Parents probably spend more time not watching kids TV shows than actually sitting down and watching them. Unlike family movie night, children’s television serves one undeniable purpose in the life of a busy family: a virtual babysitter. And, unlike 30 years ago, thanks to streaming, children now can binge-watch, just like their parents, requesting “one more episode” sometimes sweetly, sometimes because they’re hooked.
This isn’t to say children today watch too much TV, or that they watch more than we all did back in the ‘70, ‘80s, and ‘90s. And, in all the ways that count, what makes a good kids TV show is the same as it was back in the day: It’s a show that parents can walk away from, and, upon returning, won’t drive us too nuts. The greatest kids TV shows of all time are those that enrich our children’s lives in ways that we can enjoy, too.
Here at Fatherly, figuring out which kids TV shows are actually the greatest of all time means embracing several of these paradoxes. The writers and editors of this list — all TV critics who happen to be dads — didn’t decide that all of these shows were the most educational, most popular, or most politically progressive for the moment we live in. Many of the shows on the list tick those boxes too, sure. But like film, TV is an art form that informs as much as it entertains.
These shows are undeniably good — well-directed, acted, and produced — but they’re also, important. Great kids TV shows don’t just entertain our children. They inform them, subtly, or sometimes, hit them over the head with a message. They stick in the imagination of children, but not in an obnoxious way that is frustrating. Yes, many children’s shows are products, but the best ones don’t feel like pure consumption. There should always be something a little bit healthy in a great kids show, even if it’s just the fact that the show is extremely unique. Redeeming social value is good. Some educational value is great. But these things alone aren’t why adults watch TV, and this is also true of kids. So, we tried to think of not just great kids shows that are good for kids, but also great to watch. Some shows here are for very small kids. Some shows are for tweens. All of them are what we think are good shows first, and good kids shows, second.
With all of those criteria in mind, we also aimed to have fun with this list. It’s not remotely objective, nor is it biased. Fatherly’s 100 Best Kids TV Shows Of All Time, we hope, reflect the sensibilities of parents everywhere — it’s a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and a few big surprises along the way.
100. Rainbow Rangers
This action-adventure series features magical girls and ecological themes. If it sounds a little preachy, that’s OK. The charm of this show is that it isn’t for parents, but rather, for young kids who want a different kind of fantasy team-up, in which various characters all have powers not that different from the X-Men. It’s well-written and with its share of fun cameos like none other than Pierce Brosnan, who lends his voice as a scientist for the Rainbow Ranger’s take on COVID-19. — Ryan Britt
Rainbow Rangers streams on Netflix.
99. Salute Your Shorts
From its opening theme song, complete with the word “fart” in the lyrics, Salute Your Shorts proudly declares itself as a show that is a bit sweet, a bit rude, and incredibly funny. Set at a fictional sleepaway camp, the show followed a group of a half-dozen or so campers (most with instantly-memorable names like Donkey Lips, Sponge, and Z.Z. Ziff) who were often at odds with the head counselor, Kevin “Ug” Lee. Despite only running 24 episodes, the show still maintains a strong cult following. — Ian Spelling
Salute Your Shorts streams on Paramount+.
98. Teen Titans Go!
Teen Titans Go! is a comedy triumph, one that weaponizes any knowledge the viewer might have of DC comics canon against them and ultimately has them in stitches. In an era where meta-awareness is increasingly a requirement for robust franchises, Teen Titans Go! knows how to have fun with comic book lore rather than be bogged down by it. It’s both a perfect entry point to the DC Universe for new viewers just looking for a fun time and the ultimate endpoint. — James Grebey
Teen Titans Go! streams on HBO Max.
97. Lizzie McGuire
Hilary Duff’s Disney Channel sitcom still appeals to countless teen girls as much as it did in 2001 as it does in 2023. Like Lizzie, Duff plays a typical teen trying to make her way through junior high school and life, which means contending with parents and siblings, mean girls, crushes, puberty, and homework.
