Whether it’s an impromptu game of freeze tag in the yard, or a free-form playdough sculpture contest, kids love to play. Parents of preschoolers and kindergarteners know that screen-free, battery-free play is best. But there are bound to be days when the TV beckons. Good news: with more and more quality television available, you don’t need to feel guilty about letting kids indulge every now and then. Should you choose Saturday cartoons or Sesame Street? We asked two experts, Deborah Linebarger, Ph.D., Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and director of the Children’s Media Lab, and Betsy Bozdech, Executive Editor of Common Sense Media, which shows they thought were Must See TV for preschoolers and kindergarteners.

Best TV for Preschoolers: Preschool plants the seeds for kindergarten, and TV can help, says Linebarger. “Research suggests that preschoolers develop story skills (like the ability to accurately sequence a story and identify its central content) and narrative skills (including an ability to identify key story events and make inferences about those events) by watching narrative-style programs,” she says. They also learn the style elements that make up written text, like compare/contrast, cause and effect, and description. “It’s good to get this type of exposure,” she says, “Because when kids transition from learning to read, to reading to learn, they have to be able to glean information from texts that are expository-based.” Without experience, this is a tough leap. For preschoolers, “interactivity” is another key thing to look for in a TV program, Bozdech says. “Characters will engage young viewers by asking direct questions and enlisting their ‘help’ and asking them to think of solutions. The reason that factor is so important is that it's the closest thing to interacting with a real person (like Mom or Dad!) -- which is still the ideal whenever possible, of course,” she says.

  • Super Why This show lays the groundwork for reading success, by teaching key early literacy skills like the alphabet and phonemic awareness. The characters in this program speak directly to the viewers: asking kids to help them, giving them an opportunity to respond, then providing feedback. This is a powerful way of actively involving kids in the learning process.
  • WordWorld This colorful, delightful series literally brings words to life --every character, place, and object is formed out of the letters that make up its name. It helps preschoolers recognize letters and understand how they form words, starting them on the path to literacy.
  • Blues Clues and Dora the Explorer (not the pre-teen version) Both of these programs use the same type of format as Super Why. They are narrative, with plots and characters to follow. Watching these shows helps kids learn to sequence and tell stories. Research into these programs has shown that kids not only learn the content from each episode, but that they also transfer that specific learning to their daily lives, once the tv is off.
  • Zooboomafoo "I just love this program. I have found that kids’ vocabulary scores go up when watching programs like this," Linebarger says. The hosts, the Kratt brothers, speak directly to kids and make it really fun to learn about animals and model positive social behaviors. The education portion of the show is really focused on building kids’ conceptual knowledge…which is key for preschoolers.
  • Sesame Street "There's a reason Sesame Street is a perennial favorite," Bozdech says. It teaches kids about a wide variety of subjects, from Spanish to sharing, and has some of the most appealing characters in kids' TV (who doesn't love Muppets?). And its dash of irreverence makes it fun for parents, too.
  • Sid the Science Kid "What I like about the show is that it accurately portrays preschool, does a great job of breaking down the scientific method and explaining it, and focuses on writing and documenting what you observe daily. It also captures the enthusiasm for learning that is typical of this age group," Linebarger says. And, it's all done in a narrative context, which makes it easier for preschoolers to learn the science content, since it's embedded in a story.
  • Reading Rainbow Reading Rainbow not only encourages reading but brings wonderful kids' books to its young viewers' attention. Plus, it goes beyond the page, taking kids further into the subjects brought up in the featured stories with documentary-style investigations on everything from trains to slavery. Bozdech gives it a thumbs up.
  • Little Einsteins "Both artistic and educational, Little Einsteins grabs kids' attention with its characters' exciting adventures-- and teaches them something at the same time," Bozdech says. Kids who watch learn about everything from classical music to art to photography -- plus teamwork and problem-solving.

Best TV for Kindergarteners: As kids get slightly older, they get savvier, too. That’s why it’s important when you’re talking about kindergarten kids to find shows that mix educational content with fun, engaging storylines and characters. “No kid wants to be 'talked at,' so integrating story and education smoothly is important,” Bozdech says. You can have a tremendous amount of learning happening without a show feeling like a lesson. This age is about making the transition to formal schooling, so it’s particularly useful for kids to watch programs that talk about, or are set in, schools. “That helps kids learn the conventions and get a sense of what school might be like,” Linebarger says. Most of the programs below also feature story lines that deal with school-related issues and social and emotional conflicts. “Watching and discussing these shows can be a way for parents to connect with their now school-age kids and help to evaluate whether and what their kids are experiencing in formal schooling,” Linebarger says.

