I’m just going to go on record that TV is an unnecessary and largely pointless habit that you should try to break. And you certainly shouldn’t let your children watch it. Take them out in the fresh air, for God’s sake, and if they must be inside, keep them engaged in a never-ending series of enriching, hands-on activities. It’s not that hard. You’re a parent. Do you have something more important or rewarding to do?
That’s it. Nothing else.
Okay. I think we lost ‘em. The people who thought I was being serious.
So let me be honest: I have no idea how people parented before TV. Back then, I’m guessing, so much of daily life revolved around basic survival that—out of real fear of death—kids occupied themselves with an endless series of chores, taking the occasional break now and then to fashion a “friend” out of corn husks.
Is life better now? I don’t know about that. But it is easier to have a cup of coffee and read a book now that there’s Elmo to render our children completely silent and motionless for twenty minutes. (Hold up a pocket mirror. They’re still breathing. It’s fine.)
But I’m not here to talk about Elmo. I’m here to talk about educational programming so good, you don’t even have to have kids to enjoy it.
1. Martha Speaks
This show teaches vocabulary and is about a talking dog named Martha. See, she happened to eat some alphabet soup that…well, maybe it’s easier to let the theme song explain it. Don’t you wish every show came with a song (like Diff’rent Strokes or The Facts of Life) that completely explained the whole premise? Cultural commentators would have a lot less explaining to do. And Alan Thicke would probably be getting a lot more work.
Martha lives in Wagstaff City with her human family—including her main pal, Helen, an elementary school student—and a whole lot of other human and animal acquaintances and foils. The best characters are T.D., a school friend of Helen’s who collects junk and would rather draw crude comic books than do homework, and Mrs. Demson, the whiny, stingy, old bat to beat all whiny, stingy, old bats.
The very best Martha episode is “The Long, Rotten Summer,” in which T.D. attempts to make summer last forever by spending it where time passes most slowly: in the school. But that episode seems to be available only through iTunes. So I’ll put up this clip in which T.D. gets some poetry-writing advice from Billy Collins:
When this show first came out, my daughter was afraid of it because of an episode that had creepy music and people dressed like giant pickles. So I could only watch it if she happened to be napping.
Where to watch: PBS or PBS Online, Netflix, Amazon, iTunes (if you want to see “The Long Rotten Summer”).
2. Peep and the Big Wide World
For whatever reason (but mostly, I think, because it’s awesome) a lot of educational TV these days comes with voice-over narration. Peep and the Big Wide World is lucky enough to have Joan Cusack doing the honors. Its three main characters are Peep, a chick who is open-minded and kind, Chirp, a robin who is short-tempered and skeptical, and Quack, a duck who thinks he’s the greatest thing since…Hey! What could possibly be as great as a duck?
The show isn’t educational in the sense of teaching phonics or math or science. It does emphasize curiosity, experimentation, and collaborative problem solving. The whole show was Flash animated, but the characters are so vivid and the stories so charming, you’ll never doubt how carefully it was made.
Where to watch: PBS (if you live in the right market), Netflix, Amazon, YouTube.
At this point I should admit that this is the only show on this list that isn’t—or wasn’t once—on PBS. That may indicate some bias on my part, or it may reflect the fact that, since we’ve had kids, our family has never had cable. Still, since the advent of video streaming, we’ve had the opportunity to try out a lot of kids’ shows, and in my opinion, PBS still seems to be crushing the competition for educational programming.
However, Backyardigans, which is on Nick Jr., fills an important void in kids’ programming even on PBS, so it gets a place on this list. What void, you ask? If you’ve seen Backyardigans, you know: It’s the music.
Music on most kids’ shows is jingly and sing-songy and won’t get out of your head. Either that, or it’s so bubble-gummy that it makes you want to listen to a lot of old Smiths’ albums or politically minded hip-hop just to compensate. But you can’t listen to that music around kids, because they don’t like it. And they will keep telling you they don’t like it, loudly, until you wish you’d never tried.
I won’t promise that Backyardigans’ songs won’t get stuck in your head. In fact, they almost certainly will. But the songwriting, by Evan Lurie of the Lounge Lizards, is so sharp, you’ll mostly be glad they did. Each episode’s soundtrack features a different musical style or tradition, performed on actual instruments by really good musicians. (The vocalists are kids, but at least they’re not adults pretending to be kids. Trust me, that’s worse.)
Here’s a song, “Rad Moves,” from the “Surf’s Up” episode, which is soundtracked in an Afro-pop style:
Where to watch: Nick Jr., Amazon, YouTube
WordGirl is another vocabulary-building show from PBS, and though, like Peep, it no longer airs on actual TV, you can find it plenty of places online or through streaming providers. WordGirl (secretly also elementary school student Becky Botsford) is a superhero with the power of a great vocabulary…and there I go again, explaining the premise when I could just as easily cue the theme song:
Her super strength and flying ability also come in pretty handy, obviously.
Another narrated show, WordGirl boasts Chris Parnell (of SNL and 30 Rock fame) in that post, and lots of other comic talent in the rotating cast of super villains: Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, Tom Kenny, Fred Stoller, Jeffrey Tambor, and John C. McGinley.
And despite WordGirl’s earnest good humor, it’s the villains that make the show: They have hilarious names like Lady Redundant Woman, Chuck the Evil Sandwich-Making Guy, and Nocan the Contrarian, and since they’re completely oblivious to the ways in which they misuse words, it allows WorldGirl ample opportunity to correct them in mid battle:
Where to watch: PBS Online, Netflix, Amazon.
5. Odd Squad
This one is a new favorite at our house.
Ostensibly, the Odd Squad…oh, here I go once again, “explainerating,” as the Butcher would probably say. Just watch the intro (or the whole episode, if you feel like it):
Where to watch: PBS or PBS Online, YouTube.
If you watched the whole episode, you see how this works: All of these odd and mysterious occurrences somehow end up being based around questions of math, statistics, or logic. Here’s how great a dad I am: Even though both of my kids seem to be pretty good at math, and probably would get by just fine without it, I still let them watch this show, because it’s so freaking fun.
That’s sort of the secret weapon of all these shows: real fun, and plenty of it. That, and talent. Who could have guessed? Talented musicians, talented actors, talented writers. Rather than start with “children’s-show writers” (whoever they are), these shows start with funny writers and ask them (or allow them) to write for children. One of the creators of Odd Squad has written episodes of Adventure Time. Some of the writers on WordGirl previously wrote for The Onion and Family Guy.
The other secret weapon of these shows? Canada. Four of the five were either Canadian/American partnerships or straight-up produced in Canada. And something about WordGirl seems Canadian. Isn’t that a red maple leaf on her costume? (Oh, it’s a red star inside a yellow pentagon? You’ve got to admit, that’s pretty close.)
Robin Beery lives in Indianapolis and is a writer/producer at Well Done Marketing.
Odd Squad photo via PBSKids.org.