What sets Lizzie McGuire apart is its effervescent star, Duff, a terrific supporting cast (Lalaine and Adam Lamberg as Lizzie’s best friends and Hallie Todd and Robert Carradine as her parents), and the animated Lizzie who expressed the character’s relatable, often panicked, feelings, fears, and aspirations. — IS
Lizzie McGuire streams on Disney+.
96. The Magic Garden
Airing on New York’s WPIX for 12 seasons — from 1972 to 1984 — The Magic Garden lives up to its name, a show about people sitting in a magic garden playing music. Hosts Carole Demas and Paula Janis interact with the Chuckle Patch (giggling flowers), a Magic Tree, and a playful, peanut-loving squirrel named Sherlock (puppeteered and voiced by Cary Antebi). They also put on little shows, sparked by what they’d find when they opened the Story Box. Demas, Janis, and Antebi recently reunited for a few live 50th-anniversary performances and they’ve still got it. It’s one of the most unique kid’s shows of all time, and it very much holds up.
Demas and Janis are planning to produce an animated prequel focusing on young Carol and Paula becoming friends and discovering the wonders of the Magic Garden. — IS
You can watch huge chunks of The Magic Garden on YouTube.
95. The Flintstones
Airing from 1960 to 1966, The Flintstones is basically a cartoon version of The Honeymooners, for better or for worse. Fred harrumphs and embarks on doomed schemes with his pal Barney, while Wilma and Betty look on incredulously. Add in loads of visual jokes and punny names — Ann Margrock, Stony Curtis, Mr. Slate, brontosaurus burgers — as well as Dino, the Flintstones’ pet pink dinosaur, who loves to lick Fred, and you’ve got a stone-cold classic. Late additions Pebbles, Bamm-Bamm, and the Great Gazoo actually improved the show. Does it make any sense? Nope! But the enduring brilliance of great kids shows is that they’re sometimes not required to make any sense or be anything but entertaining. — IS
The Flinstones streams on HBO Max.
94. Land of the Lost
Ambitious way beyond its means, Sid & Marty Kroft’s Land of the Lost (1974-1976) sends the Marshall family — dad Rick, daughter Holly, and son Will — deep into the past (or something like it). There, the Marshalls encounter dinosaurs, and assorted creatures friendly (Cha-ka, a Pekuni) and dangerous (the hiss-worthy Sleestaks), as they struggle to survive and find a way home. Bona fide sci-fi talent — including huge writers like David Gerrold, Margaret Armen, Norman Spinrad, and Larry Niven — helped spin the show’s stories, particularly in its first — and best by far — season.
This is one of those classic old family shows that is way better and way more sophisticated than some might remember, and ripe for revisiting. — IS
93. Captain Kangaroo
CBS ran Captain Kangaroo for 29 seasons, from 1955 to 1984, a remarkable, legendary run. Countless millions of kids — and then their kids — grew up with the titular Captain, played by the wonderful and grandfatherly Bob Keeshan, who also created the show. Episodes — many of which kicked off with a major celebrity greeting Keeshan with “Good morning, Captain!” — featured sweet stories, visits from friends, entertaining puppets, animated shorts, knock-knock jokes (followed by a cascade of falling ping pong balls), songs, birthday greetings, and more. Favorite characters included Mr. Green Jeans (Hugh Brannum), Grandfather Clock, Mr. Moose, and Dancing Bear; the latter three roles were all performed or voiced by Cosmo Allegretti. — IS
Captain Kangaroo is streaming on the “Beta Max Channel” on Roku.
92. Clifford the Big Red Dog
Norman Bridwell’s beloved children’s books came to life from 2000 to 2003 as an adorable animated series (encompassing 66 episodes over two seasons) featuring John Ritter as the voice of Clifford, a massive 25-foot Labrador retriever. His owner, 8-year-old Emily Elizabeth, loves Clifford so, so, so, so much as a puppy that his size represents her love for him. And off on adventures they go, with Clifford’s size and puppy energy wreaking good-natured havoc.
