Cartoons that might teach your little kid a thing or two

June 22 | Guest post by Addie Pobst
Sid the Science Kid at World Science Festival
Stephanie's personal fave? Sid the Science Kid! Photo by Becky Stern, used with Creative Commons license.
I let my kid watch TV. There: I've said it.

I will say that I carefully monitor everything he watches, that it's very high quality educational fare, and he also watches everything on video (DVDs, Netflix, or YouTube), so there's no exposure to commercials. Instead of feeling guilty about the amount of video entertainment Conan gets to watch, I've started focusing on the benefits.

Besides giving me a few much needed minutes of guaranteed kid-unencumbered time, the programs Conan watches are so educational they'll just about make your teeth hurt. Here are the shows I'm proud to say have made it into our repertoire.

Peep and the Big Wide World (aka Peep and Duck)

This show is the best. The engaging characters explore the world and learn about physics, math, scientific reasoning, and the natural world, all in an age-appropriate way that Conan loves. Topics range from the changes of the seasons, how water flows, gravity, shadows, weather, identifying birds by their calls, principles of leverage, sharing, counting, navigation, colors, the phases of the moon, the dangers of walking out onto frozen lakes (it is a Canadian program, after all). There are 90-some complete episodes on YouTube that I've collected into our playlist. And with narration by Joan Cusack and music by Taj Mahal, it doesn't irritate adults the way many kids shows do.

Wonder Pets

This one is pretty formulaic and repetitious, but Conan really seems to love that about it. I appreciate the themes of teamwork and helping others, although they are a bit heavy-handed for my taste. The animation, which incorporates photos and video footage of real places and things, is neat, and I like the fact that they have a 10-person live orchestra (plus guest artists as needed) performing the score of each show. This is the only show that has inspired Conan to incorporate the characters into his own play, and I have also heard him singing the music to himself. Very few episodes are available on the internet, but we watch it through Netflix play instantly.

Bob the Builder

This is a British stop-motion animated show about (surprise!) Bob the Builder and his crew of anthropomorphic construction machines. They build things and have adventures while learning about teamwork, basic construction, and recycling, among other topics. Long before we aquired any DVDs, we had picked up a Bob the Builder book at a yardsale, and Conan loved reading the book and naming all the machines. He was super excited to see them all come to life on the screen. They seem to be pretty good at keeping this one off of the internet, and it's not available on Netflix play instantly (though they do have the DVDs for mail-out). We picked up two discs at the local consignment store for .99 each.

Wild Animal Baby

Wild Animal Baby is a magazine for toddlers published by the National Wildlife Foundation (they also publish My Big Backyard and Ranger Rick for older kids). Conan received a gift subscription for his first birthday, and really enjoyed it, so when we came across a couple Wild Animal Baby DVDs in the ultra-clearance bin at the grocery store we decided to go ahead and check them out. The show is pretty cute, with four animated Animal Baby Explorers going on adventures in the natural world to solve "wildlife mysteries" such as finding baby dragonflies, figuring out what animal buries acorns and why, and where the worms come from that they find on the ground after a rainstorm. There's real-life wildlife footage interspersed with the animation, and some of it pretty spectacular. The biggest drawback to this show is that all the characters have annoying, high-pitched voices and are prone to bad puns. Conan doesn't seem to mind at all.

Youtube Animal Videos

The internet is absolutely full of videos of cute/funny/amazing animals. This is what started it all — we used to regularly sit in front of the computer together and watch animals in order to distract Conan enough to clip his finger and toenails, clean his ears, and even cut his hair. We'd watch horses running, ducks quacking, cows mooing, whales breaching, puppies frolicking, even an elephant pooping (that's a BIG favorite) on YouTube. You do have to watch out a bit, because some of what you find may feature some scary violence or some hard-to-explain mating behaviors (they're, um, wrestling) or suddenly evolve into a heavy metal video. Especially if it features tigers or wolves.

So there you have it — my secret is out of the bag. I've made a concious decision to allow Conan to watch some high quality, age-appropriate educational programs, and I hereby resolve to just let go of all that weird guilt I was carrying about it. No advertisers are getting their hooks in him, we're careful about what he does watch, and we do place limits on how much he watches and when.

Now it's your turn — what are your kids watching?

