I have two little boys. They’re sweet, kind and funny, but they can also be exhausting. Not just because they’re boys who like to run, jump, tackle and challenge me, but because they’re not great sleepers. It’s not unusual for the first number on the clock to be 5 when they wake up and 8 when they finally drift off. And naps, well, those rarely enter the picture. Not because they don’t need downtime, but because getting my boys to rest their bodies and minds is virtually impossible. There is one way they’ll sit still for more than three minutes—watching a cartoon.
Not only am I at peace with my kids watching cartoons, I feel good about it. First of all, because after relaxing (without touching each other, no less!) for a bit, my kids are recharged and ready to jump back into playing. But also because I can’t count the number of times one of them has told me a fascinating fact and credited some animated character for the knowledge.
Here’s my guide to the five and under crowd. You know, based on five years of experience.
If you’ve got a curious little one, or a budding scientist…
This has been one of our all-time favorites and it breaks my heart a little that Big has outgrown it. Not only does George test, fail and try again to come up with a real-life lesson and solution to each problem, but after each segment, there’s a quick clip with kids doing real-life experiments. Big was always eager to try the experiment and he’s shown a passion for science that certainly didn’t come from Lenny or me.
Note: Not only is the PBS cartoon great, the movies Curious George and Curious George 2 are as well. Both soundtracks are among my favorite CDs—I even listen to them without the kids.
The Cat in the Hat
I’m a huge fan of Dr. Seuss and I think this cartoon does a great job of bringing his spirit to life. It not only plays on kids’ imaginations, it teaches really interesting tidbits like how bees make honey and desert plants stay cool in the heat. My kids have a whole new appreciation for bird poop now knowing it could be carrying seeds of interesting plants to our yard.
My kids know more ‘Saurouses and ‘Anadons than I knew possible. This show does a great job of teaching adventure, while focusing on peer interaction and emotions as well.
This one is new to us and it’s been a hit—not yet categorized by Big as a “baby cartoon” (thanks so much to all my Facebook friends who told me about this in an effort to help me avoid some of the “older” cartoons). It turns real-life brothers into animated action adventurers who teach more advanced lessons about animals in the wild.
If your little one needs new ways to understand big feelings…
Mickey Mouse Clubhouse
The problem solving and teamwork—with a side of mousey fun—is great for the younger spectrum. Don’t forget to do the Hot Dog Dance—bonus points if you can pull off Goofy’s move.
As little trains with big personalities navigate the grown up world on tracks, they learn responsibility, teamwork and other big lessons along the way.
Jake & the Never Land Pirates
These little pirates work together to solve problems, conquer fears and even help their nemesis, Captain Hook. It’s a fun escape into an imaginary world, but don’t be surprised if your kids start using words like “blast” and “scallywag”.
This is one of my personal favorites. Olivia’s imagination, confidence and charisma are contagious. There are strong characters with very different personality types and the show does a great job of showing the challenges and triumphs of each.
For the budding readers…
Once I get over thinking Duck is doing a bad Bill Clinton impersonation, I love the way this show plays with letters, sounds and feelings. I can’t help but think the songs and stories helped Big pay more attention so when it came time to read, he was a bit more confident in sound combinations and rhymes.
I like that this show teaches kids the power of words in a positive way. The super reader heroes dive into a story where they change a word to adjust the ending. This helps them solve a real-life problem one of the characters has encountered outside of the story as well. I think it’s empowering and makes reading fun.
Every time I watch I’m in awe. How can anyone choreograph cartoons so beautifully? The characters are quirky, as are their adventures, but each episode has a different type of music and dance to tell the story. (So you know I’m in.) My boys’ favorite part is guessing what the snack is going to be at the end.
The musical lessons in this one are big, but something about it makes it feel like it’s for little ones. This merges real-life images (like the Eiffel Tower and Golden Gate Bridge) with animated characters who, of course, are out to save the day.
Fresh Beat Band
I’ve seen plenty of people gripe about this one on Facebook, but I love it. The characters are always positive, quirky and fun. The music is contagious and it has great lessons about friendship and problem solving. My favorite part is spotting former So You Think You Can Dance contestants as background dancers.
When your kids start calling all the others baby cartoons…
Phineas and Ferb
Though I avoided the pre-teen angst and slap-stick fighting for a long time, it was bound to become a part of my world with two little boys. And who would have known I’d enjoy it as much as they do? This is a wonderfully written cartoon that appeals to kids and parents on different levels. Two creative, adventurous brothers, one annoying, but endearing big sister and a secret agent platypus you can’t help but adore. Even the bad guy is lovable.
Penguins of Madagascar
This takes slap-stick and name calling to a new level, but again, Lenny and I spend more time laughing than the boys. If you loved the Madagascar movies, chances are you’ll love King Julian and those zany penguins as they solve mysteries and explore different relationships along the way.
So what do you think? What did I get wrong? What did I miss? What non-baby cartoons can I let my kids watch that won’t turn them into sword wielding maniacs or nightmare-infested insomniacs?