I avoid the the phrase screen time like the plague. I can’t fully articulate why it irks me so much, but I’m sure it has something to do with the fact that it’s so often used in the context of anxiety. We’re made to feel fearful of too much screen time, or the wrong kind of screen time, or the proper use of screen time. It feels like something that you can mess up. Or should feel badly about. An indication of a moral failing, or else a lack of imagination.
Is there such a thing as too much screen time? Sure. If screen time comes at the expense of all other kinds of activities then lots of signs point to yes. But I also think it’s possible to embrace digital media, and movies in particular, in a way that involves more fun and less hand-wringing. We’ve made choices around screen time that work for our family, but no doubt there are a million ways this could look depending on personal preferences, or circumstances, or both.
Our kids don’t spend a whole lot of time looking at screens, or, as we call it, watching movies, but as winter wanes on and the ground remains frozen solid, it’s nice to have a quiet indoor activity we can embrace as a family. (And on a day when a parent needs to dash off a few emails and schools are closed and the slush is piled high, a movie is a nice way to snag a bit of quiet time, too.)
We were admittedly a little late to the game. Our first forays into the world of movies were with animated shorts, mostly just a handful of minutes long. Faye watched her first of these when she was 3 and a few months and we had a return flight from the West Coast and an eight-month-old little brother to contend with. For Silas, an older sister eager to share movies has meant we’ve more nearly followed along with the guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics, avoiding screen time altogether until just two.
Aside from our delayed start (which was really a rule for the parents, and not the kids) we don’t have any hard and fast rules or time limits around movie watching. We provide our kids with a smallish selection of movies and programs they can choose from that are 1) are not terribly painful for their parents or caregivers to also watch and 2) generally offer a simple, age-appropriate message that complements our family values. (Easier said than done, but not impossible!) From our kids’ perspective, I’m hopeful that we’ve managed to put screen time, for lack of a better word, on par with any other kind of activity that’s joyful and passes the time. Even if we try to prioritize their time away from the screen, I try to avoid transmitting this sense of hierarchy to my kids. I hope they see watching movies as a nice way to pass the time, same as reading books, or playing outside, or baking a cake. Like any of these other activities, watching a movie isn’t always available at precisely the moment when a kid would like it to be, or for how long they’d like it, but that’s okay.
We don’t have a TV in our apartment, so the kids generally watch movies on the eight-year-old iPad of James’s that miraculously still works. We often prop it on their dresser shelves so they can cozy up on Faye’s bed, couch-style, and watch it with a bit of distance.
In terms of the movies themselves, we’ve had lots of luck with sweet animated shorts and have introduced a few feature-length classics to Faye, like Mary Poppins and Sound of Music (even though she’s yet to make it through to the end). We generally avoid shows with trademarked characters, with the exception of a few old Sesame Street skits. It’s a whole other conversation, perhaps, but I’m exhausted by the way that our consumer culture markets goods to young kids and so I try to just avoid that stuff altogether. (Let it be known that all of these trademarked characters are not at all lost on Faye. When she spots them around the city, she’s very eager to point out all things Frozen or PawPatrol, despite never having watched either.) So far we’ve found essentially all Disney feature-length films to be too intense age-wise. Faye saw Coco in the theatre when it came out and she was only 3.5, and the first half of Moana on a plane ride, but has since declared both too scary for any reasonable person to dare watch.
In case it’s helpful for anyone else, here’s a shortlist of the movies we’ve enjoyed watching with young kiddos:
The Little Bird and the Caterpillar
Animated Animals – Short Films for Kids
Less Short Shorts
What about all of you? Favorite movies to watch with little ones? Different approaches in your family? We’re especially on the lookout for sweet movies featuring kids of color and LGBTQI families, in case anyone has a good recommendation.
PS. Last month we went to the annual BAM Kid’s Film Festival, which was such a delightful way to spend a winter’s afternoon and such a great introduction to movies. Highly recommend to anyone local! (Ditto checking out your local indie theater for any great kids’ programming.)
Along with Mr. Rogers, another beloved for us is Reading Rainbow.
Ah, loved this as a kid. Where do you watch?
tangentially, Levar Burton’s podcast of short fiction for adults is fantastic! it’s called “Levar Burton Reads” and at the end of each episode he closes by saying “But you don’t have to take my word for it.” Not embarrassed to say that his voice saying that phrase gives me a flood of nostalgia that chokes me up every time!
I second (or third?) the recommendation of Puffin Rock. The animation is a lovely, folk art style and the two main characters- who are adorable puffins!- have a precious sibling dynamic. All available in Netflix.
In a similar animation style is the absolutely wonderful movie “Song of the Sea.” It was the first movie we introduced our eldest to and quickly became a family favorite in general. It is a unique find among children’s movies- not computer animated and no flat “bad guy.” Rather, the “villain” is a mother who wanted to take her child’s heartbreak away and in doing so took away all emotion. It is a beautiful, redemptive, whimsical movie. And again presents a very sweet sibling dynamic. Highly recommend!
Well, those were going to be my two recommendations. Delighted to see these Irish shows recommended by others!
From a family that’s had more tv time than I’d like to admit this week (flu!!), wanted to share two great shows for pre-schoolers that you might like: Daniel Tiger (PBS, Mister Rogers spin off teaching empathy) and Tumbleleaf (Amazon Prime, all about exploration outdoors). Good to keep in your back pocket for sick days or long flights. ✌
This list is really helpful and timely, thank you! Before our daughter was born, my husband and I decided to avoid screen time and movies until she turned 5 ( exception chatting with Grandparents too far away for regular visits on Skype). She will be 5 soon, but a younger brother ( just 3) means that screen time needs to carefully considered.
Wow though, no screen time is really, really hard. It requires more involved parenting, but I see a tangible difference in how my kids play. My daughter has developed a love of piano, and will often play for a cumulative hour a day. And stories! We are thankful for libraries.
No doubt that limiting screen time impacts the caregiving. We’re so grateful for amazing care givers who supported us and our kids in their earliest years. That said: I truly believe that it’s entirely possible to have kids who are exposed to movies and the like far earlier than I introduced them to my kids who are still masters of play, lovers of the arts, story aficionados, et cetera, et cetera!
