility is unmatched.
4. Nailed It! (10+)
Nailed It! is sort of a second-wave reality show that teaches kids (and adults for that matter) to laugh in the face of failure by pitting amateur bakers against one another in an attempt to recreate dazzling confectionary under a ticking clock. The results are horrific desserts that resemble a Salvador Dali painting more than a cake you’d ever want to eat, but the hosts and contestants are all in on the joke, which relieves the pressure and demonstrates the fun inherent to any creative endeavor.
3. Fuller House (10+)
Hands down, Fuller House wins the award for most-nostalgic series reboot on Netflix. Picking up in real time, DJ Tanner has effectively taken over Bob Saget’s position as matriarch of the house all-too-often confused for one of San Francisco’s iconic Painted Ladies. A widowed veterinarian with three kids of her own (boys, this time), Deej lives with her sister Stephanie and of course Kimmy Gibler, who’s now a party planner but still silly as ever. If nostalgia alone won’t do it for you, the show is remarkable for its over-the-top corniness that will get your child thinking about how important a healthy family dynamic really is. Sadly, the Olsen Twins are nowhere to be found.
2. The Hollow (11+)
So your kid is a hair too young for Stranger Things, way too young for Hunger Games and out of the goodness of your heart, you’ll spare them the 90-hour tease that is Lost. You’ll find a smart, animated combination of all these things in The Hollow, a series that plays with genre conventions and follows Kai, Mira and Adam once they wake up in a bizarre and dangerous world. Everything in it seems to want them dead in the strangest ways and may or may not even be real. The trio is forced to solve difficult puzzles that test their character, wits and stamina for a chance at survival and encounter peculiar characters like the “Weird Guy” and a talking tree, who guide them and the first season towards a smarter conclusion than you may expect.
1. A Series of Unfortunate Events (12+)
This somewhat macabre adaptation of the beloved book series and movie is best viewed together with your older kids. A Series of Unfortunate Events tackles death, determination, and happiness in a highly stylized, sophisticated production that offers a visual feast with downright impressive performances and the layered mystery of the Baudelaire orphans’ family history that unfolds patiently in step with its complex characters. Neil Patrick Harris steals the show as the miserly and conniving Count Olaf, and the black comedy peppered into its adult themes allows it to serve as a lesson on keeping perspective in the most trying of circumstances.