  • New Electric Company Just like the '70s classic, PBS' new version of The Electric Company teaches reading skills like phonics, grammar, and spelling in an upbeat, engaging way. The storylines are funny and kid-friendly, partly disguising the fact that kids are learning real English lessons as they watch.
  • Arthur This program uses a narrative style and focuses on positive social interaction, as well as school-based learning, motivation, enthusiasm, and conflict resolution. Each episode is actually composed of two short stories averaging about 11-12 minutes each, with a short segment in between that links the two stories. Kids work on comprehension skills by having to keep track of both plots and link the two stories together, Linebarger says.
  • Between the Lions This show focuses on early literacy skills and conventional reading skills including decoding words, understanding silent e, blending and segmenting words, and different types of print (like poems, stories, or web pages). This program has been extensively studied. In fact, Linebarger has done extensive research on it herself! "Kids love it, and research shows that it also teaches key skills that help kids on the path to independent reading," she says. 
  • Magic School Bus This narrative-based show lets kids jump inside the goings-on of science. It’s a great example of tying a story to the actual educational content. In order to progress the story, they might have to become raindrops, for example.
  • Cyberchase Cyberchase blends adventure and learning, with the characters finding out things about real-life skills (like map reading) as they work to protect the land of "Cyberspace." Because it deals with computers and digital media, it has particular relevance in today's world.
  • WordGirl
  • In addition to teaching kids lots of great new vocabulary words, this show features a wonderful female role model for girls. Becky/WordGirl is smart and resourceful, preferring to defeat villains with words instead of violence.

In addition to monitoring what your kids watch, it's also important parents take note of how they're kids are watching TV. Linebarger has spent the past six years studying the impact of television use on language development, social development, and academic outcomes in children. “While watching TV doesn’t appear to be harmful,” she says, "there are some very important things to keep in mind." Here are her top six essentials:

  1. Read the credits. "Look for shows with a clear curriculum behind them. You’ll notice education consultants listed in the credits and on the website, they will clearly lay out what the curriculum is. Why? Because there’s been obvious forethought in putting together a program using strategies that help kids learn,” Linebarger says.
  2. Pay attention to bragging. Linebarger's most recent research found that shows making explicit claims, such as "this show teaches kids their ABCs," tend to include more learning strategies, compared to shows that say they "inspire" learning. "Basically, shows that make explicit claims do so because they know they can back it up with curriculum based objectives, goals , and the way they assemble the content," she says.
  3. Watch with your kids. Obviously you can’t do that every time. But if you can do it one out of ten times, you can make comments and connections to everyday life, and that’s when a whole set of things converge. Linebarger gives this example: "My almost three- year-old has been watching an episode of her favorite show, Zoomaphoo, over and over again. It’s about spots and stripes. We’ve used it as a jumping off point to explore tigers. We make believe we’re tigers, we read books about tigers, we see a show about tigers, we play with plastic tiger toys."
  4. Don’t demonize television. Linebarger says educational programs, defined as programs developed using a curriculum to convey educational messages, can positively impact academic achievement through childhood and adolescence. In fact, the more children view educational programming during the early years, the better their grades and the more books they read in high school. Conversely, watching excessive, non-educational programming has been linked to decreased academic performance in early childhood and beyond.
  5. Avoid commercials. If possible, watch television on demand, rather than in real time. Try to pick a channel that doesn’t have commercials, or at least fast forward through them. It’s very hard for kids to distinguish between a commercial and a program, which is why the American Psychological Society says there should be no marketing to kids 8 and under. If your child does see a commercial, talk about what the intent of a commercial is. Tell them that the product is likely not to look or behave like that when they see it in reality.
  6. Set limits. Watching television does not appear to be harmful in general. Still, parents may wish to develop some rules regarding their child’s television viewing, including when, what and how much is appropriate for their child to watch. In particular, you should ensure that the content your child views is age-appropriate, and teaches the academic and social lessons that you want your child to learn, while avoiding excessively violent, profane or sexual programming.

Whichever programs you choose, be sure to limit the amount of time kids spend in front of the tube. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time at all for kids under the age of two, and no more than 1-2 hours a day for children older than that. That includes all screen time -- computers, TV, DVDs, and video games. Be sure that kids are getting plenty of time to explore outside, think creatively, and play.

What about those zombies on the couch? “I know parents get concerned when their kids are so involved in a program that they don’t hear parents asking them questions,” Linebarger says. “But when your kid looks like a zombie it’s actually a good thing! It means that they are in a state of focused attention and this type of attention is associated with learning.”