Raising Richmond: Must-see TV

Six kids’ shows that won’t make you want to fill your ears with boiling lava and/or stab your eyeballs with a fork.

I’m just going to come out and say it: our son JR loves TV. And movies. Anything on a screen, really. At just over four years old, he can already operate the Roku and navigate through the iPad Netflix app totally on his own.1

As fellow lovers of all things related to moving pictures, my husband and I are so proud we can hardly stand it.

Now before you get all worked up into a tizzy, let me clarify something: just because each and every member of our family loves television doesn’t mean we spend all day, every day sacked out in front of one.2 Ain’t nobody got time for that! We’ve got work (us), school (him), and various extracurricular activities (us watching him), just like everyone else. But when we actually do have the chance to catch our collective breath, you’ll usually find us piled up on the couch watching something together.

You’ll notice I said “together.”

Sure, good ol’ Stevie the TV3 has served us quite well as a babysitter in a pinch,4 but more often than not, television-watching is a family affair in our house. It’s just part of our culture,5 if you will.

Of course, finding something that’s both appropriate and tolerable for all members of our family can be tricky. If it were only up to our son, there’s a very good chance we’d spend every evening watching SpongeBob SquarePants (augh), Power Rangers (augh!), or Calliou (AUGH).6 But luckily, since he’s only four and, thus, his tastes are still somewhat malleable, my husband and I have managed to steer him in the direction of a few more “whole-family-friendly” selections, i.e. shows7 that kids and parents can enjoy together. Or, at the very least, shows that manage to entertain kids while also suppressing any parental urges to run screaming for the hills.

Take a look at a handful of our faves…

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1. Yo Gabba Gabba

I’ll just go ahead and start with an obvious choice. As many of you already know, the kids these days are absolutely gaga for Gabba. But do you know why? Because it’s actually a really, really lovely show. Seriously! I’m not saying my husband and I have plans to curl up and rip through episodes on our own after the little one’s tucked in for the night, but I’m more than willing to watch a couple with our son. The music is catchy, DJ Lance (our tall and lanky host) is energetic but not exhausting, and what parent wouldn’t get behind a show teaching simple (yet important) concepts like “Cover your mouth” and “Don’t bite your friends”?

The fact that Biz Markie makes an appearance now and then doesn’t hurt either.

2. Dinosaur Train

So there’s this T-Rex (named Buddy, because sure) who pops out of his egg to find himself in the nest of a family of pteranodons–including three little pteranodons who hatched right alongside him. Mr. and Mrs. Pteranodon decide to raise Buddy as their own, and in an effort to help Buddy learn about himself (and to learn about all dinosaurs in general), this mixed-species dino clan hops onto the time-traveling locomotive that is “The Dinosaur Train” to explore the ins and outs of the Mesozoic Era.

OK, the premise sounds much clunkier than it comes across on screen, but trust me. It’s fine.

Your kids will love the cute-but-not-cutesy characters and storylines, and parents can rest assured that this Jim Henson Company production is dropping some serious knowledge on those little ones. Every dinosaur featured on the show is an actual dinosaur discovered by paleontologists, and each episode ends with an appearance from Dr. Scott who helps the kids see how those Reptiles of Yore compare to present-day animals. He also never fails to sign off with “Remember, get outside, get into nature, and make your own discoveries!” I can’t help but love that.

3. Between the Lions

Once your kiddo starts to age out of Sesame Street, consider moving on to this equally puppet-centric but more literacy-focused gem of a television program. Geared towards ages four through seven, Between the Lions focuses on a library-operating family of lions (because, again, sure) who make it their business to get your kids “wild about reading.” During each episode the lions introduce and share a book (ranging from ancient fables to contemporary favorites) with the audience, often engaging in dialogue that helps young viewers pick up on the story’s theme. The rest of the show focuses on more specific language and reading skills through segments like “Gawain’s Word” (featured in the clip above); “Tiger Words” who always manages to pull through and win the remarkably golf-life spelling championships; and “Dr. Ruth Wordheimer”, a therapist for words who are dissatisfied with their meanings.

And there’s also this which will be in your head always and forever…but if you’re like me, you won’t mind one bit.

4. Phineas & Ferb

Sure, shows that teach your kids social skills, build on their scientific knowledge, nurture their language development are all well and good. But you know what’s also important? The funny–at least in our house. And this wicked smart Disney Channel original is totally fun, delightfully absurd, and jam-packed with clever dialogue and pop culture references that won’t just leave you chuckling. I’m talking legit LOLs here–for kids and parents.

Each episode follows Phineas and his stepbrother, Ferb,8 as they undertake some grand new project, much to the chagrin of their sister, Candace, who makes it her life’s mission to “bust” her brothers. They also have a pet platypus who is really a secret agent tasked with foiling Dr. Heinz Doofenschmirtz’s evil plots to take over the Tri-State area.

The episodes are quite formulaic, but not in a bad way at all. In fact, I think the predictable structure of the show and its numerous running gags are part of what make it so much fun for families. My husband and I constantly allude to it in conversations with our son (and, let’s be honest, with each other), helping us establish that most magical and powerful of bonding tools: the inside joke.

5. Pingu

Look, I have no idea what’s going on with it either, but I do know two things: 1) this was the first show that our son ever laughed at (as in, he didn’t just stare at it with his mouth open) and 2) there is nary a whiny child or annoying theme song in sight. Just give it a chance. At the very least, the claymation will serve as inspiration for your next Play-Doh session.

6. Avatar: The Last Airbender


No, not that Avatar.9

This Avatar takes place in a world where civilization is divided into four nations, each one corresponding to one of the four elements: water, earth, fire, and air. Within each group are “benders,” individuals who can manipulate their nation’s element in order to protect their land, fight off enemies, and just sort of kick ass in general. At the start of the show, the leader of the Fire Nation is well on his way to taking over the entire world. The only one who can stop him is Aang, a twelve-year-old airbender (the last of his kind, hence the name of the show) who is also the Avatar, AKA master of all four elements.

Yes, it all sounds very epic and nerdy, which it sort of is. But it also ranks as one of my favorite television shows of all time. I know, that’s a pretty heavy endorsement for a cartoon, but watch a few episodes and you’ll be right there with me–and so will your kids. Layered (but not complicated) storylines hold your attention from episode to episode and season to season, and you’ll find yourself genuinely loving Aang (who is equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking) and his friends/fellow world-savers. It’s just so…sigh…oh please watch it. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry,10 you’ll beg your kids to watch it with you over and over and over again.

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What are you watching with your kids these days? Leave your favorites in the comments…

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  1. Good or bad, he’s definitely a member of the “Touch Screen Generation,” as this article from The Atlantic calls it. 
  2. As much as we would like to. 
  3. If you watched more television, you would understand that reference
  4. Like during illnesses and work emergencies and recent household disasters
  5. With a significance second only to our deep appreciation for naps. 
  6. Seriously, what’s with the whine on that kid? We now have a “no talking like Calliou” rule in our house. Get outta here with that, PBS! 
  7. There are also a ton of grade-A kid-tested, parent-approved movies out, but that’s another column for another day. 
  8. Props to Phineas & Ferb’s creators for building a show around a blended family without making it all about them being a blended family. It’s just this family’s “reality,” just as it probably is for many families watching the show. 
  9. Not that one either, although that film was (sort of) based on this show…and should also never be mentioned again. 
  10. Play this song for my husband and watch him become a puddle on the floor, right before your very eyes! 
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Valerie Catrow

Valerie Catrow is editor of RVAFamily, mother to a mop-topped first grader, and always really excited to go to bed.

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