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A guilt-free children’s TV guide for quality content

Monitoring Desk

There can be few parents who haven’t, in the last 11 months, snapped the television on in desperation, so that it can do a bit of childcare, or bring a temporary halt to the endless requests for food. In the first lockdown, with no formal home-learning to do, my children watched hours of telly, sometimes on iPads, while their father and I attempted to work. And when we weren’t worrying about the pandemic, or money, or everything, we worried about whether it was melting their brains.

“I think particularly now, parents should cut themselves a break,” says Jackie Edwards, who runs the BFI’s Young Audiences Content Fund, a pilot scheme to invest in quality children’s programming, funded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. “Parents shouldn’t feel guilty about them watching a bit more TV – because I bloody well know I am watching more.”

Not that I begged them to, but every expert I asked agreed. “Everyone should give themselves a break from screen-time guilt,” says Polly Conway from Common Sense Media, a website that rates family-friendly TV and tech. “It’s OK if you pause your usual screen-time rules. You can let kids know that things will go back to normal once this situation is over.”

Rather than how much, Edwards says we should instead think more about what children watch – and where. “Platforms like YouTube are all well and good, but the algorithms are designed to give you more of the same. That drives kids down a rabbit hole. Public service broadcasting is all about expanding horizons. Good content will reflect kids’ lives: it will educate, entertain and inform.”

Edwards worries about platforms with less stringent oversight. “Without wishing to vilify YouTube, there is harmful content on there. Even the kids’ app is pretty leaky: they like Peppa Pig, so they get more Peppa Pig. But research shows that eventually they could come to some Peppa Pig-related content that is something quite unpleasant.”

Fortunately, there is plenty of carefully created children’s TV to choose from, with many broadcasters – and not just public service broadcasters – working hard to make programmes that are inclusive, diverse and educational – and that children want to watch. “Learning by stealth is something we all try to do,” says Lucy Murphy, head of kids’ content at Sky UK. “No child wants to be told, ‘This is good for you’, or feel that they are learning when they’re just after some down time. Some is obvious, like Numberjacks [an animation featuring superhero numbers], but a lot of shows have a more subtle but no less well-researched and developed curriculum. Blue’s Clues & You! on Nick Jr might seem like a fun game with a cute dog, but it’s actually teaching a lot of complex reasoning and problem-solving skills.”

This can be quite hard for adults to decode – as Helen Bullough, head of children’s in-house production at the BBC, points out. “Even working in children’s television, none of us is three or six or nine. As a result, we spend a long time researching our audience’s development stages and passions, and we work with consultants and specialists.” So when a parent – this parent, for example – watches an episode of CBeebies’ Bing, she might just see an annoying rabbit that whinges a lot. In fact, Bing’s troubles, and his reactions to them, are the kind that very young children easily identify with (missing toys, shyness, jealousy) all chosen to reflect their own real-life experiences.

Still from the TV series Jamie Johnson, showing Olivia Lava as Jack
Jamie Johnson: about so much more than school and football. Photograph: Marcus Tate/BBC/Short Form Film Company

Many shows do a decent job of mirroring the real-life experiences of older children, too, such as the long-runningTracy Beaker series and its spin-offs, about children in the care system; and CBBC’s Jamie Johnson, ostensibly about school and football, but with subplots around bullying, coming out and homelessness.

But problems remain: female cartoon characters are still routinely depicted as narrow-hipped and big-haired (hi, Frozen’s Elsa!). A 2019 study by Rutgers University-New Brunswick and the Center for Scholars and Storytellers, looking at American and Canadian fictional TV for kids, found that female characters were twice as likely to use magic to solve their problems, where male characters used science and technology skills, or strength. While 62% of lead characters in the US were male, female characters were twice as likely to be of colour, which the authors concluded was probably about ticking two diversity boxes in one. (Paw Patrolis a good example of this, with just one pink-clad female dog character and an incompetent adult female mayor of colour, who constantly needs to be rescued by a – white – boy.) Just 1% in the US had a disability (0% in Canada), which is why programmes with autistic leads, such as CBeebies’ Pablo for preschoolers and Atypical for older teens, are so vital.

