American history and civics can be, to put it kindly, not always the most interesting of subjects to kids, even on TV. As important as these topics are, it’s sometimes difficult for a show to make the argument that a kid should care about events that happened centuries ago, or how the divisions of government work. And the electoral college? Forget about it. That might be because too few shows try to package these dry topics in engaging, creative ways, or try to impart them through regular genre programming. Fortunately, these episodes of popular shows do just that so well that some are destined to be staples of Elementary School classrooms for years to come. Here are the eight best episodes that tackle the complexities of teaching about America.
The Proud Family – “I Had a Dream”
While researching a report on black history, a topic she finds boring, Penny Proud gets swept up by a tornado and finds herself sent back in time to 1955 America. Confused, she heads to school, where’s she’s confronted with the harsh realities of Jim Crow-era segregation. To her shock she finds that the school relegates black students to the back of the classroom and doesn’t teach any lessons in black history. After returning to her own time period, Penny closes the episode by reciting part of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Animaniacs – Episode 75
Episode 75 is better known as the episode featuring “The Presidents Song,” a rollicking rundown of every Commander in Chief from George Washington to Bill Clinton, complete with miscellaneous historical tidbits like Grover Cleveland’s weight. The episode goes on to feature a segment in which Pinky and the Brain learn about the Declaration of Independence, and a recreation of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride” starring the Animaniacs.
Rugrats – “Discover America”
Tommy’s grandparents return home from a trip across America and show the babies slides of their adventures. Confused by the idea that the grandparents were trying to “find America,” the babies jump on their very own Reptar tour bus to go a on cross-country road trip in the backyard. Along the way they “visit” the Grand Canyon and learn how diverse America’s geography can be.
Schoolhouse Rock – “I’m Just a Bill”
Schoolhouse Rock tackled a variety of patriotic topics in its “America Rock” season, everything from the Revolutionary War to immigration. But arguably no single Schoolhouse Rock episode has had as wide and profound an impact as “I’m Just a Bill,” a musical deep dive into America’s complex process of a bill becoming law. It’s an easy-to-digest take on a subject that even adults struggle to fully understand, and it’ll likely remain a staple of educational entertainment for decades to come.
Sesame Street – Episode 4311
“Elmo the Musical” was ongoing Sesame Street segment in which Elmo imagined himself in various fanciful professions. In Episode 4311, Elmo is elected President of the United States, becoming the first monster to command the White House, which he promptly renames the “Red House.” Elmo soon discovers that being in charge isn’t all fun and games when he has to deal with a crisis facing the whole nation. It’s Sesame Street, so the segment lacks the intense minutiae of real-world politics, but Elmo’s experience teaches an important lesson that leading the government doesn’t just mean being top dog – it means serious responsibility.
Liberty’s Kids – “We the People”
Let’s face it: when it comes to learning at a young age about our nation’s founding, all the document writing stuff isn’t nearly as cool as the war stuff. Liberty’s Kids explored a variety of monumental moments in the American Revolution, but it deserves serious credit for using a whole episode to turn the U.S. Constitution into a digestible set of principles for kids. “We the People” is a 20-minute crash-course not just on the difficult process of writing of the document, but the reasoning behind it. Plus, Walter Cronkite voices Benjamin Franklin.
Static Shock – “Sons of the Fathers”
Kids WB’s Static Shock never shied away from tackling difficult, real-world topics as a superhero show, notably including an episode about gun violence. “Sons of the Fathers” deals with a wholly different beast: racism. Specifically, how racism can seem so stubbornly entrenched in older generations, and how hard that can be to address. The episode is implicitly about the responsibility and burden of calling out “everyday” racism in America, and the hopeful rectification of prejudice.
Peanuts – “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving”
What does Thanksgiving mean? It’s a question this classic Peanuts special tries to answer in its typical whimsical manner. Charlie’s attempt to host a memorable Thanksgiving dinner for Peppermint Patty touches on the importance of good food and even portrays a sanitized recreation of the First Thanksgiving in 1621. But, ultimately, the episode gets to the heart of what makes American holidays special: the company of friends. And, yes, good food.