If you’re skittish about introducing your very young child to new TV shows or cartoons, you’re not alone. 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 a complicated business.
“The main key, as in all parenting, is to know your kid,” says Marie-Louise Mares professor in the Department of Communication Arts at 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 the 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.
Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood
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.
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.
With its eye-popping stop-motion animation and creative character design, Tumble Leaf’s singular aesthetic alone is enough to warrant viewing, especially for kids and parents fatigued with toddler TV shows’ reliance on computer animation. The show follows a blue fox named Fin as he learns simple science and problem-solving skills in an environment that exists as something of a steampunk Never-Neverland. Though the setting is fantastical, the characters’ use of everyday objects to learn about motion, flight, and other natural sciences sets the show for toddlers apart, and the characters themselves are engaging. Parents will find much to love, especially since the show encourages experimentation after viewing.
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.
A cheeky import from the BBC, Octonauts chronicles the adventures of a group of mammals who descend into the sea to study the life aquatic. The episodes are exciting and full of imaginative imagery as the central characters — a polar bear, a cat, and a penguin outfitted with scuba gear — learn to work together and problem-solve while also meeting unique species (narwhals, flying fish) and learning about them. It’s a fun show for toddlers that uses its platform to enrich interest in oceanic sciences, all with wry winks to keep adults entertained along the way.
With its fifth season set to debut in March, this Disney Junior favorite ticks off a lot of boxes, from engaging songs to cute characters and good-hearted messaging. The series takes place in the imagination of Doc, who spends her days helping mend her sick toys, allowing children an analogue 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.
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.
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.