Of all the Clifford adaptations, this series captures the heart of the books. It’s not so much about the problems Clifford creates. It’s all about Emily Elizabeth showing children what unconditional love looks like. — IS
Clifford the Big Red Dog streams on PBS Kids.
91. Thundarr the Barbarian
Imagine a post-apocalyptic show, in the vein of Planet of the Apes, with a character who behaves like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Conan movies. What you would have is the 1981 series Thundarr the Barbarian, which is shockingly good.
Some ‘80s and ‘90s kids like to say Thundercats was better. But the truth is, Thundarr is the true winner here, mostly because Hanna Barbera had the inspired gall to give Thundarr a knock-off lightsaber. – RB
You can buy episodes of Thundarr on Amazon.
90. The Jetsons
Admit it: you saw the words The Jetsons and immediately started singing the show’s earworm of a theme song. Many people don’t realize that this Hanna-Barbera series ran for just one 24-episode season (1962-1963); another 51 episodes were produced between 1985 and 1987.
The original two dozen episodes tell the story of George Jetson and his family (wife Jane, daughter Judy, son Elroy, and dog Astro). The stories range from weird to weirder, but the imagery is what works here: brightly lit and straight out of the imaginings of the World’s Fair: flying cars, apartment complexes above the clouds, a robot maid (Rosey!), and an outdoor treadmill for Astro. Is it all in outer space? Or just very high in the sky? These are the questions children should be asking. — IS
The Jetsons are streaming on HBO.
89. Dragon Tales
The idea of escaping the mundanity of the real world and traveling to a fantastical world full of adventures is popular for a reason. (See: the plots of many sci-fi movies and shows, several video games, and the entire Isekai anime genre.) The PBS series Dragon Tales remains a wonderfully age-appropriate version of this fantasy. Dragon Land, where Max and Emmy travel to hang out with their dragon friends, is exciting without ever feeling dangerous. Dragon Tales doesn’t condescend or make its fantasy boring — a much more magical accomplishment than you might think. — JG
Dragon Tales is streaming on Prime.
88. The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles
In 1992, when George Lucas decided to put his wise-cracking, whip-cracking anti-hero on the TV screen, he also did something brilliant: He turned the entire story of Indiana Jones into a history lesson for children.
Throughout all the episodes of Young Indy, the titular adventurer finds himself connected to various historical events from the early 1900s through the 1920s. One of the most excellent episodes finds Indy present during the Treaty of Versailles. At least one Fatherly editor remembers his history teacher showing this episode in class in the year 2000. That’s right, history teachers were using episodes of Young Indy! If you’ve forgotten how great and educational this series is, it's time to catch up with the Joneses. —RB
The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles is available for rent on Apple TV+.
Based on the picture book series by Anne Marie Pace, Vampirina tells the story of a young family of monsters who move from Transylvania to Pennsylvania. As the theme song tells us, they get a case of “human race cultural shock,” right away. The fish-out-of-water theme pervades the entire series, making the titular character one of the most relatable vampires in all of fiction.
The show smartly never really gets into what kind of vampire “Vee” might actually be, and there’s never a mention of anybody drinking blood. But, the series does push it as far as a contemporary Disney series would allow. For kids who are having a hard time feeling seen at school, or for anyone feeling left out, Vampirina is both sweet and smarter than its saccharine appearance. — RB
Vampirina streams on Disney+.
86. Waffles + Mochi
Why are most kids cooking shows thinly-veiled celebrations of child labor and privilege? Kids should be taught that, in the words of Ratatouille, “everyone can cook,” not that cooking is a contest in which only those with special gifts can come out on top (and likely driven parents who are trying to make a child star out of a kid who likes to bake cakes). Instead, they should take a page from the brilliantly produced and downright inspiring cooking show Waffles + Mochi.
