When it comes to children’s programming, there is an important balance to be found in content that is engaging, educational, and age-appropriate — and that won’t make you want to blow things up if, god forbid, you have to hear Horrid Henry’s voice one. More. Time.
Luckily, there are plenty of animated shows out there for little kids that they’ll want to watch over and over and that are so refreshing that not only will you not want to rip your own ears off — you might actually find yourself curling up on the couch right next to them to partake.
Because I care about you and I want you to find peace in your home, I have compiled for you a list of animated shows your kids will love and you won’t hate — with the help of our Offspring Facebook parenting group and fellow parent (and Lifehacker’s managing editor) Joel Cunningham.
I (Meghan) considered leaving Bluey off this list as a joke, but I don’t want my inbox to fill up with your fury, so here you go. This was, easily, the most mentioned show from the Facebook group (which recommended somewhere near 100 different shows, by the way). I’m not super familiar with it, given that it came out when my son was past the Disney Junior phase, but I did go down a Bluey YouTube rabbit hole yesterday after so many people in our group sang its praises. And, well, I’ll let a sample of them speak to its unparalleled greatness, in case you, too, are unfamiliar with it (if its placement on the New York Times’ best TV of 2020 list isn’t convincing enough):
“Seriously, it’s our favourite show right now. I think we love it more than the kids do.” (Jason)
“Bluey is for all ages, including parents for two hours after the kids go to school and you leave it on anyway.” (Ryan)
“Bluey is the best!” (Jen)
“Bluey is amazing, and I’m so happy there’s a second season now! I love the Dad.” (Rivkah)
“As many have mentioned, Bluey is THE BEST. For everyone.” (Maggie)
“One show that I can’t understand why it doesn’t get more love is Tumble Leaf,” says Facebook group member Steven. “It’s about a fox and his friends who solve basic problems with common sense and science. It has great messages and is sometimes really funny. I highly recommend it. It’s my kids favourite show by far, though Bluey is a close second.”
It’s worth noting that several of our group members sang the praises of Tumble Leaf, and a few pointed out that although kids love it, they may not often ask for it — but if you put it on, they’ll watch. That’s probably because, as group member Kevin points out, “It’s kind of quiet and chill, and not as stimulating as some other kid shows [my son] likes. But then, that’s exactly why I like it! Perfect for when you want your kid to chill out some.” (Meghan)
Wallykazam! was only around for two seasons, which is a shame because it’s adorable. Set in a fairy tale word, it follows seven-year-old Wally (a blue troll) who uses a magic stick to turn words into real objects or actions. He and his pet dragon, Norville, along with his friend Gina Giant, sometimes run into trouble — most often caused by Bobgoblin — as they teach kids how to trace letters, use rhyming words, or highlight one of the five vowels. (Meghan)
This is one for the two- to three-year-old crowd, for when you want to let them watch a bit of TV without overstimulating them. Each episode is animated in soft colours and clocks in at less than 20 minutes, as Oona and Baba go on adventures exploring the lovely island of Puffin Rock.
Kate in our Facebook group also says: “Lovely music, very calm, sweet characters, a nice message, and a plus for parents: lots of puns from the narrator.” (Meghan)
My kids both love the Fancy Nancy books, about a regular girl who is determined to make everything in her life as elegant as can be. They’re a great way to remind kids that something boring can actually be exciting if you look at it in the right way, and the TV series adaptation manages to keep that spirit of enthusiasm intact — and capture the flavour of Robin Preiss Glasser’s original drawings, even in CGI. (Joel)
Team Umizoomi is a classic that should never go out of style. This tiny team has cruises around Umi City, saving the day using their mighty maths powers — which, incidentally, helps little kids learn to count.
Here’s what Vanessa in our group says: “My 2.5-year-old really loves it. I like it because it asks the kids watching to ‘help,’ and I feel like my daughter is more engaged with the show and not just a zombie consuming the images. She gets really into it and calls out the shapes and numbers that she can recognise.” (Meghan)
I cannot, in good conscience, compile a list of the best kids’ cartoons and not slide Dinosaur Train in toward the top. This was my own son’s absolute favourite show when he was about two to four years old, and is one of the major contributing factors that led to his years-long obsession with all things dinosaur.