Thank you for this incredibly sensible piece in a matter that has many of us parents completely conflicted, and also for this comment that recognizes some screen-time probably hurts no one. My daughter, aged 9, was allowed to watch selected children’s shows and movies since before she was 2, I think, but always within a time limit and in the presence of parents. I remember feeling overwhelmingly guilty of letting her watch tv sometimes, because it’s so frowned upon these days.
Like we did those days, we continue to discuss with her everything she sees on tv/online now that she’s allowed to watch commercial tv and YouTube (sometimes by herself but not without us being aware of what she’s watching). She’s grown into a mindful consumer of media who, as per her own request, now has a specific day once a week for screentime to have more time for other interests on screen free days — reading, arts, ukulele, piano, playing with friends, scouting and outdoors etc. Turns out having some screentime as a tiny kid didn’t really ruin her at all!
PS. We also love Ghibli studio movies though I wouldn’t recommend them to kids as young as yours, apart from Totoro perhaps.
We do minor screen time – we watch movies as a family (maybe once or twice a month – I’m just not that into TV and would rather read, as a default, so it doesn’t strike me as an option all that often) and they watch an episode of TV one or two nights a week (not more, though – not because I’m opposed, but because they turn into demanding howler monkeys when it’s more, and decent behavior is more of a priority!)
Thanks for the list of suggestions! To add to your list – if your kids haven’t seen Octonauts, it’s quite adorable, fairly educational, genuinely sweet, and available on FB. And the shorts are about 12 minutes long, so that creates easily-implemented time limits.
Argh. Available on NETFLIX, where was my brain…
Sarah and Duck! Super sweet and imaginative girl and her funny duck. Quirky and British and sweet. Each episode is about 8 min. My 3.5 year old son loves it for plane rides or sick days.
My kiddo loves Sarah and Duck as well. It’s really dear.
Thank you for your insight and sharing how you handle media in your home. We have a 4 year old that is very fearful of most mainstream movies and tv shows but have found that nature programs are a great option for our family. Planet Earth and similar type documentaries that feature animals are a hit!
I’m all for embracing digital media! Especially when chosen with care. My special needs son has been able to learn American Sign Language (ASL) through these wonderful online videos called “Signing Time”. They are a little dated and quite silly, but my technically speaking “non-verbal” son (we prefer the term “uniquely verbal”) now has somewhere between 150-200 signs that he has learned primarily through these videos. They helped teach my husband and I ASL as well. They truly gave my son a “voice” and me a much needed break.
Little Bear is a favorite of ours. Very gentle and enjoyable for everyone
For movies we really enjoy Studio Ghibli, “My Neighbour Totoro” is a favourite of my 7, 5 and 4 year olds.
Ah, yes! Have never seen but have heard such great things.
Ah! You have the words for the feelings I haven’t been able to put to words. Yep, my 2.5 year old watches screens. Usually it’s Daniel Tiger when Dad is on a business trip and Mom needs to get ready for work. I don’t love it, but I have used the catchy songs to get him to try new foods. We also use a screen on long trips (2+ hours). I try not to hype it up or make it seem ‘bad.’ He does a pretty decent job self-regulating, too!
My daughter loves My Neighbour Totoro! I find myself singing the theme song to my self regularly, then she’ll chime in.
Ponyo is also great! A bit more plot driven than Totoro, and very very cool animation.
I am 100% with you on this whole post, how lovely to hear.
“Puffin Rock” is an Irish show that you can find on Netflix, and we love the British “Sarah and Duck” (sadly removed from Netflix several months ago, but here’s hoping it returns). Both have slow pacing, none of that manic energy that is so pervasive in SO much of kids’ programming. Highly recommended! So, so charming.
So glad to know. Yes to the slow!
My 2.5 year old LOVES Puffin Rock! Such a sweet little show.
My children are a little older, ages 11-3 and it only gets more difficult to manage all of this as their social lives develop further outside of our sphere of influence. However, we found starting young with teaching them to manage their interactions with screens to be helpful. Our 8 yo and 5yo children love some newer PBS offerings including Peg + Cat (which has great puns and music for the adults) and Wild Kratts.
My 11 yo now researches a show or online game his is interested it and comes armed with data to discuss his options. He has become a big consumer of Common Sense Media. Using the Internet to research a topic of interest, definitely a skill to develop!
I’m sure! Love the picture of your 11-year-old presenting his data-backed arguments!
Yes to “Peg + Cat”! It’s so smart, sweet, and actually funny. We don’t watch it often, but when we have my husband and I both actually laugh at Cat (his comedic timing is golden). It’s such a creative and simple way to teach basic math concepts, and the animation style is very clever.
We are relaxed about the quantity of television and restrict the kids’ use of personal devices (we have three under 4). My favorites for very young children are Finding Dory (movie) and Sarah & Duck (TV show, now only on Prime, but formerly free through Netflix). We also enjoy Peppa Pig and Ben & Holly, which are funny for the adults a lot of the time, too. Mom and Dad enjoy television, and so do the children. We talk about what we’re watching, and the big kids (almost four) are learning to negotiate who chooses what we watch. We’re pretty comfortable with allowing them to choose from the kid friendly apps through our Roku/DirecTV NOW/Prime subscriptions (PBS Kids, Nick Jr., Disney Jr., and most of the kid programming through Prime Video), and we help them choose things they enjoy through Netflix (which has a kids option we use) and YouTube (through the TV only, with restricted mode and without the YouTube Kids format). The marketing of certain characters is unreal. Like your children, they could probably name all of the Paw Patrol characters before they ever watched an episode of the show!
We encourage outside play whenever it is appropriate and as much as possible and they wander away from and back to what they are watching in the midst of other creative play regularly. Though my distrust is highest with YouTube, we actually have grown to enjoy the nursery rhymes (Little Baby Bum and similar) which is kind of endearing once you get past the initially-weird animation. My children sing the nursery songs all the time (and I learned some of the tunes for songs in our books I did not previously know) and I think it helped with language development and reinforces concepts about cleaning up, sharing, being careful/cautious when appropriate, being kind, etc. And when we’re stuck inside, the Kiboomers dance videos (Freeze Dance, Dinosaur Stomp, and 100 Dance) are fabulous ways to get the wiggles out – we all enjoy dance parties!
