If you're like most parents, you probably long for the days of simple TV shows for kids that were age-appropriate, educational...and that you could actually watch without cringing. Gone are the days of Lassie and Leave It To Beaver; instead, you're forced to deal with incessant whining, bossiness and misbehavior on some of the most popular kids' shows on air today.
Or are you? With so many channels to choose from, trying to find the best kids' television shows can be a daunting task for even the most media-savvy mom. Do you opt for the classics from your own childhood? How do newer offerings measure up to the old favorites?
Start by looking at the big picture. "There's plenty of TV out there that can entertain, teach great lessons, and offer up great role models," says Sierra Filucci, TV Editor at Common Sense Media. "...It's important to remember that TV is more than just entertainment—kids are absorbing all kinds of messages about popular culture and social cues."
Whether it's a rainy day or a lazy night in, the occasional screen time can be a bonding experience for the whole family. Before you schedule some quality viewing, check out this mix of time-tested classics and new favorites that are educational and won't drive you crazy.
- Sesame Street (PBS, ages 3+) This PBS classic has been a family-friendly favorite for years. Clever references to current events keep the show fresh, while classic characters and an age-appropriate pace is soothing for parents and kids alike. Your budding learner will soak up the basics from Elmo and friends, including alphabet practice, counting and life skills, such as sharing with friends. Narrate the show to your child and encourage her to ask questions—the interaction will keep her engaged and make sure she understands the concepts being explored onscreen.
- America's Cutest Pets (Animal Planet, ages 3+) Calling all animal lovers! This show compiles a series of clips from pet videos around the web, complete with "cuteness" ratings and commentary. Great for all ages, even the tiniest kid will delight in watching adorable puppies and kitties play, while giving you the opportunity to teach your child fun facts about their favorite household pets. Family-friendly graphics and a leisurely pace leaves this show with the perfect amount of stimulation for any little one.
- Jungle Junction (Disney Channel, ages 3+) Despite a fast pace and stimulating animation, this show is perfect for preschoolers to brush up on social skills. A colorful, animated group of animal pals provide lessons on problem-solving and communication; perfect for a kid getting used to interacting with others. Plus, basic skills like early number and letter recognition, friendship and following directions are also explored. Rest easy; this animal gang is free of any unsavory characters.
- Human Planet (Discovery, ages 5+) This series, which photographs life in many cultures, is the perfect opportunity to introduce your child to different ways of life around the world. Episodes focus on families and children in unusual or extreme habitats. Always interesting and often suspenseful—your child will stop complaining about her five-minute stroll to class after she sees a small Tibetan girl braving a treacherous ice shelf during her 60 mile trek to school.
- A.N.T. Farm (Disney Channel, ages 7+) The kids on "A.N.T. Farm" glorify big brains in this comedy series about super-intelligent, but sometimes socially awkward, tweens (A.N.T. stands for Advanced Natural Talents, the fictional "gifted" program that these kids attend). Most every episode has a positive social message about bullying, popularity or another vital middle school issue.
- SciGirls (PBS, ages 7+) This girl-centered science and nature show is sure to encourage your kid to at least occasionally opt for test tubes over tiaras. Izzie, the star of the show, is likable and relatable as she explores the world of math and science through female eyes. Encourage your budding scientist to explore even more concepts after the credits roll; the show's website is full of science project ideas, games, videos and more.
- Last American Cowboy (Animal Planet, ages 8+) Giddy up! Forget iPhones and tablets; this series follows real-life families taking care of their ranches the way people have done for hundreds of years. Mild language may offend younger kids, but this riveting look inside a unique world is fascinating. A great show for any child who's ever wondered what real cowboys (and cowgirls) do.
- H2O; Just Add Water (Nickelodeon, ages 8+) Three young girls struggle with common issues like self-esteem, cliques and popularity—all while adjusting to life as part-time mermaids with special powers. This program is an interesting mix of fantasy and reality with positive messages about girl-power, friendship and conflict resolution.
Whether you opt for old-school shows or explore new favorites, keep Filucci's simple guidlines in mind as you review what your child watches. "Find shows that model positive social behavior. These are programs that help kids learn to take responsibility for their actions, or how to stand up to bullies; Second, look for shows that broaden your child's understanding of the world, and provide practical application of some of the things she's learning in school."
With proper planning by parents, TV time can complement what your child learns in school, reinforce positive life lessons and provide time for family bonding.