The best shows about animals for animals—er, kids
There are days when I’m certain the group filling the back of my Odyssey is a herd of wild elephants instead of my children, but then I realize that the elephants probably wouldn’t be insulting each other. Nevertheless, there’s something about animals that’s vaguely reminiscent of children—and vice versa. So it’s not much of a surprise that kids really like shows about animals.
If you're imagining something like Clifford the Big Red Dog, or Go Diego Go, then you're missing out on a lot of terrific television opportunities. Sure, Clifford and Diego are cute, but there are more sophisticated choices that your kids—and you—can enjoy.
A nice alternative to the animated kids' shows is Zoboomafoo, a PBS program starring Chris and Martin Kratt and their lemur sidekick. The show is geared towards the preschool set, but slightly older kids might find themselves drawn in as well, as the brothers visit exotic locales and interact with all kinds of animals. The show incorporates some animated sequences, mostly to give Zoboo the lemur a chance to talk to the kids, but it's well-grounded in reality. You can find reruns of the show on PBS Kids.
When Crocidile Hunter Steve Irwin died, his daughter had already started filming her own series, Bindi the Jungle Girl. Kids get a kick out of seeing someone their size hanging out with exotic creatures in a treehouse in the rainforest. Bindi, a personable nine-year-old at the time the series was shot, also focuses on conservation efforts and talks—without being preachy—about little choices kids can make to have a big impact on the earth. Catch Bindi on Discovery Kids.
If you have a child who loves horses, check out The Saddle Club, an Australian TV show based on Bonnie Bryant's books of the same name. The show follows three teenage girls who love their horses and their competitions. The show airs on PBS Kids and Discovery Kids. Bonus: If your daughter likes the show, check your library for the books.
Late middle school and high school kids—and quite a few adults, actually—will enjoy Be the Creature, another Kratt brothers show. This one is definitely designed for an older audience, and it features the brothers putting themselves into often dangerous situations designed to give viewers the animal's perspective. Note that some scenes are intense and graphic, because these boys want you to experience wildlife the way it really is. Watch the series at National Geographic.
As with any TV show, try to catch an episode on your own before you set it up for your kids. Then follow up with a few questions to make sure your kids understand what they're seeing, and to give them a chance to ask questions of their own. In case you're not sure, the answer to, "Hey, Mom, can we get a lemur like Chris and Martin have?" is a resounding, "No! Hey, isn't that ice cream?"