I am pretty rigid with their use of personal devices. My old iPad has some kid-oriented drawing and matching apps, etc. and they ask regularly to use it, and I just calmly reinforce that it’s not an “everyday” tool/toy. We don’t use them at restaurants or on short trips. We never watch television programming or movies at home on them (because we have a TV so everyone can participate). And they generally are very upset when they have to share or their use time is up, and I don’t want the battle every day. The protests in response to “not today” are much less than the ones to “your time is up”, so that is guiding the frequency of use right now! That said, I fully admit I use my phone more than I should and should model better use there, and suspect most parents are in the same boat.
I suspect we are more relaxed with TV time than a lot of parents, but I have bright, creative, kind, healthy, and active kids, and as long as we’re not experiencing problems connected with the amount or type of consumption, we’ll continue to approach it this way.
We are more relaxed too with TV, and less tablet time. I am with you on I don’t want the fight of taking the tablet away. It’s not worth it. My children also enjoy other activities and are not glued to the TV all day, so I don’t find it to be a problem.
Canadian “Stella and Sam,” a brother-sister duo with a few books to tie in. Their relationship is very patient and imaginative. Quiet instrumental music and understandable speech. Prime or local library DVD.
Yes to Stella and Sam!! It’s great!!
Oh! Yes to Stella and Sam, though it didn’t grab them quite as much as me last we tried it. They did enjoy Charlie and Lola (BBC/Prime) quite a bit recently, and I should try S+S again (I liked it – the sweater episode, in particular, is adorable). Glad this resonated. I always feel like I’m out a bit on a limb saying “uh, I’m okay with the television” in screen-time posts! I fully salute those who manage less!
We too are much more relaxed with “screen time ” than other parents we know. It’s not every day, but when they’re sick and home from kindergarten it sure beats the usual fights over who’s playing with which you (or not!). We only watch things that parents can stand too, and which are also educational or teach values. Our current favourites include Andy’s Dinosaur Adventures, Fireman Sam and Chuggington.
Very much aligned with your movie watching philosophy and offerings. May I suggest Sarah & Duck? Next to Mister Rogers, it’s the best ever kid’s programming I’ve ever come across. So good!
“Our kids don’t spend a whole lot of time looking at screens, or, as we call it, watching movies..”
Thank you so much for writing this sentence, lol. I reallllly hate that phrase too. I would rather name the specific action the child is doing (watching movies, playing games, drawing on an app, etc.) than dump it in a general, anxiety riddled phrase.
I don’t have children, but I completely support this and will bookmark it for the future.
Ha! Admittedly we haven’t entered the app or game phase at all yet, so the only activity is really watching movies, but yes! Same!
Love this! Your list of longer shorts is basically our winter rotation (plus Charlotte’s web and the snowman +snowdog version). Will have to check out the shorts! My oldest is 4 and we just recently(occasionally!) started allowing him to watch the SciShow for Kids on YouTube. We are all finding the episodes to be fun and educational and they encourage quite interesting conversations!
We have enjoyed watching Milo and Otis, Small Change (French title: L’Argent de Poche, I think), and Winged Migration with our elder child on sick days since she was about 2 1/2 – all ‘cinema verite.’ For small amounts of time when one of us parents must give our attention to a call or something and she can’t settle in with an activity we turn on a Sparkle Story (to listen to) or a YouTube video of backyard birds and squirrels (the ones meant for )
…meant for cats, that should say!
Ha! Backyard birds! Love that.
ugh. MERCI pour cet article! With our nugget due in May, this has been an ongoing discussion… And with all things baby, why is everyone so weird and dogmatic? Thanks for shining some light.
hahaha. why *is* everyone so weird? so excited for you guys!
Not too short not too long I recommend Zog (about a princess who just wants to be a doctor) and room on the broom. Also the Gruffalo is great. They are on BBC in UK not sure in US. And then any CBeeebies program. They are just good. A lot of CBeebies shows are on Netflix. Paddington is also a favorite.
Oh! Need to check out Zog! Alas, Paddington and The Gruffalo are “too scary!” for Faye so far, but they’re on the back burner!
Our approach with our three boys has been very similar, although they are a little older now than your children. My boys all loved the British shows Shaun the Sheep and Kipper when they were younger. Now they really enjoy classic animated Disney movies like Robin Hood, The Three Musketeers, and The Sword in the Stone.
When I was a kid, my parents censored my Disney movies, so I’ve never seen a villain. I do wish I had a nice middle ground, but I loved “sing along songs”, which were basically the highlights reel of the movies. I also love magic schoolbus to this day!
I have three children just-turned-5 and under, so I look for calm content with collaborative and kind characters. We enjoy Puffin Rock on Netflix, Lily’s Driftwood Bay purchased on iTunes (great content on environmental care, repurposing things, and imagination), and Kipper the Dog on dvd.
I also try to limit intake of trademarked characters, but have made an exception for Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. Of course, it is modeled after Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and shares many of its traits, but ironically, he had huge issue with marketing things to children. On another note, the book The Good Neighbor about Rogers’ life is a great read!
We recently have become aware of some isolation our daughter is experiencing with her school friends because of our choices (she hasn’t seen any Disney princess films, etc). I would love to read a post on this. As adults we can choose not to watch shows that are popular and deal with the break room cluelessness we experience, particularly if we believe in the values behind our decision. It can be harder to explain these nuances to a child in a sensitive way that helps uncover a bigger picture.
As an aside: I’m frustrated by content available only through Amazon, as we do not have an account (because of my qualms with the corporation itself). But alas, I shall be content with what I have.