  1. We LOVE most PBS shows like Sid The Science Kid and Animal Atlas. Nice this for us, since we don't have any cable (basic or otherwise) is that these shows are available at the RedBox near us.

  2. My kiddo loves Sid the Science Kid, and much of PBS(no commercials!) His favorite though is Dinosaur Train, which I love for their use of the word hypothesis and that they paleontologist dude they have between animations says "MILLIONS OF YEARS AGO"! Yay for real science!

    Oh, he is also great with the xbox controller so he likes to start the shows on netflix himself, after I okay it.

    2 agree
  3. There's a spelling show where all the items and creatures are made up of the letters in their word. I can't remember what its called, but what I've seen of it seems educational and not annoying (the not annoying is usually the hard part when it come to finding kids shows that I'm cool with).

    • Word World! It is like crack and does a really very good job teaching phonics. My little one likes to get out his letters, line them up, mash them together, and announce, "WE BUILT A WORD!" and then do the little dance.

    • My nephew loves Wordworld! And I admit, I've sat through several episodes myself. Sid the Science Kid, though… can't stand that show.

      1 agrees
  4. nick jr has some great shows too and no commercials. arthur has tons of youtube videos and they are great too. i am big into educational tv with no commercials! nick jr also has a great free website with educational games so does pbs kids!

    1 agrees
  5. As a non-parent I don't really understand the shame about allowing kids to watch TV. No, I don't think they should be allowed to watch everything until they're a certain age/maturity level, but it's a large part of our culture today.

    4 agree
    • I don't want this to spiral into a "TV IS BAD" rant, so I'm going to attempt to explain: I know for US, my husband and I, a lot of the issues with TV are more focused on not wanting our kid to ONLY watch TV. For example, we went through a phase with Jasper where all he wanted to do was watch Sid the Science Kid, and he would throw tantrums when we would say no. We didn't give in, and now he's in a great place where he watches it occasionally, like 2-5 times a week (no more than one episode a day), and he's happy. We feel like 22 minutes of Sid is solid, and he's not spending all of his time in front of a screen. We don't actually have a TV, but use our computer in the same way — so it's basically the same thing for this purpose. Jasper also watches one 10 minute episode of Curious George 2-5 times a week, and then that's pretty much it.

      1 agrees
    • To add to Stephanie's comment, I also think a lot of people's hold up (I know it is for me) is actually with the commercials on network tv and cable, more so than the shows themselves.

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    • For me there are three main reasons to be careful with TV/video watching:

      1) Just plain watching too much – kids (and adults) in our culture need to spend more of their time being active and less time sitting in front of a screen.

      2) Commercials are evil.

      3) The content of many shows reinforces gender/social/cultural stereotypes in ways I don't want to be a party to. I also don't like religious indoctrination or violence in what my kid watches. Some "children's" programming is really pretty apalling.

      2 agree
    • I think the main thrust of the "No TV under 2yrs old" recommendation from the American Association of Pediatrics is that it could limit your child's development and they oppose targeted programming used to market products to children. http://www.aap.org/sections/media/toddlerstv.htm

      I think TV could be used in a moderate and balanced way if you keep these issues in mind.

    • Ah since I never watch children's programming I wouldn't know any of that! And I have no clue how any of you guys keep track of all this! I just don't have the brain space to remember all of that.

  6. Mine loves Yo Gabba Gabba and Fresh Beat Band. He doesn't really like anything else on tv, which is a good thing. I think he's just a music and dance lover, and these shows have a lot of both! We have all of the episodes DVR'd so no commercials, although Nick Jr. doesn't have advertising commercials anyway.

    2 agree
      • My 2 yr old son, Jasper, has only seen one episode of Yo Gabba Gabba, but he'll watch the I Like to Dance video over and over again while dancing around the living room. My 25 year old husband, however, has seen MANY MANY episodes of Yo Gabba Gabba and dressed as DJ Lance for Halloween last year.

        Needless to say, Yo Gabba Gabba is the shit.

    • We recently added Yo Gabba Gabba to our repetoire, now that it is available on Netflix play instantly. Good stuff! We sing the Taking Turns and Party in my Tummy songs a LOT.