The formula is unbeatable: Two muppets representing the titular foods drive the plot (with a kid-life curiosity about food), Michelle Obama plays the role of mom working together to answer the kids' questions (and, yes, offer a moral or two along the way), and some of the world’s most influential chefs come in to inspire, breaking down the origins, uses, and meaning behind some of the most basic ingredients. Each episode brilliantly revolves around a single ingredient, a move reminiscent of Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat (Nosrat is in fact one of the very best guests on the show). The show will drive you to the kitchen to, yes, make delicious recipes (the excellent Waffles + Mochi Get Cooking! cookbook helps) but more importantly to experiment, something even many adults are shy to do with food. Waffles & Mochi isn’t just a good kids cooking show — it’s one of the best cooking shows ever made, for kids, parents, and anyone truly curious about the food we eat. Bon appetit. — Tyghe Trimble
Waffles + Mochi streams on Netflix.
85. Izzy’s Koala World
The premise of Izzy’s Koala World is simple: This is a reality TV show about a girl who takes care of koalas in Australia. Izzy is real. Her mother, who is a veterinarian, is real. The koalas are real. The show never shies away from the real danger the koalas might be in, but it’s also a gentle show that knows the audience is very young children. These adorable, real koalas may get separated from their families, but there are no real scares (and no death scenes) in Izzy’s Koala World.
A brilliantly thoughtful and sweet show, Izzy’s Koala World reminds kids that the real world is just as exciting and full of love as the world of fantasy. — RB
Izzy’s Koala World streams on Netflix.
Where would we be without the Smurfs? To leave this show off a list of the best kids shows of all time would be bizarre. This isn’t to say that the classic Smurfs aren’t a tad bit problematic.
But, the energy, family vibe, and overall goofiness have earned these blue creatures a place in our hearts for one very good reason — we all still relate to the various Smurfs, and in looking for who we relate to in any given moment, parents and children can find themselves. — Harlan Sharpe
Smurfs is streaming now on Tubi.
83. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
In the ‘90s, just the title of this show seemed like it was trying to do too much. But today, everything about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) seems quaint, in a good way. Every iteration of the series, more or less, is about family. And, the parenting lessons we can all get from Splinter are still valuable.
TMNT may not teach kids much about actual martial arts, other than the fact that fighting is not actually the point. The titular teenagers here act like teens, so impatient kids can feel like their heroes are just like them. — RB
The 1987 version of TMNT is available for rent on Apple TV+.
82. Ada Twist
Based on the wonderful Questioneers book series, the Netflix show Ada Twist treats the scientific method like the ABCs. This empowering kids show has one stated goal: to demystify science for kids, by removing any pretension from discussions around fact-based subjects.
The result? Ada Twist and her friends don’t treat science as a superpower. They treat it as a normal, everyday part of life. As it should be. — RB
Ada Twist streams on Netflix.
Like Ren & Stimpy and roughly 25% of Spongebob, Larva is inappropriate. There’s no real way around that label given its obsession with bodily functions and cartoon violence that sometimes leads to actual death. But there’s a very big difference in the inappropriateness of this show compared to so many others — it’s 100% meant for the kids.
While Ren & Stimpy’s every revealed butt cheek and Spongebob’s quietly over-the-head penis jokes are given with a wink at the adults watching, Larva has an excess of toilet humor not to be subversive, but because kids like toilet humor. The two main characters, one red and one yellow caterpillar, often lean into pratfalls and gross jokes because, like kids, the world is large and scary and when they’re together roughhousing, farting, and being weird, they’re laughing. What better way to make their world a bit smaller, and more manageable? Profound? Not exactly. Socially redeeming? Not really. Sometimes we all could use a good chuckle. For kids, Larva is a laugh riot. — TT
Larva is streaming for free on Tubi.