Thanks so much for these recommendations! So glad to find more great options off of Amazon! I admit that I’ve heard of Daniel Tiger, but for some reason never made the connection that it was related to the original Mr. Rogers. As for the princess/trademarked stuff, for my part I’ve tried at least to just have straightforward chats with Faye about it when it comes up. I grew up with similar kinds of limits and so I’m not really concerned about longterm negative side effects. I didn’t realize CareBears was a television show until I went to college, but I don’t think this negatively impacted my childhood. Whether it’s the movies we watch or any other choice we make that might not follow exactly the mainstream, I generally try to explain simply that something or other—be it not eating meat, or not buying lots of plastic, or not watching certain shows—isn’t something that our family participates in, but that other folks might not make the same choice and that’s okay, too. I try to stay as neutral as possible but I can’t say I’ve always done this perfectly. Faye is delighted to share her great enthusiasm for Elsa with me, in part, no doubt, because I once mentioned that she wasn’t my favorite character. Silly in part because I haven’t seen Frozen, either! Anyway: All this to say that we’re all muddling through, imperfectly, and I think that’s okay.
The original fairytale, The Snow Queen by H. C. Andersen is definitely worth a read though.
I was put off by the animation of Daniel Tiger initially, but once I looked into it and realized how closely the creators have tried to adhere to the original Mr. Rogers’s philosophy, I gave it a second go. Excellent for both my boys (almost 5 and just over 2) and for discussions about social and emotional issues.
I agree with Erin about the animation, and I find Daniel a bit whiney at times, but I cannot tell you how often those little jingles come in handy with a house full of preschoolers.
Ditto to Puffin Rock! It’s so sweet and gentle. My 4.5 year-old loves Tumble Leaf. Also, old-school Sesame Street. They made a wonderful effort to be inclusive.
I was born in 1983 and I watched SO MUCH TV. I learned to tell time based on what show was on next. When I rented The Little Mermaid from the video store I watched it 21 times before returning it. Somehow, I managed to get a graduate degree, I recycle and pay my taxes. It’s all OK. But media isn’t what it was in the ’80s and ’90s and I think it’s much more important to guard content instead of time.
Its’s so sad that even though I tried, I did not find any of the movies you recommend on Netflix or Amazon. We live in Germany and I had no idea that some things simply are not available for us. I guess it is all about the rights and ownership and stuff, but still sad! That said, the Gruffalo is considered very, very scary by my 4-year-old (with the 2yo just watching each and anything without uttering a single word…).
Ha, yes! Faye won’t watch the Gruffalo either!
Hi I‘m from Germany, too. And, well, this happens to be a long road for us, too. Still haven’t found the right balance as I tend to say ‚No’ too many times. So, we’ve tried instead a regular family movie night. I can recommend the characters „Charlie and Lola“ by Lauren Child. And, for the German readers – I can recommend a TV-Show we watch online – because we don’t owe a tv, too – „Anna/Paula und die wilden Tiere“ (25min, every serie Anna will present a special animal or animal group). So, it‘s an animal docu for kids. Quite interesting for adults. And, of course some of the Studio Ghibili-movies we also like watching as a family (depending on the topic, I still reserve some for the future, because they are too sad and exciting). And, because of the constant advertising, no youtube except for live music and then it‘s more listening than watching.
I especially appreciate your acting with – ok our family doesn‘t participate in this or that and others act different, Erin. So wise! Because, I did the mistake with constantly explaining why we are not doing it and that was too much. I realized that they can not see the whole picture sometimes and so I felt obliged to value/judge other peoples acting or non-acting. This was a big mistake. To be clear, I was so afraid that they will not understand and support my/our decision. As I realized that this is not going to happen I changed my „strategy“ and try to be more open and make clear, that things like that are my opinions and decisions and correspond to my values.
We technically have always had “screen time” with our daughter, because we’ve always talked with grandparents and family on Skype since birth. She’s 18 months now, and we don’t do anything other than that and sometimes letting her look through pictures on our phones. Mostly I notice how agitated it can seem to make her and she goes absolutely bananas when it’s time to put it away, so I try to simply avoid it altogether. I still think she’s too young. Really REALLY looking forward to the family movie phase of parenting though! I can’t wait until she’s old enough that we can all snuggle in with popcorn and watch classics!
Oh man, it’s refreshing to read a relaxed and guiltless approach to watching shows. As a stay at home parent who babysits often and spends most days in the company of small children from dawn till bedtime, I am SO GLAD for the option. I’ve found that a little 30ish minute rest with a good show does wonders for my kids, and when it’s over, everyone is (usually) happy to get back to playing again. So much better than running ourselves to the ground and having meltdowns by 3pm. Myself included.
Around here we really love Stella and Sam on Amazon prime. Thirteen episodes, I think? We’ve watched them all many times. It’s a sweet, simple show about a brother and sister who get along and use their imaginations, and…that’s it. A cute show about playing when my kids are too tired to play themselves.
Yes! Very much in favor of avoiding the FFM (FULL FAMILY MELTDOWN)! Excited to take a look!
So agree with approaching screens as just one of many activities that can be balanced out! When my now 8 year old daughter was younger we really enjoyed the Curious George videos. Short, educational but still a story arc, some diversity and I liked the fact that George (at least part of the time) lived in an apartment like she does!
Reading Rainbow is also on Amazon Prime and we love it. My kids also watch Franklin but in French. Both my husband and I speak French (non-natively) and chose to teach our kids. For kids that already speak the language enough, shows are a great help once they’re old enough to listen to what is being said (in my experience it’s age 3). We like Mary Poppins in French as well. I have not kids watch a show sometimes on YouTube called Bino and Fino, a Nigerian little show about a brother and sister named Bino and Fino. They introduce some Nigerian history/landmarks gently and I love that it’s a show that counters the stereotypes that everyone in Africa lives in a village in a small hut like dwelling. They’re in an apartment and they play soccer etc. We also watch Le Le Elmo sometimes- a ten minute long show geared at teaching Chinese. I like how half of it is showing kids videos of families and kids in China picking out pets, cooking with their grandparents etc. Another good one is La cuisine est un jeu d’enfants. An eight minute short (in french) that features a sister and brother cooking something with a chef/teacher. Anatole (the mouse) is a cute older show as well. Every once in a while we do Dino Dana which is a cute girl lead how about a girl who imagines dinosaurs and learns about them. We also have starting gently introducing Myasaki (terrible spelling – sorry in advance) films. Just parts. And we love watching the new Planet Earth 2 and Blue Planet 2 with the kids! It’s just plain amazing.