    • Fresh Beats, Yo Gabba Gabba & Sesame Street are the shows my kid loves! She isn't in front of the TV all day, but if I need to jump in the shower, and its just the 2 of us here, you better believe I am giving her a blankie and some Nick Jr or PBS/Sprout. Sprout has commercials though, and I don't care for that. A friend of mine recently told me that him and his wife don't ever go to Taco Bell, his 3 year old daughter has never been to Taco Bell, but she knows what taco bell is and that they have Nachos! Every time they drive past one she asks for nachos! Taco Bell has one hell of a marketing team!

  7. "Jack's Big Music Show" is great and they have (I think) actual singers/musicians on the show. They have the DVD's out too. (No I do not work for the show or anything, it's just nice to find a kid's show that is not 'screechy').

    • My wee one loveloveLOVES Jacks' Big Music Show! They do indeed frequently have actual singers/musicians on the show, much like Yo Gabba Gabba.

  8. We're big Winnie the Pooh fans, over here. We also watch Pippi Longstocking a lot, but be careful with how often your child watches it. He/she may start to act a little rebellious, and you may need to quash that. *;)

    • LOVE LOVE LOVE Pippi! I will definitely be introducing Jasper to her when he's a little older. I used to pretend to be her, and would have seriously contemplated naming Jasper after he if he had been born a girl.

  9. Shaun the Sheep might not be particularly educational but it's great for a little quiet time. No dialog or annoying songs. Super Why and the LeapFrog shows are good educational one that the step munchkin likes too. We're in the same boat…no cable so at least all the shows she watches are commercial free and we have control over what she watches.

    4 agree
  10. Our girls LOVE Charlie and Lola. Also old Sesame Street clips, Pocoyo, Caspar Babypants videos, OK Go videos (especially the one with dogs)… all on Youtube. Plus they love Annie. They don't watch all of this everyday, just a few minutes here or there when we're making breakfast or dinner. 🙂

    1 agrees
  11. we love Peep! My son also loves Pocoyo which, while not as entertaining for me as Peep, has some good lessons on friendship and sharing on it. We don't have cable, so I was so releived to find shows on PBS that we could all enjoy.

  12. my unschooled seven year old watches what he likes, when he likes, however much he likes. i trust him to self-regulate.

    watching tv is actually pretty boring. if a kid has opportunities to go out into the world and see cool stuff with cool people, they won't often choose tv instead. an exception is when their nervous systems are fried. my kid was a tv zombie when he used to be in school. he needed to "recover" from his day by doing something boring and mindless. now that he's in charge of himself, he'd never pass up something fun and engaging for tv, unless he's sick or something. he knows he can have it when he likes it, so it's never a power struggle.

    i have to admit that hearing parents "controlling" what their kids experience is kinda uncomfortable for me. i also think that trying to constantly control our kids exposure makes parenting exhausting and not nearly as much fun as it could be. i worry about this culture that holds parents to such impossible standards, and the fall out for ourselves and our kids, y'know?

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    • Really interesting take on the topic. I know my daughter would much rather run around and play with me, but if I'm having an off day and she gets to watch her 100th episode of YGG, so be it.

      We go out into the world daily and do "fun stuff" so if she's at home and wants to chill…I'm ok with it.

      She also loves to read and will often put herself to sleep with a book. I'm the same way. I've spent most of my life with the TV on for background noise yet I love to read and I enjoy activities that require my brain to function just as much as the non-tv watcher 🙂

  13. My 7 yo loves Mythbusters and Bizarre Foods. Never a dull moment at our table!

    2 agree
    • I'm pretty sure when my son is old enough to watch tv it will still be food network or travel channel. That's the only thing I watch on tv!

  14. My daughter has recently fallen hard for Pingu, and I have too. It's not educational but it is so cute and silly. We watch it on Netflix so there are no commercials.

    1 agrees
  15. My son loves Bob the Builder as well, but his favorites are Go, Diego, Go! and Blue's Clues (though he's pretty grown out of Blue now – he's almost five). He also LOVES documentaries on anything related to the solar system and the universe. We only watch videos as well (I LOVE Netflix instant streaming!).

  16. Little Einsteins, anyone??? The 2 year old girl I nanny for LOVES Little Einsteins. They mix classical music with some art classics, and teach kids how to stay on a beat, instruments, and helping others. She absolutely loves the show, and since watching it she can clap and pat her hands to a beat. It's a great musical educational show.