80. The Facts of Life
Although the series got off to an unwieldy and unfocused start, once The Facts of Life honed in on Blair, Tootie, Natalie, and Jo — and, of course, their headmistress Mrs. Garrett — the show was off to the races. The series was bold, not only for focusing on four adolescent girls, but also for the array of subjects that were covered in each episode. As the title suggests, the comedy really was on a mission to teach its characters and viewers that sometimes in life you have to take the good and take the bad. That’s just a fact. — Caseen Gaines
The Facts of Life is streaming on Tubi.
79. You Can't Do That on Television
You Can’t Do That on Television holds the distinction of being the birthplace of Nickelodeon’s iconic green slime. But it was so much more than that. Launched in Canada in 1979, You Can’t Do That on Television served up variety show-style sketches for children, drenching countless kids and a few adults too in water and slime, and slamming endless locker doors. An ever-evolving cast starred in the show, which ran from 1979 to 1990 and gave us 144 episodes across its 10 seasons. Fun facts: A pre-teen Alanis Morissette appeared five times and the late, great Les Lye turns up in every episode (the only adult to do so), essaying multiple roles, including the show’s stage manager, a corrupt politician, and an inept firing squad commander. Slime is in. Incompetent adults are out. — IS
You Can’t Do That On Television streams on Paramount+.
78. Kim Possible
A kind of early-aughts brand of girl power takes center stage in the fun and fast-paced Kim Possible, as the title character (Christy Carlson Romano) juggles high school, friends, family, and cheerleading with the responsibilities of saving the world on a regular basis. Ron Stoppable (Will Friedle) serves as her sidekick along with his pet Rufus (Nancy Cartwright), who happens to be a naked mole rat (and generates lots of laughs). In the best possible way, Kim Possible — which dropped 87 episodes over four seasons from 2002 to 2007 — at times feels like a fully animated Lizzie Maguire. In a world where girls are still searching for great action heroes, the classic feminism of Kim Possible still works wonders. — IS
Kim Possible is streaming on Disney+.
77. Inspector Gadget
Imagine, if you will, a combination of The Pink Panther’s Inspector Clouseau and Get Smart’s Maxwell Smart as an equally daft and inept — and bionic — police inspector who fights crime across the globe. Now add a brilliant and savvy young niece (Penny) and a brainy dog (named Brain, natch), as well as a KAOS-like big bad called M.A.D. (Mean and Dirty), and you’ve got Inspector Gadget. Over the course of two extended seasons (from 1982 to 1986), fans enjoyed 88 episodes of pure silliness made even more entertaining thanks to the on-the-nose (but still awesome) casting of Don Adams, Maxwell Smart/Secret Agent 86 himself, as the voice of Inspector Gadget. — IS
Inspector Gadget streams on PlutoTV.
76. Captain Planet
Why can’t Captain Planet appear unless he’s summoned? Does he not exist without the belief that he exists? What do the magic rings do? Do they actually need the rings, or could they just call Captain Planet?
Hopefully, if you have a cool kid, they will ask all of these exact same questions while watching Captain Planet. The absurdity of the show is still great for kids today, and perhaps even more so than it was in the ‘90s. If you ever scoffed at the idea of an ecological superhero back then, you’re certainly not laughing now. The utter lack of cynicism is what makes this show immortal. Too bad Captain Planet doesn’t exist in real life. — RB
Captain Planet streams on YouTube.
75. Looney Tunes
No childhood would be complete without exploding sticks of dynamite. Yes, various aspects of Looney Tunes are bizarre, violent, and straight-up disturbing, but in that way Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and all the rest reflect the real world. Life is looney, and at the very least, we should have a sense of humor about it.
The enduring impact of Looney Tunes is almost impossible to measure. Some purists would rank this show much higher on a list like this. We think it’s important that it’s here, but the truth is a discussion of Looney Tunes is much bigger than this list. Hot tip: Buy the DVDs. Getting all the good stuff online is going to be tricky for a while. — RB
Here’s Fatherly’s guide to streaming Looney Tunes.