We allow tv shows on Saturday morning and sometimes a Sunday family movie. When tv time is up our daughter always acts out, which makes me question if it’s worth our uninterrupted house cleaning time. However, she has enjoyed some sweet shows (Puffin Rock, Mouk, Sarah & Duck and Tumbleleaf are parent-approved) We have tried to encourage French language development whenever possible (it’s so easy to change the language settings in Netflix!) We will continue to weigh the pros and cons and adjust accordingly. A recent movie alternative has been the portable record player we purchased for Christmas along with children’s records- she is nearly as engaged with the records as she is with movies!
Oh I’ve longed for your view on this hahaha. We too, try to have a more realistic approach to screens. Mostly movies for us and a few cartoons series or shows like Netflix’s Storybots (which is quite a fun way to learn about different things). There is a designated time for screens here at our house and we try to stay away from the intense movies too. The classics and even Disney classics are a huge hit here.
Puffin Rock, forever and always. It is slow-paced and calm — but not boring; the themes are gentle and appropriate for even kids younger than 2; there is just enough conflict to teach lessons about friendship and resolution; teaches wonderful lessons about different animals and the environment in easily digestible ways; and best of all: it literally NEVER gets annoying, even on our (I’m ashamed to admit) 20th time through.
Cannot recommend it enough.
I *think* the phrase grew because there are so many screens these days. It’s not just watching TV anymore, there are so many other options.
Can I just say thank you for including so many disclaimers like, “We’ve made choices around screen time that work for our family, but no doubt there are a million ways this could look depending on personal preferences, or circumstances, or both.”
Conversations about media consumption so quickly become braggy or condemning. Can’t we all just agree that we’re doing our best and making the best choices based on our circumstances??
My kids are on the edge of “older” and we just held a post-basketball season party for my 7-year old. Some of the kids showed up with their own phones and plopped down on my couch playing some game. Um, what???
New rule in my house! Drop your phone at the door! This is, I learned, an evolving challenge. Thanks for sharing your perspective!
Oh, for sure! I just prefer not to use it!
Something your family might like—the Little Bear series. Based on the book series by Else Holmelund Minarik (illustrated by Maurice Sendak), the “episodes” are short (maybe 8 minutes per story, with three to an episode, I think), and most of the stories are family/imagination/nature/friend based. The characters use appropriate language, act respectfully to one another, and engage with their surroundings in a tender and caring manner. It is calming to watch—this used to be what we watched when we were at home from school on a sick day, and my siblings and I still recall the show fondly. The light music, the quaint animation, and the stability of the plot (no anxiety inducing situations, no “bad guys,” no danger) are truly delightful. My parents still talk about it as an example of media that had a positive impact on our early years–it was something we all enjoyed watching together.
Little Bear is our forever favorite. Together we enjoyed Mister Rogers, Mary Poppins, Winnie the Pooh (1977) and My Neighbor Totoro early on when she was three and four. As time passed we slowly added other things to watch. More Miyazaki films, older Disney like Sword in the Stone and Robin Hood. She loved Angelina Ballerina and Frozen. At seven she is sensitive to many story lines geared towards kids her age. Common Sense media has been a useful guide.
I love Rita & Krokodille, a Danish show with the much used trope of a child with an animal companion. It’s very suitable for small kids, although I doubt there will be an English translation soon.
Sarah and Duck is okay as well, and like Rita & Krokodille, it has nice music.
Back in the early 90’s I absolutely adored Alfred J. Kwak, a Dutch-Japanese series that handled many heavy political issues such as racism, apartheid, global warming and the transition from monarchy to democracy in an insightful yet kid-friendly and entertaining way. It still holds up pretty well. It’s a bit scary for the smallet ones though.
I second Puffin Rock, the little bit I’ve seen is cute.
There’s also an entire series of Ernest & Celestine, although I haven’t gotten around to watching it myself yet.
Love all these recommendations ❤
Like you I also try to avoid heavily trademarked characters, as they feel more like part of an advertising scheme, rather than self-carrying stories.
We’re starting to really enjoy watching episodes of PBS’s Nature together as a family (kiddo is 3.5). The ones more about particular animal’s specific traits and adaptations (vs. brutality of nature themes) are especially great (we loved the ones about squirrels, owls, and beavers). We got access to old episodes through the PBS app after making a donation to our local station (way better member benefit than a mug!).
My older children love all these shows on PBS. My 11 yo has watched an entire series on astronomy. My 8 yo loves the animal focused episodes. It is a nice option for older children.
Oh, excellent! This was the number one programming on at my house growing up. We used to watch them (on Sunday nights if memory serves!) while eating dinner in the family room—a big time treat!
We’ve been watching a half hour show with my daughter every Saturday night since she was around 3yo. Her favorite was Room on the Broom, which sadly isn’t available on Netflix anymore. I think Stick Man was too scary for her. To my dismay, she found The Snowman (a staple from my childhood) boring. She’s been liking Daniel Tiger (a cartoon offshoot from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, on Amazon prime), but I think she’s getting tired of it. We also watched an episode of Pinky Dinky Do on HBO last week and our daughter really liked it. I’ll have to check out Puffin Rock, which seems to be a fan favorite in the comments!
When my kids were small we loved the books and show Charlie and Lola. I also liked Peep and the Big Blue World. Both very sweet.
When it comes to media consumption, my kids are teens. We have always been very relaxed about how often they watch movies, tv, play video games. That said, but kids have gone in phases when they have consumed a ton of media (I am looking at you winter when they weer young) and not really cared at all. My 14 year old prefers podcasts, my 17 year old likes anime and watches Crunchy Roll. They can all get obsessed (kids and my husband) when a new video game comes out…but then they get over it. Our family goes to the movies every Sunday together (I love this tradition) and tend to watch classics (and that definition changes the older they get) together often. We all read. All that is to say, I think like most things it ebbs and flows. To be honest, I am the worst in the family with maybe too much screen time. I am trying to move to more music and less TV just on. I think you will find your groove for your family.