    1 agrees
    • Oh yeah! We were babysitting a friends kid and that's what he loved to watch, I was pretty impressed with that show. The do use good music, and the animation for the show kind of changes to represent the traditional art of the places they visit, which I thought was really cool.

  17. Thank Science for Netflix. My three year old and I watch the cartoons that I watched as a kid, Rocko's Modern Life is a big win in our house.
    I'm slowly trying to develop an anime interest in him so we have started off with the 1980's Astro Boy which he really loves. We watch that together and it's very good on all levels.
    Yay for Shaun the Sheep, anything by Aardvark animation is worth watching in my opinion. We also watch Word World and when he was younger we watched Jack's Big Music Show on a regular basis. The guest musicians are all real musicians! Some of them quite famous.

    2 agree
  18. We only have Netflix, and that's Canadian Netflix, so not much there atm. M's favorite show of all time is Zoboomafoo. Its from the late 90's but it is AWESOME! We also have 3 Yo Gabba Gabba videos and she dances the whole time it is on.

    • I remember being so sad when Zoboomafoo came on because Krat's Kreatures was no longer on (Krat's Kreatures was a show for mid to older elementary – made by the same brothers, but a bit more focused on the science).

      Also, while I'm not a mom yet, I would so indoctrinate my child with Bill Nye the Science Guy. He is freaking amazing and a huge part of why I was always so interested in science and math.

      2 agree
  19. I just wanted to add, as a kid who wasn't allowed to watch much TV when younger – you deprive your child of something, they want it more. (Deprive is probably too strong of a word)

    For the longest time, if there was ever a TV on in a room, I could not stop watching it. It was so mesmerizing – especially if it was a show I wasn't typically allowed to watch (we were a PBS only family).

    So, I guess that's just something to think about.

    But yes, Bill Nye is pretty much the most amazing thing ever.

    3 agree
    • Yep! I know somebody who didn't have a TV growing up. Now he gets so distracted anytime somebody's watching TV that he is literally incapable of having a conversation if the TV is on. If it wasn't so annoying, it would be hilarious!

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  20. My almost-3-year-old was a huge Sesame Street and Elmo's World fan, then moved onto Dora, which she is OBSESSED with. She particularly likes the musical episodes that she can dance to. Dora does get extremely repetitive, but a neighbour recommended it and said it helped get her little girl talking. Sophia was pretty behind in speech until about 6 months ago, and after starting Dora she started repeating colours, fruit, and all kinds of things. So I didn't really mind. Now she likes Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and Handy Manny on the Disney Junior Channel. She only watches about 20 minutes a day, after her little brother goes to bed (he likes to turn off the TV whenever it's on), but that's enough to keep her happy, and she repeats everything she hears:)

  21. The boys I used to babysit weren't allowed TV except on the weekends, and if you turned on a TV anywhere near them, it was like a black hole. They could not look away. They wouldn't respond to their names unless you SHOUTED it several times. Their mouths would hang open and their eyes would glaze over, and if you wanted them to do ANYTHING you would have to physically move them or turn off the TV so they would even hear you. Even if I stood in front of the screen to block it, they would just lean to try to see and wouldn't be able to focus on anything I said. Lots of times, if they were crossing through the room with the TV on, they would freeze and just stand there, staring. If we walked by a RadioShack with a TV playing ANYTHING in the window, you bet — they'd stop and stare. Even up to the age of 11 (ELEVEN!) I would have to grab them by the hand and pull them out of sight of the window before they would walk on their own again.

    That freaking terrifies me. In order to function in today's (and tomorrow's) world, you have to be able to selectively ignore media input. Like Kess was saying, the forbidden is mesmerizing. I just can't figure out how to foster the ability to concentrate even with a TV on and also limit TV. The same goes for commercials, though I can see keeping very young kids away from them as much as possible; at some point, and I don't mean all the way in adulthood but basically as soon as they start having any tiny bit of independence from you, your kids start dealing with advertisements. It's important to learn how to filter them out.