The show follows a family of pteranodons who adopt a t-rex named Buddy and then travel the world (on the dinosaur train, of course) to meet other species of dinosaurs and learn about science and nature. (Meghan)
If your kids enjoy the gentler Studio Ghibli movies like Ponyo and My Neighbour Totoro, they’ll probably fall for Hilda, a strong-willed, blue-haired girl who laments being forced to move from her magical forest home and into the big city. Hilda lives in a world where magic and monsters are real (her best bud is a tiny elf), but not in a scary way (this show is Canadian, after all); her pet is an adorable deer fox and the spirits and creatures they encounter on their adventures are more adorable than abominable.
Kids will relate to Hilda’s adventurous spirit and worries about finding her place, while parents will enjoy the gorgeous watercolor animation and clever humour (in order to be able to see little elf Arthur, Hilda’s mum has to fill out some paperwork). (Joel)
Peg + Cat
Peg and her sidekick, Cat, embark on adventures together in which they must problem-solve using maths concepts and skills — all while trying not to freak out along the way.
Group member Sarah describes Peg + Cat as “a maths show that introduces concepts with great music. It’s very quirky, and I didn’t get too sick of it even though [my daughter] watched it nonstop for a whole year from ages three and a half to four and a half.”
And that’s great because not getting too sick of a show is the main goal here. (Meghan)
I grew up watching the OG Muppet Babies on Saturday mornings, and admittedly that show captured more of the, er, Gonzo spirit of our flocked friends’ adult counterparts, so it means something when I say I also fell for this newer, shorter, CGI series, which is definitely aimed at littler kids — or at least it feels less dangerous (everything was more dangerous in the ‘80s). What’s retained: A cast of loveable characters and storylines that place the power of imagination at the forefront. (Joel)
If Nature Cat isn’t already a favourite in your home, it will quickly become one. This isn’t a show about an ordinary house cat — this is about a “backyard explorer extraordinaire.” Nature Cat and his buds (Hal the Dog, Daisy the Bunny, and Squeeks the Mouse) take off on explorations whenever his human family leaves the house for the day — and they learn all about the great outdoors along the way.
For years, whenever my son dropped some surprising and interesting nature knowledge on me and I’d ask where he learned it, the answer was often, “Nature Cat.” (Meghan)
Molly from our Facebook group describes this one for us: “Numberblocks, which could work for [kids ages two to seven] is one of the most brilliant shows for kids I’ve ever seen. It puts visuals to maths in such a way that kids can understand them and retain the concepts it’s teaching. The episodes are only five minutes each, and it’s a series we’ve been all the way through multiple times. Plus, I find it pretty entertaining as an adult!”
Ask the StoryBots
If your kids have questions, the StoryBots (Beep, Boop, Bing, Bang, and Bo) will find the answers. From “Why do I have to brush my teeth?” and “Why can’t I eat dessert all the time?” to “Why do people look different?” and “How do cell phones work?,” the StoryBots (which are adorably expressive as far as bots go) will come through with a solid investigation every time. (Meghan)
Kipper is a show that I never would’ve known existed without the internet. Apparently it’s an institution in the U.K., but I had never seen the wiggly watercolor pup before my daughter happened upon him on YouTube about five years ago. I think I ended up liking the show more than she did — in spare animation with muted colours and lots of white space in the background, it follows the very low-key day-to-day adventures of a very polite, well-spoken dog and his friends. It reminds me a lot of Frog and Toad, which is a very good thing. (Joel)
Daniel Tiger’s Neighbourhood
I mean, duh. Daniel Tiger is every preschool parent’s go-to show for its focus on kindness, inclusivity, patience, and helpfulness. Daniel has a catchy song for any challenging situation, including cleaning up, feeling mad (or sad, or jealous), getting sick, or needing to apologise. It really should be required viewing for preschoolers and adults alike. (Meghan)
This Netflix series is a perfect translation of the picture book series from the late Anna Dewdney, with the added bonus that it isn’t entirely in rhyme. Much like Daniel Tiger in scope, it follows the anthropomorphic title character and his animal friends as they do regular little kid things like deal with bullies or get mad at their parents. It’s really charming. (Joel)
Molly of Denali
This one was suggested to us by group member Jen, who says: “Molly of Denali is a wonderful show for 4- to 8-year-olds. It’s set in Alaska and a lot of the characters are First Nations. They have a beautiful episode talking about the impact of the Residential School System on Molly’s grandfather in a really accessible, age-appropriate way. Also, lots of learning about their environment and how to use multiples sources to access information. Great show!”