I love Mr. Rogers, forever and always. That’s the only show my 2.5 old watches at our house; we don’t have a TV so she watches 1-2 episodes a week at most on an old laptop. It’s a battle to turn it off so any more than that would be too much for her I think.
I do like movies though, and I’m a sentimental Disney fan because of the addicting soundtracks. We haven’t done the older princess classics from my childhood – Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, etc – storylines I find problematic but honestly will end up watching with her eventually due to my fond memories of belting BE OUR GUEST with my little brother and sister. We have occasionally watched Frozen and Moana bc I like those soundtracks and don’t mind the storylines. Is it just the merchandising people object to there? I thought Moana was totally refreshing and my kiddo likes Frozen as a movie but holds no interest in princess dresses, toys, etc. I watch with her and skip the scary parts.
Really the only thing that drives me crazy is Baby Shark – don’t even know how that bit of media made into her world but unfortunately she loves it.
I am an adult with no children, but I love the kid’s cartoon “Steven Universe”. Steven is a half human/half alien person being raised by the Chrystal Gems (nonbinary women aliens) and his human dad. The show is about family, relationships, and saving the world through empathy and friendship. The characters are amazing, queer, and one of the main characters *is* an interracial lesbian relationship. Faye might consider some of the episodes too scary at this point in her life (some of them are just sweet/silly, but some of them feature frightening villains) but definitely something you should check out for yourself/something to keep in mind for a year or two down the road. Highly, highly recommend. It might be my favorite television show ever.
Can I recommend the BBC series Something Special? It’s one of the best shows I’ve found for representing children with disabilities, and my daughter loves practicing her signing (Makaton) along with Mr Tumble!
So happy to see Ernest and Celestine on your list, as we absolutely adore that movie. If you haven’t come across the books the movie is based on, I highly recommend those, too. So sweet and just beautiful illustrations!
As for movies, I have waited on all things Disney with my kids for a long time before they were actually ready for it, and it was definitely worth waiting. My kids are both quite sensitive and really „live“ the Movies as they watch them, so I wanted to avoid the Disney trauma ;). They are now almost 10 and almost 8, and can really enjoy them, all the sad parts and humor included.
Movies that have always been big favorites and were watched over and over again even at younger age were definitely the Ghibli movies. Totoro of course, but also ‚Kiki’s delivery service‘ and ‚Ponyo‘ were just as loved. There‘s also an older, shorter movie called ‚Panda, go Panda‘ (i think is the English title), that is really sweet, and not as emotional as the other ones sometimes are.
As for TV Shows, Fraggle Rock will always be the one.
Another show that we all enjoy together is Charlie and Lola, which is sweet and very funny. What I love especially is that it’s about a brother and a sister, but doesn’t talk about how they annoy each other or it’s totally normal to argue and get on each other’s nerves all the time, which for some reason, a lot of books on siblings suggest. This show focuses more on everyday life, and being patient with love and humor. I love that. And the episodes are short.
One more, not too short but not too long is Harold and the Purple Crayon.
Much love from Germany❤️
This was such a refreshing and non-shaming approach to “screen time”. I have 3 kiddos (4, 3 &1) one of our favorite shows is “Guess how much I love you”. It has the same sweet characters from the book and also includes more little woodland friends.
I’m not sure whether it would be available in the US, but we love Bluey. It’s an Australian show about a little family of blue and red heelers (Australian sheep dogs). Both of the children are girls and they have all kinds of adventures with (mostly) their Dad. It’s so nice to have a show that doesn’t reinforce gender roles and stereotypes and it’s funny too.
Yes!! So good!!
Not sure if anyone chimes in about “Stella and Sam” slow paced beautiful show about siblings and imagination. Definitely worth checking out if you like Sarah and duck and puffin rock. We also use screens in our house to facilitate play. There’s a Channel called Cosmic Yoga for kids on YouTube that’s so much fun! The kids are entertained, do yoga but in a fun way for kids 3-5 the host is such a gem too! She is a wonderful story teller. Lastly we watch Storytime online where actors read books, also so much fun! Oprah has a super fun story she reads there!
So I have two sons that both have families with one daughter. One son’s family has a no screen time rule. Mom wants no screen time at all until she is 8. The other son’s has a daughter two and a half years younger than the first son. That daughter watches a bit daily, “super why” is her favorite. She has seen movies. It is amazing that she is much more verbal and loves to sing. She is 30 months and already knows her ABC’s just from Super Why. The 5 year daughter knows very little and has a hard time communicating. She loves books but I think a movie once in awhile would not be the end of the world. It is hard on her when the neighbor kids know characters from movies and she doesn’t have a clue. This is like a society experiment in my own family. Confused Grandma
This is great! I can’t wait to check out the shorts. We love all the movies you listed, as well as The Gruffalo!
My Neighbor Totoro and Pnoyo, both by Studio Ghibli, have been huge successes for our two daughters. We love the way the adults in these films listen to and believe their children. The Japanese countryside (Totoro) and hilly seaside (Ponyo) have us all dreaming up a trip. Ponyo is a *little* scary but My Neighbor Totoro is whimsical and fun.
Thanks for writing this post. I am an expat living in Seoul with an almost 5 year old and a 2 year old. We have no family nearby or childcare, and my older son goes to school just in the mornings. That, combined with long weeks inside with dangerously polluted air, has resulted in a reluctantly relaxed approach to TV and movies (and YouTube). This post comes at such a perfect time, as I’ve been trying to build what we watch into our days as part of an intentional routine. TV and movies can be a way to relax and engage with the world and each other in a different and enjoyable way. Thank you for the reminder to slow down and be mindful, as always. Kipper (now just on YouTube) and Harold and the Purple Crayon (iTunes) are excellent. 🙂
Yes! I live in Seoul too and the pollution has really kept us cooped up inside watching too much TV as well. My kids are 3 and 4.5 and love Octonauts.
I recommend Shaun the Sheep…claymation with creative humor, available on Amazon Prime.
Little Bear was a favorite when my kids were little! Now that they’re all school-age we love Little House on the Prairie.