74. Care Bears
OK, Care Bears is not cool. But consider, for a moment, the existence of “Grumpy Bear.” In all versions of the Care Bears, in which some concepts have been retired, and new bears and cousins created, “Grumpy Bear” abides. The idea that all the Care Bears represent the different feelings of children and that the show does not shame the concept of an ever-present grumpiness is not only brilliant, but it’s also very kind. Children need as much love as the world can give. But, they also need to know it’s OK to be grumpy AF sometimes. — RB
Classic Care Bears streams on YouTube.
Other than Batman: The Animated Series, no comic book TV adaptation ever went as hard as X-Men. This show didn’t try to water down the complex comic book storylines; it embraced all of that. From time travel paradoxes to people losing their powers, to figuring out how to fit in with a society that hates mutants, the X-Men had it all.
Today, various films have given kids and families different versions of these Marvel comic book favorites. But, in a sense, the best version of the X-Men was right here. And it’s never been topped. — RB
72. Phineas and Ferb
Pre-teen stepbrothers Phineas and Ferb take advantage of their long summer vacation to build crazy contraptions and embark on wacky sci-fi-ish adventures, while their bratty older sister Candace plots to rat them out to Mom. And we haven’t even mentioned the boys’ pet platypus, Perry, who’s actually a spy. It’s all whiz-bang silliness, with lots of action and some catchy original songs. Fun fact: Thomas Brodie-Sangster, who wowed in The Queen’s Gambit and won audiences’ hearts as the little boy in Love Actually, voiced Ferb, while Ashley Tisdale (The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, High School Musical) voiced Candace. What does this prove? The talent of Phineas and Ferb is immense. It’s good because great people are in it. — IS
Phineas and Ferb stream on Disney+.
Of the original Nicktoons, Doug was the most grounded — and the one with the most heart. It was easy to fall in love with Doug Funnie, who wrote in his journal every day, oftentimes about his adventures with his friend Skeeter (honk, honk!) and his feelings for Patti Mayonnaise. Doug both dared to be weird (who can forget the rock band The Beets and their hit single “Killer Tofu”?) while also relishing in the mundane aspects of adolescence: schoolwork, bullies, best friends, and unrequited crushes. With a literally colorful cast of characters, including Doug’s plucky pup Porkchop and artsy sister Judy, the show immediately left a lasting impression on everyone who came of age alongside Doug and the other residents of Bluffington. — IS
Doug is streaming on Paramont+.
70. The Brady Bunch
Try looking at a three-by-three grid of blue squares without envisioning Carol, Mike, Marcia (Marcia, Marcia!), Greg, Jan, Peter, Cindy, Bobby — and don’t forget Alice — awkwardly tilting their heads to smile at each other. The Brady Bunch often wore its cheesiness on its sleeve, starting with the conveniently gendered conceit of a man with three sons marrying a woman with three daughters, but even the most cynical viewer could find something entertaining about the simplistic problems the Bradys found themselves into, complete with a heavy-handed lesson from the family patriarch.
With their dated fashion and a few truly groovy songs as part of their repertoire (while “Sunshine Day” might be their most notable hit, your kids will ask you to play “Keep On” over and over again), it’s no surprise that the Bradys found themselves the subject of two excellent tribute-parody films in the 1990s, and a not-so-excellent one in 2002. But even without those films, their variety of specials, animated series, and other offshoots, the original show still stands on its own two feet. — CG
You can stream the classic Brady Bunch on Paramount+.