If you want your kids to learn cool things about animals, you need to cue up Wild Kratts immediately. These animated versions of the real-life Kratt brothers (Martin and Chris) travel to all corners of the Earth in search of adventure, to meet new animals, and then to activate their “creature power suits” to save their new animal friends.
The (non-animated version of the) Kratt brothers also are the creative force behind Kratts’ Creatures, Zoboomafoo, and the live-action adventure series Be The Creature. (Meghan)
True and the Rainbow Kingdom
True reminds me of Adventure Time for the preschool set — it is extremely cute, populated by smiling, talking candies, fruits, and other unusual creatures, all of whom swirl around a girl named True who is constantly getting into scrapes that can only be solved with help from the magical Wishing Tree.
Apparently the style was inspired by the work of two pop artists, Samuel Borkson and Arturo Sandoval III, and I could look at it all day. The plots are pretty fun and silly; True is an extremely likable, capable protagonist; and there’s a talking cat.
Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum
This one was suggested by group member Sarah, who says she “liked the diversity of Xavier Riddle, even if the concepts are certainly simplified — plus there’s a more detailed book series [Ordinary People Change the World] that goes along with it.”
Xavier, Yadina, and Brad travel back time to meet famous heroes of the past, such as Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez, Confucius, Ella Fitzgerald, Abraham Lincoln, and Carol Burnett — while also soaking up lessons on how they can be the heroes of their present. (Meghan)
Lots of people think Peppa Pig is annoying, and, fair, maybe, especially if you live in the U.K., where her accent is probably judged less intrinsically adorable. But I just love hearing the characters talk, and I appreciate the fact that Peppa’s parents often seem at a loss when it comes to the kid-like antics of her and her little brother George. Also, the episodes are like four minutes long, which makes them ideal if you have the kind of kid who wants to watch “just one more episode” before you turn off the TV.
Elinor Wonders Why
Elinor Wonders Why is a favourite of group member Nanda, who says it, “has great music and poses questions that are precursors for applying the scientific method, in ways that coincidentally align to kid’s preschool curriculum. Adults can make sense of the plots and neither are mind-numbingly slow like some of the shows for littles.”
Pocoyo is a charming series very much in the Peppa Pig vein, albeit in a very different style (it’s a Spanish-British coproduction). In each brief episode, Pocoyo has a mild adventure alongside his animal friends — a duck, and elephant, and a dog — each soothingly narrated (in the English version) by Stephen Fry. This is one for the younger set, with the narrator doing a lot of handholding for the kids, but it goes down easy, and the rather bizarre CGI character designs are endearing. (Joel)
There are lots of kids shows that focus on maths and literacy (which is great!), but what makes Little Einsteins unique and loveable is its focus on classical music, renowned artwork, and world culture. Each episode features a mission that Leo, Annie, Quincy, and June embark on (in their “favourite rocketship,” appropriately named Rocket). Particularly if your child is naturally musically inclined, this show will become an instant favourite, and you won’t mind it a bit. (Meghan)
Sarah & Duck
Facebook group member Maggie recommended this one, saying, “Sarah & Duck is strange and delightful, and I love how the strangeness is just absorbed into the story. There’s no, ‘Oh hey, new friend! You’re different because you have glasses/are autistic/are in a wheelchair/etc! Now let’s talk about how it’s so great that you’re different but we all love each other!’ They are just hella weird and no one bats an eye.”