    I have to disagree with the comment that commercials are evil. Without advertisers, any non-publicly-funded TV would be commercially inviable. That includes kids' TV. I love PBS, but I don't think it's the only source of quality programming. Seeing commercials are the price I pay for having a variety of programming available to me at an affordable price. I see commercials as an opportunity to open conversations with (older) kids about how to be a smart consumer, how to be financially responsible, and how to differentiate want from need (very important for families without a money tree growing in the backyard!). They can even start conversations about ecological stewardship (Our family doesn't use Product X because it isn't good for trees, and healthy trees are good). Like all complicated concepts, we can start small, simple, and age-appropriate when we talk to kids about these things. Toddlers are too young for most of these, but five or six isn't an unreasonable time to start talking about those things.

    I was allowed lots of TV, and when I was around 8 I was watching waaaaay too much. So my parents cut the cable to save money, and a week later I was over it. My world went on. When they turned the cable back on a year later, I went back to watching, but never anywhere near as much. Now? I love TV, but I don't own one.

    6 agree
    • I would just like to add that my 8 year old sister is allowed to watch as much tv as she wants, and she also does the mesmerized-trance-have-to-shake-her-to-get-her-attention thing. So, I personally suspect other factors at play.

      2 agree
    • There has to be something else to this! I've been that way since I was a kid and never grew out of it. But I also do it with books, newspapers, the computer… I absolutely can not have a conversation with a TV on or a laptop open. I call it being hyper-focused!

      2 agree
    • Yeah, I don't know if this is the result of limited exposure. I CANNOT be one of those people who just has a TV on as background noise. If it's on, I will be watching it, unable to focus on the conversations around me – even if I have no interest in the show. This can even cause a bit of a problem in bars and restaurants that have a TV in my line of sight. While not being able to hear the TV makes it easier to ignore, if I happen to glance at it I'll be mesmerized until I realize what I'm doing and actively try to distract myself. And we were a TV at the dinner table family growing up. ::shrug::

      1 agrees
  22. Anything on PBS! My 9 month old, 11 year old, and 16 year old can all watch Sid, WildKratts, Electric Company, and many others on that channel and often all 3 learn something! The Electric Company is also a guilty pleasure of my own! How could you not love that show? It's electric!

    • I might add, my kiddos don't watch much tv. Our tele is rarely turned on m-f except for when I catch the late night news. We will watch movies together on the weekends and sometimes I'll let the kids veg out on the weekends. My favorite kid show is Phineas and Ferb, and when I take my littlest squirt to my grandma's house to stay all night my Papaw will turn on P&F and he and Xavi baby will sit in his recliner and watch it for hours… it is too cute! I like p&f because it pushes kids to use their imaginations!

  23. Cbeebies, people!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/cbeebies/

    I'm not sure whether the whole site would work in the US but for us, here in the UK it's a freakin' Godsend!

    My daughter's favourites are Octonauts and Zingzillas. The Octonauts is about a team of animal ummm… researchers? They live under the sea in the Octopod, and go out on missions to study and help creatures who are ill, hurt or in distress.

    The Zingzillas are a band of primates, they play music, learn about music and learn how to get along well.

    In the UK Cbeebies also produces magazines for just about all of its most successful shows. They're really high quality and unquestionably support literacy, numeracy, emotional development, physical and creative play. I'm not suggesting for a second that they could take the place of actual interaction, but when it's shared it's great.

    Also – I am literally STUNNED that nobody's mentioned Miyazaki! Our favourites in this household are My Neighbour Totoro, Ponyo, The Cat Returns and Howl's Moving Castle. Some of these have slightly scary moments so you'll need to watch them with your kids and talk about them too. What I love about Miyazaki is that there's no black and white – even the 'bad' guys really believe they're doing the right thing and for good reasons. There's so much content about being true to yourself and behaving responsibly. They're a joy, all of them.

    Sorry for that epic rant! I hope I haven't offended anybody.

    1 agrees
    • I watched Spirited Away with my son the other day. He really loved it, even though some of the scenes didn't draw his attention as much as others. He hasn't found my copy of Howl's Moving Castle yet, but I think he would like it a little better because the colors are a little brighter.

      1 agrees
      • Spirited Away is too scary for my daughter just yet! I think it's mainly the interpretation of spirits and the way that Chihiro's fear is shown that she finds most frightening.

        • Kiki's Delivery Service is one that has very few, if any, scary parts. I watched it all the time from age 4+, and I don't remember ever being scared. And I was a very easily frightened child.

