4 Kids TV Shows That Actually Teach Valuable Life Lessons

Discover an early childhood psychologist's take on the best programming for young kids.

Screen time for younger kids can come with mixed emotions for parents. Smartphones, tablets, and televisions aren't always seen as the best thing for a child's brain development—and for good reason.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) discourages all screen time (other than video chatting) for children younger than 18 months and recommends that any digital media introduced between 18 and 24 months be "high quality" and used together with caregivers. By age 2, the AAP recommends limiting screen use to an hour or less per day.

Still, as anyone who has watched Fred Rogers', aka Mister Rogers', now viral six-minute U.S. Senate testimony from 1969 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 preschoolers.

So, what shows should you choose for your child's limited screen time? Read on to learn about what the experts say.

What Experts Say About Children's Programming

As any parent likely knows, screens can provide much-needed respite for cooped-up kids and their caregivers. But not all children's programming is created equal—and it's not just the shows you choose for your kids that matter.

While the Texas Tech University study findings suggest that there are potential benefits to shows like Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, the findings come with a caveat: The children only displayed the positive traits researchers identified when their parents consistently talked to them about what they were watching. That is to say that it wasn't the show alone that positively influenced the children's behavior.

Karen Molano, Psy.D., a psychologist specializing in infants and early childhood, adds that 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 [the] 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."

TV Shows That Can Teach Valuable Lessons

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 four 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.
Courtesy of Netflix.

Ask the StoryBots on Netflix is great for discussing tough subjects with sensitivity and is geared toward audiences aged 3 and up.

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

For compassion and kindness: Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood

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

Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood on PBS Kids is excellent at teaching kids compassion and kindness toward others. This show is created for kids ages 2 and up.

For parents who grew up watching Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, this modern-day animated series should look and feel 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 standout episodes for family viewing.

For solving problems as a family: Bluey

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

Bluey on Disney Plus does a wonderful job teaching its young audience how to solve problems together as a family. Bluey is a great show for kids ages 4 and up.

"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 the episode "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 chaotic family as they wait to pick up takeout food. (Sound familiar?)

For the importance of role models: Doc McStuffins

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

Doc McStuffins on Disney Plus is a fantastic pick for teaching kids the importance of role models. This show is for kids ages 4 and up.

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 family's primary breadwinner) is a physician herself. Meanwhile, Doc acts as a role model to her younger siblings.

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

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