When I was young, our TV offered four options: Snow, snow, snow, and channel 16. Yet, it was always on. The dial listed 13 channels, but that was a lie.
Each turn clicked to the next static-y station. Most of the time we settled on Bowling for Dollars or M*A*S*H. Saturday was TV Day in our world, and my sisters and I sat glued to the screen to view the four weekly hours of programming meant for us. Tom and Jerry, Deputy Dog, and the Road Runner fought, schemed, and plotted their way into our hearts. And who could forget the old anvil-to-the-head trick?
If you missed your show, you were out of luck. Back to snow and M*A*S*H for another week.
That was then.
Thanks to the miracle of TiVo, my kids think nothing of rewinding live TV, hitting the pause button or asking for a specific episode of a specific show. I feel tempted to give the "when I was your age..." speech, but it would be lost on two toddlers.
Speaking of the shows, there are entire networks that air nothing but children's programming, 24/7. Most of it is utter garbage. Twenty-two minutes of programming wrapped around eight minutes of ads. Who am I kidding? The entire show is an ad for the doll, the action figure, the play set, the ... you get the picture.
As a former latchkey kid who watched more television than a Nielsen family (and only recently defeated a serious TV addiction), I'm quite strict about how much time the kids spend in front of the tube. That's not to say that I don't occasionally pop on a DVD so I can get something done, but that's more the exception than the rule.
While flipping past the junk, I've identified five shows that I'm happy to let my kids watch. In fact, I think they're kind of fun myself. Here they are, in no particular order.
Charlie and Lola. The animated series based on the books by Lauren Child is charming in every way. Young Lola Sonner is inquisitive yet cautious. With the help of her older brother Charlie, best friend Lotta, and invisible friend Soren Lorensen, Lola overcomes anxiety about the first day of school, eats a tomato, and learns to watch after Sizzles, a friend's dog.
The animation is adorable, with beautifully colorful backgrounds. The show places Lola, who reminds me of my own Gracie, in predicaments typical of a five- or six-year-old, and offers age-appropriate solutions. Plus, those tiny voices with English accents are so darn cute you think your head will explode. Charlie and Lola is very definitely, absolutely (as Lola would say) a good show.
The Backyardagins. This show features five friends whose homes stand in a row on the street. As a result, they share a common back yard, and spend each day imagining elaborate, make-believe play scenarios.
It features lots of singing. In fact, you could almost call each episode a musical in the theatrical sense. I've noticed that, since getting into the show, my kids sing a lot more. All the time, in fact. They also want to engage in the same imaginative play as the backyard friends.
Our own swing becomes a castle, an Egyptian pyramid, or a simmering volcano. The songs are catchy (I dare you to watch the "Mighty Knights" episode. You'll be singing "We're Knights" all day) and fun.
Now, I know that a toddler's imagination is a fertile ground, and doesn't need a TV show to get it going, but I have seen Grace's play scenarios grow more elaborate over the last few weeks.
Nanalan'. Here's the show William loves. Young Mona is a 2-year-old who spends days with her grandmother, or "Nana," while her mother works. Sound familiar, anyone? It's immediately relatable for many.
Each day, Nana has a new activity planned for Mona. Sometimes they cook, paint, use Play-Doh, or draw. Certain things they do every day, like sing a song and watch a puppet show (funny, as they themselves are puppets) as performed by Nana's next-door neighbor, Mr. Wooka (my wife and I suspect that they're dating). Each episode ends when Mona's mother picks her up and they recount the day's activities in the car.
The puppeteering is very well done, the stories are sweet and the writing is great. There is no fighting, explosions, or anvils -- just a young toddler having a fun day with her grandmother.
I've used the show as a jumping-off point with William. Recently, Nana and Mona made a Play-Doh duck on a rainy day. After watching that episode, William and I spend most of the afternoon making ducks, cows, and just about every animal we could think of complete with a barn and a tractor. He wanted to do it because Mona did, and once he and I got rocking, it was a veritable Play-Doh Festival.
Curious George. Replace Mona with a monkey and Nana with The Man in the Yellow Hat, and you've got Curious George (more or less). George gets into predicaments familiar to many toddlers, as we've seen in other shows.
What I like is the focus on George's problem-solving. The bulk of the show follows George as he is presented with a problem, devises a hypothesis, tests it, and observes the results. He either identifies and addresses what went wrong, or celebrates his success. It's the Scientific Method for the pre-school set!
Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. How could you possibly go wrong with Fred Rogers? Also, what can be said that hasn't been stated or written already? Fred demonstrated the same curiosity that my toddlers express every day. Typically, there's a sequence of something being manufactured in a factory or workshop, and the kids love those scenes.
So there you have my top five children's shows. Now, I know that the TV is not a babysitter, that I ought to be on the floor engaging my kids. Believe me, I do. I'm a darn good dad, if I may say so.
I also recognize that, just like the adults I know, my kids need to quietly unwind in the late afternoon. At that time, an hour of TV -- good TV -- certainly won't kill them.