Laverne Antrobus is a child psychologist and judge of the Royal Television Society children’s TV award. She advocates parents and carers watching with kids. “You will get an idea of whether it ‘fits’ with where they are developmentally. By asking, ‘What did you think of that?’, or watching the physical response of younger children, parents can know what sort of encounters their children are having as they become more socially and emotionally tuned into the world.”

With not much else to do, many locked-down families have rediscovered the old-fashioned pastime of watching television together – not just Bake Off and Strictly, but also movies, and anything featuring David Attenborough. Almost a year in, I worry less about how much TV my kids are watching. I can see its value, well beyond the benefit of just distracting them. Good television can be supportive, soothing, stimulating, diverting and educational. It can make us laugh. It can reflect young people’s lives, and the lives of others, too. Something which, in a world with less social contact, and fewer cultural experiences, I’m very grateful for. See below Below are the shows the experts recommend, for children of all ages.

Age 0-5

Still from the kids' TV show JoJo and Gran Gran
JoJo and Gran Gran: breaking new ground. Photograph: PA

JoJo And Gran Gran is about a little girl and her beloved grandmother, and is the UK’s first animated preschool show to feature a black family as the central characters. It launched in 2020 and is based on the real-life experiences of writer Laura Henry. The stories – which include going to the hairdressers and creating a carnival – are authentically told. (CBeebies)

Bing is loved and loathed by parents, but it captivates toddlers, despite the rabbit’s tendency to whine. The child-type characters don’t seem to have parents (Bing is cared for solely by a male character called Flop), a deliberate choice to emphasise less traditional caring roles. (CBeebies)

Still from the TV series Hey Duggie
Hey Duggee

Hey Duggee is a cracker,” says the BFI’s Jackie Edwards of the animated series, in which members of Duggee’s Squirrel Club earn badges for new skills. “It is hugely funny, but you also learn about something in each episode – which are only seven minutes long.” (CBeebies)

Pablo is a beautiful animated series about a young autistic boy. Paper Owl, the production company, recruited writers, voice artists and crew who were themselves on the autistic spectrum. “It’s warm and it’s joyful,” says Edwards.(CBeebies)

Still from Helpsters TV series
Helpsters: fluffy monsters solving problems. Photograph: AppleTV

Helpsters is a fast and funny new puppet show, from the makers of Sesame Street, which has kindness at its heart,” says Kathy Loizou, co-founder of the Children’s Media Conference. Five fluffy monsters are asked to solve a problem for someone, which they do with teamwork and tenacity. (AppleTV+)

Daniel Tiger’s Neighbourhood is an award-winning animated series inspired by the long-running American children’s show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Strongly tied to children’s social and emotional developmental stages, the episodes are gently themed. “Each subject has a little jingle,” says Loizou. “It’s a wonderful show.” (Netflix)

Dreamflightteaches young children mindfulness and breathing exercises, narrated over footage of the natural world – and in times like these, you’re never too young for something calming. (Sky/Now TV)

The charmingPip and Posy books, published by Nosy Crow and illustrated by Axel Scheffler (the Gruffalo), have just been turned into a series. (Sky, later this spring)

Age 5-7

Still from the TV series Operation Ouch, with twin brother doctors Xand and Chris van Tulleken
Dr Xand and Dr Chris in Operation Ouch! Photograph: Karl Attard

When small children begin watchingOperation Ouch!, with identical twin brothers Dr Xand and Dr Chris (van Tulleken), it’s not long before they are telling you what molars are, or how many nostrils you have… or how poo is made. “We’ve received letters from medical practitioners saying that, in the last five years, they have noticed how much calmer kids who come into hospitals are, because they have watched the show and have a clear understanding of what is going on,” says Cheryl Taylor, head of content for BBC Children’s. (CBBC)

InEmily’s Wonder Lab, MIT-trained engineer and science communicator Emily Calandrelli encourages kids to experiment with things like rainbow bubbles or slime to bolster Stem learning. A scientist (who also filmed while heavily pregnant), Calandrelli reflects the mantra: if you can see it, you can be it. (Netflix)