    • not a parent yet, but whenever i have kids over (babysitting or visiting with their parents or what-have-you) Ponyo is my 'magic movie' — i start that movie and they are just drawn to it. It's also nice that i love it too, so i'm not stuck watching something boring to entertain kids ^_^

  24. We don't have "tv" so we have a small collection of movies, like Fantasia and James and the Giant Peach (oh, and he loves Miyazaki films!), and watch Blues Clues on netflix. Oh, and the kitty videos! My son loves watching baby animal videos on youtube, especially the ones without music or talking.

    And if you have a bike lover in your life, like mine, check out Danny MacAskill's videos on youtube and vimeo. He has great skill, both with his bike and video, there are no wrecks, and his soundtracks are calm and upbeat.

    1 agrees
    • Yeah – we don't have tv on the tv either.

      Watching tv on the computer means you have to actually CHOOSE it, not just be passing and then get sucked in.

      That's something that benefits all of us, not just the little one (who is reading this comment as I type). (Seriously, I try to stop her reading but she just keeps doing it. I have no privacy any more.)

    • I also don't have 'tv on the tv' we have many shows on dvd (fans of 'Friends,' 'Scrubs,' 'Big Bang Theory,' 'Arrested Development,' among others), a bunch of movies, a Wii, and a Playstation2, and we still spend plenty (sometimes too much) time watching the screen, lol!
      I particularly value the lack of commercials; my hubby is fairly impressionable, and can decide he wants something based on a 30second ad, lol.

  25. I personally love television; we've never been a TV-free household, though now that Miles is two and starting to really imitate in earnest I'm starting to pay more attention to what we watch when he's awake. The good news? It has not had a negative effects on his urge to get up and go outside, or sit with his books.

    We watch stuff on Netflix — primarily Blue's Clues (Steve edition — Pffft to Joe), which is Miles's absolutely favorite thing other than dinosaurs, though Shaun the Sheep and Dora the Explorer also rank — but I'd say 75% of his television exposure is from 8 to 12 on PBS. We have basic cable (Glee. It was all about Glee.) and I find that's the easiest thing for me in the mornings, when I am not even slightly alert.

    Though personally? I cannot stand Super Why, and I think Calliou is the blandest show on the planet. Seriously. Its like watching paint dry. After Word World I'm content to start going about the day.

  26. We love Kipper! Streams on Netflix. Cool jazz intro music, sweet British accents.

    1 agrees
  27. I'm a big fan of Martha Speaks! I love that it doesn't talk to children like they're idiots, but explains the words clearly, and that the main character is female! Plus she lives in a multicultural family! Sorry, I just got way too excited about a children show…

  28. My son loves pretty much anything that PBS cranks out. Especially Sesame Street. (Thought I will admit, Elmo's World is like nails on a chalkboard to me.) I even used old episodes from the 70's to help explain breastfeeding (Buffy nursing Cody openly, and Maria nursing, but very covered), as well as death (Big Bird being told why Mr. Hooper is gone and not coming back). It's sad that some of these issues are considered so taboo today, but at least there are still educational shows out there, and not just mindless cartoons. Also A huge fan of Veggie Tales. Yes, it is a religious show, but not in the preachy "you are a sinner and doing everything that God hates and going to Hell for it" way. They incorporate bible verses, but it's mainly common sense stuff, like "be good and respect others", "tell the truth", and my favorite "God loves you the way you are". Even if you take away the God aspect, it's still a good lesson in self esteem.

  29. I always loved Bill Nye the Science Guy and the Magic Schoolbus, and I grew up to be a chemist! Another great one on tv now is Phineas and Ferb, which teaches kids to be creative, while still being funny for adults.

    1 agrees
  30. Wonderpets is a big hit here, too! That damn TeamWork song is sung all the time. But my daughter's all time favorite, bar none, is Dino Dan. We live with my folks who have the dish network so we get that Nick Jr channel. The kid has more dino-facts in her head than you can shake a stick at AND is getting a rudimentary grasp of scientific method. I would not be able to get through finals week every quarter without some television help. My real trouble is that she's started out growing the pre-school geared stuff, we've got time yet, but I HATE everything I've seen beyond pre-k programming. It's like it jumps straight from small child appropriate to tween appropriate. We are supplementing our pre-K viewing with some of my old favorites on youtube or DVD. Hopefully the plus side of this will be that we shut off the box more as she moves into being able to read independently.

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