For a show designed to strengthen the reading and writing skills of children, Ghostwriter was more captivating than it had any right to be. Maybe it was the backdrop of a largely-romanticized version of New York City in the mid-’90s, or the well-developed and authentically diverse characters that included Black, Latinx, Asian, and white kids solving mysteries together. It may have been the character of Ghostwriter himself, a disembodied spirit who could make words appear on computer screens and across the sky, but in a way that was only visible to the chosen kids who could see him and summon him with their special pens. The show was educational, but beyond reading and writing, Ghostwriter taught kids how to think critically by encouraging the viewing audience to keep track of clues, either in their head or a physical notebook, over two-hour-long story arcs. — CG
New and old Ghostwriter streams on Apple TV+.
Both the classic version of DuckTales from 1987 and the more recent reboot have their charms. But, overall what this show has going for it in all incarnations is the way it perfectly pairs absurd premises with utter conviction.
Uncle Scrooge is pretty well redeemed by this series, though we’re still not sure how a duck can comfortably swim through giant pools of gold coins like that. Did we mention there’s a pilot duck character named “Launchpad” and we all just accepted that? Brilliant. — RB
DuckTales streams on Disney+.
67. Lily's Driftwood Bay
With a unique and utterly beautiful animation style, the stories of Lily’s Driftwood Bay encourage imaginative play through found objects. This isn’t the most gripping show of all time, but it is one that feels like taking a deep breath. For kids who need to unwind, as much as they need to be stimulated, this hidden gem is much more profound than it might seem, at first. But, like the treasures that Lily finds, the effect is cumulative. — HS
Lily's Driftwood Bay streams on Apple TV+.
66. Winnie the Pooh
No children’s library would be complete without the brilliant works of A.A. Milne, and the same is true when it comes to great kids TV. The 1977 Pooh shorts, created by Disney, in many ways, have supplanted the conception of the character in everyone’s mind. But, this isn’t an accident. First voiced by longtime Disney voiceover actor Sterling Holloway, the infectious nature of that Pooh-bear sound is universal.
Some great kids entertainment can be described and understood. Other times, it’s pure alchemy. All TV versions of Pooh come from the shorts that make up “The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh,” and most retain the heart and wit of the original.
Various Winnie-the-Poohs are streaming on Disney+ here.
65. Jonny Quest
All versions of Jonny Quest deserve a place in the history of great children’s TV for one reason: The characters transform archetypes like James Bond or Indiana Jones, and turn those adventures into believable children. Not everything about the classic ‘60s Jonny Quest will scan as progressive or 100% politically correct today. But, this show’s heart was in the right place. Like reading an old Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew novel to your kid, Jonny Quest comes with a warning label. But, it’s still great fun, and there’s nothing quite like that theme song! — RB
Jonny Quest streams on Amazon Prime.
64. The Backyardigans
One of the greatest musical shows ever to hit Nickelodeon, The Backyardigans represents a very specific moment in the early aughts. In some ways, this show was the anti-Teletubbies, mostly because it just contains so much wit, charm, and heart. Shows that encourage sing-alongs can get tricky, fast. Luckily, The Backyardigans holds up. The songs are so good, in fact, TikTok has created a whole Backyardigan renaissance. — HS
The Backyardigans streams on Paramount+.
63. The Adventures of Puss In Boots
What is it about Puss In Boots that keeps us all wanting more? The brash, fearless, and reckless cat with a sword is not a character who grows or reveals his complexities over time. He remains brash, fearless, and reckless in the face of his enemy-filled world. And yet, he’s not a two-dimensional character that can’t carry a movie (two, to be exact, plus scene-stealing cameos in the Shrek movies, and, why we’re here, three solid seasons of streaming television).
After all, his determination and defiance are charming and relatable — especially to the braggadocious 5-, 6-, or 7-year-olds who make up the ideal audience for Puss. While the Puss In Boots movies are masterful Quixotian cartoon adventures, the Puss In Boots television series (on Netflix, from 2015-2018) is more focused on the joy of the characters, bringing the adventure home to the cat and his pals. The show isn’t one that’s really for binging as the plots are a bit predictable, the villains mostly forgettable, and the lessons a bit thin. But Puss is undeterred, wearing his confidence like a badge and by the end of each episode, owning up to his mistakes — until the next episode, with swords drawn, ready to fight. — TT
The Adventures of Puss In Boots streams on Netflix.