Super Why! scratches a kid’s itch for magical adventure, solid storytelling, and super hero action — all while teaching them alphabet skills, word families, spelling, reading comprehension, and vocabulary. Four friends take turns having “super big problems” or a “super big mystery” to solve — and they know that the best way to a solution is to “look in a book” for the solution. As long as they follow along the storyline, they’re sure to find the answers they need. (Meghan)
The Bravest Knight
Molly in our group recommends this one, saying, “My kids started watching it when they were almost three, and we have been through the series so many times over the last two and a half years I can’t even count anymore. The series values being yourself, is extremely LGBTQ+ friendly, has a dynamite voice cast, and teaches some sort of moral/social-emotional lesson with each episode. The medieval setting is a lot of fun (dragons! castles! giants! wizards!), but the show subverts a lot of the tropes that usually come along with that setting. The book that the series is based on is also great, and is one of my kids’ favourite bedtime stories.”
There are plenty of kids’ shows out there cover exploration of the nature and creatures who live on land, whether here on Earth, in other worldly places, or during prehistoric times. But what about the oceans? There’s so much to discover there — and the Octonauts are here to take us on those adventures.
The characters have just the right mix of determination, courage, perseverance, and innocence to help us all rest easy that they, indeed, will “explore, rescue, and protect!” (Meghan)
As long as we’re under water, let’s spend some time with a pack of guppies, shall we? The Bubble Guppies are a school of fish who attend class together and learn about different topics, with each episode focusing on a different theme, such as elephants, ballet, bugs, sports, or space. There are sketches, field trips, catchy tunes, and celebrity guest appearances by the likes of Ozzy Osbourne and George Takei. (Meghan)
When the doc is in, you know that no toy will suffer — no matter how torn, deflated, or broken they may get. Kids love this series (and parents find it endearing, too) because it helps alleviate a child’s natural fear of the “ouchies” — and of doctors offices, in general. Plus, Doc McStuffins has a magical stethoscope, which she uses to cause toys, dolls, and stuffed animals to come to life, and that’s just rad. (Meghan)
Sofia the First
I’m not one to typically recommend much by way of princess storylines, but Sofia isn’t your average (mini) damsel-in-distress figure; instead, the show is full of adventure and emphasises that being royal is really about being honest, loyal, and compassionate.
Facebook group member Rachel agrees with me, saying, “Sofia the First has some good lessons about collaboration, friendship, communication — and satisfies my kiddo’s princess obsession.” (Meghan)
Spirit Riding Free
My vote for “unlikeliest kids’ TV success” of the last few years is this, an offshoot of the nearly 20-year-old animated film Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, which failed to make its budget back in theatres but is now paying dividends (always bet on girls and horses). The TV version is pretty different from the film, which takes place during the American Indian Wars and foregrounds a horse whose thoughts were voiced by Matt Damon; the show is set in a frontier town and is focused on the experiences of a girl named Fortuna, who has just moved there from the city.
Notably, its diverse cast of characters features Indigenous and Latinx rep. It’s a great choice when your kids have exhausted every episode of Sofia the First. (Joel)
Dragons: Rescue Riders
Group member Steven wanted to highlight this show, describing it as, “a spin-off of How to Train Your Dragon but for younger kids. It has great characters and has positive role models for both boys and girls. It’s a good show that is all about found families working together to help those around them.”
Stinky and Dirty
This show, about the adventures of two friends — Stinky the garbage truck and Dirty the backhoe loader — is recommended to us by group member Kevin, who says, “this one (based on a book series that my son also loves) has had multiple rewatches. Lots of fun guest stars for the parents to notice, as well.”
I have a typically vehicle-obsessed little boy, but he never quite got into Thomas the way a lot of kids do, which is fine with me (creepy). He does like Chuggington, which is sort of the off-brand CGI version of the original kids’ train show, and I don’t mind it at all: It has that same sort of gentle British pacing and relatable lessons, minus the over-the-top action and loud energy of American shows like Paw Patrol. Also, that theme song will stick with you. (Joel)