The best documentaries for kids entertain, teach, captivate, and hopefully generate a lasting interest in their subject matter. In short, they offer a lot of what little children require. When it comes to finding top documentaries for children, there’s no lack of options. The best ones, however, encourage the pursuit of further knowledge.
“The power of a great documentary is its ability to connect viewers with new ideas and subject matter, and especially to help audiences develop empathy and insight into unfamiliar topics, such as science, social movements, or history,” says Jeff McCarter, founder of Free Spirit Media, which provides Chicago’s communities of color opportunities to explore nonfiction filmmaking.
The documentaries in this list cover a wide swath of interests for kids 10 and younger, from wild animals to girl power. Furthermore, they provide a jumping-off point to a world of knowledge and experience.
Walking with Dinosaurs (1999)
This six-part BBC series gives the Mesozoic Era the nature documentary treatment, complete with computer-generated recreations of dinosaur behavior and narration by Sir Kenneth Branagh. The dramatic recreations do include some of the requisite mayhem (re: eating) and some of the information has been proven outdated in the intervening two decades. But in terms of educational content for kids who love dinosaurs, it’s hard to beat.
Further viewing: PBS’s Nature has a ton of dino-related shows focused on dinosaur archaeology, among them “Raising the Dinosaur Giant,” which explores the unearthing of ancient of ancient giants.
March of the Penguins (2005)
Narrated by the one and only Morgan Freeman, this blockbuster documentary for kids follows a flock of emperor penguins as they leave their oceanic habitat to march across the Antarctic tundra. The imagery is stunning, the penguins adorable, and the story one that will help children understand animal behavior. That said, while it’s relatively tame, some of the penguins meet their demise on the journey, which might force a conversation about mortality. Overall, though, it’s a breathtaking example of feature-length documentary storytelling.
Further viewing: The BBC’s “Frozen Planet” series further explores life in the tundra, with equally stunning cinematography.
Girls Rock! (2007)
Portland, Oregon’s Rock ’n’ Roll Camp for Girls is a storied Pacific Northwest institution where rockers train young girls in the fine art of shredding on stage. This fist-pumping documentary for kids follows four initially shy young ladies through their time camp. Feelings are laid bare throughout, but as the film unfolds, the girls — and the viewers — experience increased self-esteem via the encouragement of adults. By the time they take the stage, the film erupts into a feel-good triumph that will have all viewers — especially little girls — on their feet.
Further viewing: Rock docs made for kids are in pretty short supply, though concert films are abundant. Jack Black’s breakout School of Rock continues the spirit of kids overcoming emotions in the name of rock.
Born to be Wild (2011)
Narrated — as all wonderful things in this world should be — by Morgan Freeman, Born to be Wild is a brief (40-minute) nature documentary about conservationists who adopt and raise displaced orangutans and elephants in Borneo and Kenya, respectively, preparing the animals for re-entry into their natural habitats. The stories are compelling, teaching valuable lessons about environmentalism and empathy, and the animals themselves are wondrous. The film was originally released in IMAX 3D, but the stories don’t lose any of their impact — and potential to inspire — when viewed on the small screen.
Further viewing: For a look at these majestic animals in their natural environments, “Planet Earth” remains the best — and most widely available — nature-based docuseries on the market.
Wings of Life (2013)
A kaleidoscopically colored exploration of the birds and the bees (don’t worry, that’s not a metaphor), this Disneynature documentary for children offers a bug’s-eye-view of the world, focusing on butterflies, bees, bats, birds, and other flying creatures, offering insight into their importance to the circle of life via pollination. It’s full of great lessons, particularly for kids who seem to hate bugs for no reason. Plus, it’s narrated by Meryl Streep.
Further viewing: Flight of the Butterflies gives monarchs the March of the Penguins treatment, following the majestic winged ambassadors as they make their journey from Mexico to Canada.
I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story (2014)
A behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of “Sesame Street,” this documentary trains its lens on national treasure Caroll Spinney, the man who has voiced and performed Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch since their early days. And while some of Spinney’s story is steeped in tragedy — abuse, Vietnam, and suicide are topics that come up candidly in Spinney’s asides, and some profanities are uttered — older kids interested in a peek behind the curtain of television’s most storied children’s institution will relish in his inspirational story.
Further viewing The overlooked classic Follow That Bird gave Big Bird (and Spinney) his only big-screen starring role in a road trip comedy best described as a lighter version of The Muppet Movie.
Sure, it’s in Turkish and subtitled, but considering this recent documentary is all about offering a “cat’s eye view” of Istanbul, whatever the humans are saying is secondary. It follows seven street cats as they go about their lives, exploring markets, roaming the streets, and finding love among families they visit in their travels. Any kid who adores cats will find much to love while simultaneously exploring a culture half a world away, while parents will become entranced in the narratives relayed by the people the cats encounter.
Further viewing: Disneynature’s African Cats offers a very different view of felines, swapping the urban jungles of Istanbul for the wilds of Africa.
Like Born to be Wild, Jane focuses on the tireless efforts of conservationists to help endangered animals recover. In this case, said conservationist is Jane Goodall, the world’s most famous and renowned primatologist, who spent more than five decades living among chimpanzees in the wilds of Tanzania. Hers is a story of overcoming adversity at every turn and about channeling passions into positive change. For any child even remotely interested in working among animals, it’s a tale of hope, compassion, and aspiration.
Further viewing: Disneynature, naturally, covers primates in the wild in the vivid Chimpanzee, but for a completely different look at the effects humans have on the animals, Project Nim explores the bittersweet story of a chimp raised as a human child in New York.