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TV trends come and go, but there's a reason certain shows are considered classics. The following picks all stand the test of time, no matter what decade they were filmed or take place in. Whether you're learning with Mister Rogers or laughing with Lucy, these nostalgia-sparking favorites from Common Sense Media are great to share with kids.
Preschoolers (Ages 2-4):
Mister Rogers' Neighborhood (2005)
This TV classic's messages about social responsibility, respect and self-esteem are just as relevant today as they were at the show's start in the 1960s. The series uses music, make believe, and everyday tasks to illustrate kid-friendly themes like honesty, overcoming fears, and being a good friend. Field trips expose viewers to how common products are made, and the host's visits with his neighbors demonstrate how their jobs benefit the community. Occasionally the show explores sensitive subjects like divorce or the loss of a loved one, but it's always done in a responsible manner that's appropriate for kids.
This classic educational series sometimes deals with strong emotions -- such as missing a friend, suffering from low self-esteem, and being worried about a new sibling's arrival -- but the messages for kids are always positive and self-affirming. The Muppet characters are sometimes slightly irreverent, but that tiny bit of edge is what makes the show fun for older viewers to watch, and it never gets in the way of preschoolers' learning or enjoyment. And, of course, there's the show's superb educational content, which supports early skills in literacy, math, and science and exposes kids to a variety of cultures through music, dance, and language.
Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends (2005)
Parents need to know that this is generally a male-centric series, though a few females do make appearances. Otherwise, the dramatic action told through the voice of a single narrator will be compelling even for the youngest viewers, without overstimulating young children's sensitive field of perception.
Reading Rainbow (2005)
Parents need to know that this program, which encourages kids to read, has been on for more than 20 years. Critics at first thought it was counter-intuitive to emphasize reading books on television. But this program makes story time rich and interesting. Along with stories narrated by renowned actors, documentary-style investigations explore everything from locomotives to city markets to slavery.
Young Kids (Ages 5-6)
The Electric Company (1970s) (2007)
Parents need to know that this classic '70s educational show is still a lot of fun, if a bit dated. For instance, some of the words that kids are taught (like "reducing exercises") don't really translate today. And in our PC culture, the word "gag" -- while admittedly chock-full of "g" sounds, feels like an odd one to use (accompanied by a human demonstration no less) in this context. It's also worth noting that the show doesn't transfer very well, digitially, to today's HD TVs. Dramatic effects created by having actors work in front of a black screen become fuzzy and hard to watch, as do many of the show's signature "electric" word bursts. If you have an old TV hooked up to a DVD player, that's the way to go.
Parents need to know that this '90s cartoon has great messages for grade-schoolers about managing relationships, staying true to your ideals, and overcoming life's daily challenges. The protagonist is an average kid with relatable troubles, and he relies on his family, his friends, and his vivid imagination to help him chart his path. The show's simple style gives it a dated feel that might not appeal to kids at first glance, but if they give it a chance, they'll find that the colorful characters more than make up for the visual blandness. Watch out for some bullying by means of teasing and name-calling ("loser" and "moron," for starters), which probably rules it out for young kids who like to repeat everything they hear on TV.
I Love Lucy (2005)
Parents need to know that this still-hilarious (and ubiquitous) 1950s comedy classic is entirely tame by contemporary standards, though some episodes do show the characters smoking or drinking. In one famous episode, Lucy gets more and more drunk as she films a commercial for Vegameatavitamin, showing alcohol consumption in a funny light. Also, old-fashioned family stereotypes (like the clueless housewife and the patronizing husband) form the basis of the show's narrative structure, and some racial stereotyping occurs, with Ricky's Cuban accent often becoming the butt of jokes.
The Andy Griffith Show (2005)
Parents need to know that although this classic '60s comedy series features simplistic storylines and dated humor, it also offers timeless lessons about responsibility, kindness, and the consequences of your behavior. It's a cheerful, squeaky clean -- and very idealized -- example of strong family and community relationships in a small town.
Leave It to Beaver (2004)
Parents need to know that this classic, squeaky-clean 1950s sitcom is an icon of American pop culture. Although it's certainly dated in look and dialogue, many of its themes about growing up, sibling rivalry, social adjustment, and parent-kid relationships are still pertinent today. That said, the fact remains that it's a very isolated look at a white, American suburban middle-class family. Today's savvy school-aged kids may find it unrealistic, simple, or boring (the black-and-white cinematography alone will probably be enough to turn a lot of them off).
Find classic TV shows to watch with older kids here.
Plus, watch our series Oh, Really? about TV fun facts!