When they get a bit older (probably 10+), I highly recommend Steven Universe.
max and ruby
Yes to so many of these! It’s hard to find things that are beneficial for young kids to watch. Our list is smaller too but I’ve really had no major pushback from my son (recently turned 4) about the number of options he has to choose from.
We actually enjoy watching things together like The Great British Baking show and the occasional House Hunters Int’l! Another favorite is a show called The Zoo on Animal Planet which is a look behind the scenes of the Bronx Zoo.
But don’t be fooled, he also loves Toy Story and picks it to watch on nearly every flight we take. His Disney film experiences are intentionally limited but I’m ok w this one 😉
Thank you for these recommendations! My 4 year-old loves Mister Roger’s and I have loved rewatching them. There’s a moment at the end of the Yo-Yo Ma episode when Mister Rogers says something like “It’s nice to take some quiet time after listening to a beautiful piece of music. Let’s do that.” And then he quietly, comfortably looks at the camera for more than one minute. It is jarring in its simplicity and so so beautiful.
I’d also recommend “Dancing in the Light: The Janet Collins Story”. It looks at the story of the successes and obstacles of a Black ballet dancer in the 1930s. It’s 17 minutes long, narrated by Chris Rock, and on Netflix.
So helpful, thank you! My 2.5-year-old LOVES Daniel Tiger and I love it for reminding me so much of Mr. Rogers. It is wonderful for gentle parenting tips. She also loves Llama Llama on netflix and Dora the Explorer, which we watch on Amazon. The Snowman is our favorite movie – love the music!
One thing we are having a really hard time with is when she is with her grandparents, who are all Disney fanatics. I was raised on disney movies but my husband has very strong feelings about them and the whole princess craze (which was so different in my day – not so much merchandise everywhere). So we generally stay away from all of it at home, but again, when she is with family or friends who are into it, we have a hard time keeping it out of her system. Ha. Any advice on gently communicating our preferences to at least our parents? We have tried, but get the big eye roll and a general attitude of grandparents can do as they please. Very frustrating!
We have refocused the Disney fervor into Pixar instead, at our house. I think the stories are better and the protagonists are better role models. We would just ask for Pixar movies for Christmas and birthdays.
The fact that they’re owned by Disney means the merchandising is still there but it’s not so gendered, in my opinion.
Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki films are a nice alternative, too.
What a great post, love all of these recommendations. We just watched the Mister Rogers Yo-Yo Ma episode too. My kids (4 and 7) watch far more TV than I would have thought I’d allow-before becoming a parent of course-but, it’s fine and a fraction of what I watched growing up.
TV show-my 4 yo has been a massive Peppa fan since the age of 2. It’s adorable how much he loves that show-it’s like Christmas morning for him every time I put it on. We also adore Little Bear (that beautiful music!), Tumble Leaf, American’s Funniest Home Videos, and Charlie & Lola.
Movies-ANYTHING by the people who do Room on the Broom, Gruffalo, Stickman, etc. I wish they would make more! Paddington 1 and 2, Pete’s Dragon, Parent Trap, Charlotte’s Web, Song of the Sea (my 4 yo loves it, my 7 yo doesn’t, she says it’s too sad), Leap, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Dory and Nemo. So many great kids movies.
I can’t wait to check out Puffin Rock, have never heard of it.
Also am about ready to start watching the CBC miniseries Anne of Green Gables with them, can’t wait!
My kids are 10 and 12 now so I’m a little nostalgic about this stage of life. But our favorites were Kipper and Wonder Pets. Both are so charming and are quiet, lovely shows with beautiful artwork.
Our other favorite was a gift: a boxed set of scholastic books, animated and narrated, kind of like the show Reading Rainbow, but without a host. They could experience good books in a way that felt similar to when I read aloud (and I read a lot!). I highly recommend them.
(And now I’m happily humming the Wonder Pets theme song to myself. Much love for that show!)
This discussion (and all the great recommendations – love Song of the Sea!) make me so nostalgic for when my children were younger and didn’t have real opinions about what they got to watch (aside from not liking “scary” movies like Finding Nemo – why does Disney enjoy killing parents off so much!?).
These days for permitted screen time, my kids mainly want to watch YouTubers (parent pre-approved channels only) and some Netflix shows. I can’t for the life of me understand the appeal of any of these YouTube “shows” or their stars (e.g., Jojo Siwa) but my kids love them. My initial feeling/instinct was that they provide nothing of value (e.g., artistic story-telling, life lessons, literacy, social skills, etc.) and in fact are basically ads for crap interrupted by actual ads for more crap. I debated banning YouTube entirely because I loathed everything about it but then I felt like all the terrible commercial TV I loved as a child (He-Man or Transformers anyone?) wasn’t any better so how could I judge just because I didn’t “get” it? It felt like I was being hypocritical and snobby.
And then I found myself having important “teachable moment” discussions with my kids about these shows that I wouldn’t normally have a context to discuss with them. For example: consumerism and advertising; the exploitation of children by their parents for financial gain; why they need to ask and get us to check to make sure what they’re watching is appropriate for them; how they should talk to us if they see something online that bothers them or they have questions; etc. It sounds pretty heavy and it is but I’ve been trying to keep the conversations short, light and age-appropriate and my kids seem to really be listening. I think the value in those conversations (maybe? hopefully?) outweighs the utter insipidness of the shows.
It’s also worth noting that I haven’t observed that these shows are negatively affecting their behavior or development as compared with when they were only watching the “good” stuff I handed picked for them. But I really do miss hearing the theme song from Peg + Cat…
So much great discussion on this topic! I’ve been thinking about this very topic a lot recently, trying to figure out a way to encourage my kids (ages 9 and 12) to do other stuff than gaming or watching shows or YouTube while not shaming them at the same time for time spent doing those things. I’m finding the book “Raising Humans in a Digital World” by Diana Graber to be helpful. Graber has been teaching digital literacy to middle schoolers for two decades – think of all the technology changes during that time! She has good perspective.
Cillian is 6 months old and so far I only have had him watch TV when I am in an intense state of needing “me time.” So far he’s watched short periods of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood and old Sesame Street. Reading through these comments for more ideas!
