Preschool science television represents a special niche, and there aren't many really good science shows for young children.
Some programs seem to discourage creativity and critical thinking. Others are too sophisticated for preschool audiences, or just dull.
I’ve found a few that I really like. They succeed on several levels--as
entertainment, as resources to stimulate curiosity and discussion, as
inspiration for a
preschool science curriculum.
Here are my personal picks. But one proviso: If you live outside North America and want to buy these shows on DVD, check to see if they are compatible with your DVD player. Most of the DVDs are compatible only with DVD players in the United States and Canada.
Peep and the Big, Wide World
Emphasis: Problem solving, “backyard science,” critical thinking, physical science
Narrated by Joan Cusack, this funny, folksy animated series is unlike anything else I've seen.
The characters are what you’d get if Mark Twain had written for Looney Toons:
• a naïve, intrepid, inquisitive young chicken
• a level-headed, analytical red bird
• a lazy, irrational, narcissistic duck
Together, these characters tackle everyday problems that are both amusing and adventurous. How to move a boulder. How to test the effects of “wishing on a star.” How to show fish what it’s like to live on the land.
The understated philosophical humor appeals to adults without baffling the kids. And the preschool science? Top notch. Each program features
• two 10-minute stories about specific concepts (like the properties of mirrors, or the use of landmarks to navigate), and
• two live-action shorts that show real kids demonstrating “hands-on” science activities using everyday household objects.
Age-appropriate critical thinking is emphasized. It’s easy to see why Peep was funded by the National Science Foundation. And I have to confess, it's the only one of the programs here that can entertain me as well as my kids.
If it’s not broadcast in your area, catch the video streams online or buy a set of DVDs. There is also a website featuring extensive resources--selected episodes, games, activities, curriculum guides, etc.
To buy the complete series, get Peep and the Big Wide World (3 DVD set), Peep and His Pals - Peep Explores / Chirp Flies / Quack Knows it All(3 DVD set), and Peep and the Big Wide World: Peep Figures It Out (a single DVD that includes the final episodes). At full price, this series is a bargain. But as I write this you can get the first set of DVDs for 50% off—which is a real steal.
Emphasis: Zoology, ecology
It's hard to find a really engaging adventure that's both educational and appropriate for a preschool audience. The Wild Kratts animated series, featuring the voice talents of the Kratt brothers (see below), entertains young children and teaches lessons in biology along the way.
Sometimes the lead characters have a puzzle to solve, like the mystery of why earthworms come to the surface when it rains. In many other adventures, the Kratts and their team are trying to thwart villains who want to destroy endangered species. Either way, children learn valuable information about animal behavior and ecology, and get exposed to several positive role models.
Emphasis: Zoology, ecology
If you are looking for a high-energy, live-action series about animals, this is it. The show’s creators, real-life brothers Chris and Martin Kratt, have loads of enthusiasm and kid-friendly charisma. They co-host the show with lemur puppet, Zoboomafoo, a Coquerel's Sifaka.
Some episodes focus on specific groups—likes horses or snakes. But many episodes are concept-driven, exploring themes like growth, nonhuman play, or animals adapted for flight. There is only one episode in the series that makes me cringe, and that’s one where they characterize plants as “green creatures.” Weird word choice, right? Otherwise, the series scores high on scientific accuracy, and the episodes take advantage of the TV format to show kids things they can’t get from a book or at the zoo.
Emphasis: Paleontology, ecology, scientific thinking
Why did it take so long for someone to produce a high-quality preschool science show about dinosaurs? I don’t know, but this new animated series by the Jim Henson company fits the bill.
The main characters are a pteranodon family (which includes an adopted T. rex) who travel through time to visit all sorts of prehistoric creatures.
As an adult viewer, Dinosaur Train doesn't hold my interest the way Peep does. But Dinosaur Train appeals to kids and the paleontology is accurate. Kids also learn about ecology, animal behavior, adaptations, and hypothesis-testing. A typical episode features two stories, and each adventure is followed by a short talk with “Dr. Scott,” a real-life paleontologist.
Read more about Dinosaur Train on the PBS KIDS website.
Emphasis: Everyday math and science; engineering, earth science, health
Not to be confused with the Hollywood feature film, Curious George the TV series is an educational show for kids.
Like Peep, Curious George mixes cartoons and live action demonstrations, and emphasizes everyday investigations. Each ten-minute animated story features George making several attempts to solve a problem--e.g., George conducts his own forensic investigation to find out if a cat is to blame for a scratched sofa. Then viewers watch a short video of real kids engaged in a classroom science activity.
Personally, I don't like this show nearly as much as I like Peep. As entertainment, it seems less imaginative and plays more like a conventional sitcom--one that includes cultural references and that are sure to go over your preschooler’s head. In addition, some of the concepts seem a bit too advanced, and the science activity demonstrations are more likely to involve fancy equipment that you won’t have at home.
But if you have an older preschooler who is done with Peep, Curious George covers lots of hands-on science topics that you won’t find on other shows.
More preschool science resources
For a research-based guide to teaching science to preschoolers, check out the Parenting Science Preschool Science pages.