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An early childhood psychologist offers her take on the best programming for young kids.

By Julia Sullivan
February 24, 2021
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Screen time for younger kids can come with mixed emotions for parents. Smartphones, tablets, and televisions aren't always seen as the best thing when it comes to a child's brain development—the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends kids ages 2 to 5 receive less than an hour of screen time per day, while those younger than 24 months see no screens at all (except for video chatting).

But as any parent in 2020 (and well into 2021) likely knows, screens can provide some temporary respite for cooped-up kids home from school and their caregivers. It would likely also come as no surprise that 7 out of 10 parents now report their kids spending as much as four hours on screens each day (up from three hours pre-pandemic), according to data from global data intelligence company Morning Consult.

Still, as anyone who has watched Fred Rogers', aka Mister Rogers', now viral six-minute U.S. Senate testimony advocating for increased funding for public childhood shows can tell you, some screens—and more importantly, a certain type of programming—can play an important, positive role in a young child's development. In fact, a study from Texas Tech University on the PBS show Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood (an extension of the classic Mister Rogers' Neighborhood) found that watching the program resulted in greater emotional recognition, empathy, and self-efficacy in young children.

But those findings come with a caveat: The children only displayed those traits when their parents consistently talked to them about what they were watching.

And as Karen Molano, Psy.D., a psychologist specializing in infants and early childhood, adds, certain programs can provide an opportune moment for parents to teach kids valuable lessons about family and relationships with others. "When a caregiver interacts with a child while watching a show, the higher likelihood that the child will retain the information and use it or reenact it in real life," she explains. "When young children see characters that they can relate to, they are likely to reenact what they see in real life, especially through pretend play, which gives them more opportunities to practice those skills."

While it's not necessary for parents to watch all programs with their children, occasionally choosing (and joint viewing) a show can be beneficial for families. Here are some of Dr. Molano's top television choices that help to teach valuable lessons—for both kids and parents.

For discussing tough subjects with sensitivity: Ask the StoryBots

An image of the show Ask the StoryBots.
Credit: Courtesy of Netflix.

"StoryBots is at the top of my list when it comes to educational programming for children," explains Dr. Molano. "Research shows that children learn information best when it's presented in a rhythmic, repetitive, and relational manner, which is exactly what this show does."

The premise is relatively straightforward: Ask a single question and spend the duration of the episode answering it. But what makes it unique is the depth of the questions themselves, including titles that range from "Why do we need to recycle?" to "Why do people look different?"

Netflix, ages 3+

For compassion and kindness toward others: Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood

An image of the show Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.
Credit: Courtesy of PBS.

For parents who grew up watching Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, its modern-day extension of the series, Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, should look and feel pretty familiar, moving through episodes centered around compassion, kindness, and relationships with others. "The show emphasizes the importance of loved ones and how families can support one another in a way that makes children feel safe," says Dr. Molano.

"Friends are Different and the Same" and "Find What Makes Your Family Special" are two standpoint episodes for family viewing. 

PBS Kids, ages 2+

For solving problems as a family: Bluey

An image of the show Bluey.
Credit: Courtesy of Australian Broadcasting Corporation Kids.

"Bluey really focuses on the importance of the relationship between a caregiver and child," explains Dr. Molano. "It models parental support during difficult times, but also shows children how to be independent and problem-solve on their own." The show centers around a Blue Heeler puppy named Bluey and her mother, father, and younger sister. Dr. Molano notes that the dog parents often play pretend with Bluey and her sibling, providing a playbook for real-life families to interact imaginatively.

Try "Camping" where Bluey and a French Labrador named Jean-Luc form a friendship despite a language divide. "Take Away," another solid pick, shows Bluey's parents managing a family in chaos as they wait to pick up takeout food. (Sound familiar?)

Disney Plus, ages 4+

For the importance of role models: Doc McStuffins

An image of the show Doc McStuffins.
Credit: Courtesy of Disney.

Another favorite of Dr. Molano's, Doc McStuffins, is all about problem-solving on the surface—the main character, Doc, uses critical thinking to "diagnose" and "heal" her toys. But more importantly, the show centers around setting positive examples for others, as Doc's mother (the primary breadwinner of the family) is a physician herself. Meanwhile, Doc acts as a role model to her younger siblings.

Plus, as Dr. Molano adds, there's another less-than-obvious lesson being played out: "Kids might be slightly less leery of visiting their own doctor after viewing the experience in the show's non-threatening light." Although the show ended in April 2020, you can still catch empowering episodes like "Bedazzled!" and "Pet Rescue: A Pet for Everyone" streaming.

Disney Plus, ages 4+

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