Hi! For a child so young, I would really recommend Baby Signing Time. Rachel Coleman has a website but you can also watch some on YouTube. I started this with both my boys around 8 months. The live faces are very engaging for babies and both of my boys started signing around 1 and were early talkers. The benefits of sign language for hearing children are many – every time someone with a child around the age of mine saw our communication, they were immediately interested. Which is exactly how I found out about it myself – seeing my friend’s daughter sign to get!
So many good comments here! Thank you!
I have a 2.5 year old and almost 4 year old. We do 1 show every morning, and the routine of it seems to be so predictable that there are no meltdowns. We also do movies 1-3xs a month, which they really enjoy (although can’t always finish) – I think it’s nice to show them longer narrative arcs!
Favorite shows are:
Daniel Tiger (Prime)
Mr. Rogers (Prime)
Llama Llama (Netflix – there’s one season – it’s very sweet – kind of Daniel Tiger-y for kids just growing out of that one)
Super Why (Prime – same creator as Daniel Tiger but focused on letters/phonics)
Disney movies/princesses happened and while there’s a lot of princess fever in our house, it’s been surprisingly totally okay. They love the music and do lots of their own imaginative play off of it, and when discussing hypothetical Halloween costumes, they often adamantly want to be random supporting characters or villains, so I’m not sweating it much.
The Llama Llama books are very sweet, too
After nearly 10 years of living together without a TV, my husband decided it was time to buy one last May…just in time for his birthday AND the World Cup (big eye roll, but I should add that he is French). I was so upset at first and was worried that it would interfere with our daily lives and was compromising our values, but honestly it has been great. As a family who also appreciates good television and cinema, it is a much nicer format than a laptop or iPad! I had thought it would be a slippery slope for our kids (5 and 3), but we keep “screen time” to weekends and sometimes a bit more on vacation. We try to keep it as a treat and something special without getting too restrictive (though I’m sure some people would see once a week viewing as restrictive). It’s just that at these ages, there’s plenty of fun to be had at the park, outdoors, at the library, drawing, jumping on the bed, etc.
So far our favorite shows and films have been:
-Puffin Rock (like so many other readers); I especially like that you can put this one into French, as we are a bilingual family
-Sarah and Duck
-Mouk (which we also watch in French but which is available in English)
-Winnie the Pooh
-The Land Before Time
-Room on the Broom
-The Snowy Day (this is a personal favorite at Christmas; I can’t watch it without tearing up)
-Planet Earth and The Hunt (my 5-year-old daughter is obsessed with David Attenborough shows, it seems)
-Frozen (Yup, we succumbed, and the kids LOVE it; Disney does a pretty good job with this one, though; could be worse; my kids will actually ask for just the music and will sit on the couch listening to the entire section of the soundtrack with words with rapt attention as if they were watching the movie!)
One more huge vote for Puffin Rock! I am neither a parent nor a caregiver, but I love it so, so much. It’s my sick day show. Not to seem too prescriptive/forward, but, Erin, I think you would love the graphics/animation. So gorgeous. Song of the Sea is also lovely. My favorite from those animators is The Book of Kells, which would be too scary for the little ones, but which, again, I think you would love!
We love the old Paddington stop motion shorts, I think they are from 1975 or so. Only about five minutes long and just lovely. As soon as the theme music starts I’m a kid again! I also liked Little Bear and Franklin when my kids were young. As they got a bit older, we watched Road To Avonlea and really enjoyed that as well. Even if the kids get into some scrapes, it was nice to see a show where they were doing things and having adventures.
Sometimes I feel as though we live in an alternate universe! Our kiddos go to Waldorf and media, Disney, and screen time is highly discouraged for the very young. I can understand the reasoning, ie it is thought children are more able to be in their own creative minds instead of acting out the characters in movies, etc. I do understand this and rather agree but at the same time am not opposed to some small shows. Kipper has always been a favorite and I look forward to some of the other ones mentioned. It really is situational and we all do our best w/in our specific situations, families, countries etc. Finding a balance and being open to change is what I embrace. PS The Moomins are awesome but can be a bit creepy for the very young. I’d say at least 6 for that one! Totorro has always been a favorite!
Sarah and Duck! So beautifully done.
Don’t forget CLANGERS! On netflix, a remake of the old british program. Stop-motion little knit creatures who don’t talk, just whistle, gently narrated by William Shatner. Everyone wins.
Mine is also into “If I were an animal” on netflix, a nature series narrated by 2 kids
– Mouk is wonderful and a firm favourite with our three year old (available in English and French on YouTube, and intermittently on Amazon Prime).
-Guess How Much I Love You, a British animated series based on the book of the same name is incredibly sweet and focused on friendships and nature. Unsure of streaming options outside of UK.
-The animated series of George & Martha (based on the classic books by James Marshall) is now oldish; however the animation and messaging holds up and is very funny. Can be found on YouTube.
-Twirly Woos is a British production aimed at toddlers/young pre-schoolers; short episodes (around 5 mins) that our son found hilarious when he was aged two. The first season is slightly more enjoyable than the second.
I’m reassured to read that it is not just our young son who finds the animated version of The Gruffalo too scary!
For slow and beautiful shorts, I’d like to recommend Lotte Reinigers black and white silhouette animations from the md-1920’s and forward. You can find most of the om YouTube and most of them are under 15 minutes (the majority of the story shorts are around 10 minutes). The earlier stories are silent films, the later have a story teller. Just a warning, some of the stories can be scary as they are based off the older versions of Grimm’s stories, so pre-screen before you show them to younger (or easily scared) children.
Lotte Reiniger was also a pioneer in animated movies and the first documented used of the multiplane camera (later patented by Disney) was from her studio in 1926. That movie, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, is the oldest surviving feature length animation (just over 60 minutes).
Our 5 year-old has just started watching Bob Ross episodes. We love them because they are slow paced and not heavily produced but mesmerizing. It would great for plane rides leading up to a nap or quiet time bc it’s not overly stimulating. In fact, his calm narration is soothing, almost meditative.
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