Still from the TV show Apple Tree House, showing three kids with bikes
Apple Tree House, set on a London council estate. Photograph: BBC

Apple Tree House is set in a fictional part of London, on a diverse council estate. “Everybody in production was from that place, or a place like it, which is why the storytelling runs so true,” says Jackie Edwards. (CBBC)

Shane The Chef is a single dad, running a restaurant and looking after his daughter Izzy; the animated show deftly touches on how much they miss Izzy’s mum. Russell Tovey plays Shane, and has said he based the character on Jamie Oliver and his passion for sharing healthy food. (Channel 5)

Still from the TV show The World According To Grandpa
Don Warrington in The World According To Grandpa. Photograph: Grandpa Productions

The World According To Grandpa launched last year, made by Saffron Cherry productions in Manchester. Grandpa is played by Don Warrington, and is based on writer Chris Heath’s own Puerto Rican grandfather, who would spin wild imaginary stories when asked questions such as, “How are clouds made?”. The blend of live action, animation and storytelling is enthralling – and at the end, Halifax, the family’s rabbit, always gives the children a scientifically correct answer. The main characters are all from under-represented groups, as were the five heads of department involved in making it. (Channel 5; Welsh-language version coming this year)

The Brilliant World Of Tom Gatesis a mixed-media show, with animations based on the hugely popular books of the same name, and an arts and crafts section presented by the books’ author and illustrator, Liz Pichon. (Sky Kids/Now TV)

Age 8-11

Ben Willbond as Henry VIII in Horrible Histories
Ben Willbond as Henry VIII in Horrible Histories. Photograph: BBC

Horrible Historiesis irreverent, funny and often quite gross, but always historically accurate. “There is a whole generation of kids who know every king and queen of England,” says the BBC’s Helen Bullough. “And this is no disrespect to teachers, but they’ve learned that from the Horrible Historiessong.” (CBBC)

How is a science and engineering programme that was first broadcast in the 1960s and ran until the 80s before being reimagined as How 2 in the 90s and early 2000s. It has just relaunched on CITV with a new presenting team, plus one familiar face: Fred Dinenage, who has now presented How in all three iterations. (CITV)

Steve Backshall with a highly venomous copperhead snake, in a still from the TV series Deadly 60
Steve Backshall in Deadly 60. Photograph: BBC

Deadly 60 (and its spinoffs) follows presenter Steve Backshall as he tries to find the world’s 60 deadliest animals – deadly to other animals, rather than humans – everything from hunting dogs to sharks and poison dart frogs. It’s fun, with plenty of background about each animal and where it fits in the ecosystem. (CBBC)

FYI is a brilliant weekly news show with a difference: the stories are chosen and told by children. Although it’s on Sky, find it for free on the First News website (First News is a national newspaper for children). Its spin-offs are I Don’t Get It short, child-led explainers of complex topics, like racism, terrorism or artificial intelligence – and Kidversation, in which children from around the world discuss specific issues, like the right to asylum, or disability rights. (Sky and online)

The character Joe Gardner, voiced by Jamie Foxx, in a scene from the animated film Soul
Soul: big themes, sensitively handled. Photograph: AP

Soul is just beautiful,” says Bullough, of the animated film telling the story of a jazz musician whose soul gets stuck halfway into the afterlife. The themes are big – death, living life with meaning – but are handled sensitively enough that they can prompt discussions without causing fear. It’s the first Pixar film to feature a black lead character(Disney+)

The point of Outsmart Samsays Nicky Cox, editor-in-chief of children’s newspaper First News, is that Sam is supposedly the smartest presenter on TV. And the idea is for kids to ask him a question he doesn’t know the answer to.” Children can send invideos of themselves asking questions (“What is the biggest fish in the world?”, say) – and a tally is kept throughout the series. (CITV)

Still from the TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender, showing main character Aang
Avatar: The Last Airbender: global plots and themes. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

At first glance, Avatar: The Last Airbender,which tells the story of a child monk who can control the elements (and save the world), seems to have been inspired by anime cartoons. But its influences are global, taking in Inuit cultural references, Buddhism and Hinduism – as are its serious plots and themes, including gender discrimination, genocide, war and imperialism. It launched in 2005 but Netflix began airing it last year. (Netflix)

Tweens, teens and shows for all the family

Still from the film Wolfwalkers
Wolfwalkers: third in a multi award-winning trilogy. Photograph: AP

Wolfwalkers is a gorgeously animated, enthralling film set in Ireland in the mid-1600s, about the daughter of a hunter who discovers a wild young girl in the forest who can transform into a wolf, and her battle to save her from fearful villagers and oppressive overlords. It’s the third in a multi award-winning trilogy, after The Secret Of Kells and The Song Of The Sea,and couldn’t be further from the identikit style adopted by so many children’s films. (AppleTV+)

“First Datesis an interesting show you can watch together,” says Edwards. Although light-hearted, it can be an easy way in to conversations about sex and relationships.“Our fund [the BFI’s Young Audiences Content Fund] has just supported a teen version, which we were a bit unsure about at first. But oh, my word – I’ve never seen such displays of empathy, care and concern, and encouraging people to be honest in the way they approach relationships. It’s nothing like First Dates with grownups. They’re much nicer.” Teen First Dates is presented by Fred Sirieix. (E4)

Still from the TV series Ghosts, showing Robin the Caveman in a living room
Larry Rickard as Robin the Caveman in Ghosts. Photograph: Mark Johnson/BBC/Button Hall Productions

Ghosts is for graduates of Horrible Histories – a very funny, grownup series featuring some of the same characters – all haunting a dilapidated mansion inherited by a young couple. (BBC/iPlayer)

“I loved Enola Holmes with Millie Bobby Brown,” says Bullough. “It’s clever, well acted and with great storytelling.” Enola is the younger sister of Sherlock, a fiercely intelligent teenager with her own complicated mystery to solve, while also fighting off her other brother Mycroft’s plans to turn her into a Victorian lady. Part of its joy is pure escapism, but so is the powerful female lead: Millie Bobby Brown is only 16, but also served as a producer. (Netflix)

Gogglebox reflects what you’re doing: sitting there as a family watching them. It sparks good conversations about whether you agree with what they’re saying, too,” says Cox. (Channel 4)

Front to back:-Erin Quinn (Saoirse Monica Jackson), Clare Devlin (Nicola Coughlan), Michelle Mallon (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell), Orla McCool (Louisa Clare Harland), James Maguire (Dylan Llewellyn) in a still from the TV series Derry Girls
Derry Girls: coming-out stories, sex and drugs. Photograph: Peter Marley/Channel 4

“A family watch I love is Derry Girls,” says Edwards. “The stories are of a time, but timeless as well, and it’s just very, very funny. Families need to laugh together.” Set in Derry in the 1990s, it’s about a group of (very sweary) teenage girls, each fabulously awkward in their own way, and a male cousin who, because of his dangerously English accent, is forced to attend their all-girls convent school; they are all trying to navigate young adulthood as the Troubles come to an end. Expect coming-out stories, sex, drugs and surprisingly tolerant nuns. (Channel 4)

Reset And Rewind is a series of animated shorts made with well-known rap and grime artists, sharing their struggles with mental health and their coping strategies, covering everything from trauma and grief, to stress. (Channel4.com)

Older teens

Ashley Walters, Luke Fraser and Leon Black in Bullet Boy. Photograph: Allstar/BBC Films

“A great film is often a good bet”, says child psychologist Laverne Antrobus. “Don’t shy away from mature themes – they create opportunities for conversation. Films with subtitles are a great way to ensure everyone is watching and that all phones are put to one side.” The BFI Player has a number of curated, themed collections; one is Coming of Age, which includes rites-of-passage classics and recent films such as Bullet Boy and Ghost World. (£4.99 a month, player.bfi.org.uk)

“There are comedy shows that can be enjoyed with parents that won’t make anyone squirm too much,” says Edwards, “likeFriday Night Dinner [about two adult sons returning home once a week]. TheYoung Offenders [about teens growing up in Cork] is also great – Jock and Connor are not the best role models, but it is very funny and genuinely heartwarming.” (channel4.com; iPlayer)

Courtesy: The Guardian