62. Shaun The Sheep
Nick Park spun off this very British stop-motion animated children’s show from his super-popular Wallace & Gromit universe. Basically, in each seven-minute episode — 170 of them aired across six seasons from 2007 to 2020 — the mischievous Shaun tries to help his flock stave off utter boredom as they live out their lives on a farmer’s property. Determined to rein in the chaos is Bitzer, the farmer’s sheepdog, and Shaun’s frenemy. Since the animals, including the bad-buy pigs, don’t speak, Park and company amplified the slapstick comedy and the characters’ eyes, expressions, and, well, bleating. — IS
Shaun the Sheep streams on Prime.
61. Lamb Chop’s Play-Along
With her bright, tight red hair and infectious energy, puppeteer Shari Lewis invites kids to “play along” with her pals Lamb Chop, Hush Puppy, and Charlie Horse in each installment. Of course, most of her pals are sock puppets (we hope we didn’t ruin the illusion for anyone here!) but their personalities are all so distinct, it’s easy to forget that they each sprung from Lewis’ imagination. To ensure the show’s staying power, each episode ends with “The Song That Doesn’t End” playing over the final credits, which we are certain some people are still trapped singing after all these years. — CG
Lamb Chop’s Play-Along is streaming on YouTube.
60. Mickey Mouse Clubhouse
The Disney Channel hit Mickey Mouse Clubhouse teaches problem-solving skills to preschoolers and elementary schoolers through the interactive, computer-animated adventures of their soothingly familiar pals Mickey, Minnie, Donald Duck, and the rest of the Clubhouse game. It’s a brightly colored, tune-filled, and strangely meme-friendly romp for small children that uses music, repetition, computers, tools, and some of the most beloved characters in pop culture to educate and entertain plus its insanely infectious opening and closing songs are by They Might Be Giants. — Nathan Rabin
You can stream Mickey Mouse Clubhouse on Disney+.
59. The Wild Thornberrys
The masterstroke of The Wild Thornberrys is that Eliza Thornberry’s ability to speak to animals is a total secret. She couldn’t let anybody know, which added a level of tension and, weirdly, relatability to her otherwise fantastic life. What kid wouldn’t want to travel around the world chatting with elephants, tigers, and chimpanzees instead of going to dumb ol’ school? And yet, the fact that Eliza always had to stay guarded (with humans, at least) gave The Wild Thornberrys a sense of stakes that any viewer could get invested in. — JG
The Wild Thornberrys streams on Paramount+.
58. Pinky and the Brain
Do kids know who Orson Welles is? The joy of Pinky and the Brain, a spin-off of The Animaniacs, was that it didn’t matter if you knew who voice actor Maurice LaMarche was impersonating, it was just a hoot to watch the evil genius Brain and his dimwitted associate Pinky try to take over the world. And yet, even if ‘90s kids didn’t get the reference, Pinky and the Brain’s reverence for the pop culture of ages past is all over the show, and it’s this sometimes imperceptible sense of history that elevated the show of many Saturday morning cartoon competitors. — JG
Pinky and the Brain is available for rent on YouTube.
The coolest show from the ‘90s is one that children today will love more than they can possibly imagine. When immortal gargoyles come to life to protect humans from bad humans, all the tropes of who is scary and who is good get inverted.
Come for the excellent gothic action adventure. Stay for a show that is deeply invested in making sure superficiality is not in your kids’ worldview, ever. — RB
Gargoyles is streaming on Disney+.
56. Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!
Is the classic Scooby-Doo series from the ‘70s full of cheap animation and extremely formulaic and repetitive plots? Yes, of course, but that’s a feature, not a bug. The basic structure of the show — four teens and their talking Great Dane drive around solving mysteries, and in every single instance the answer is “somebody was faking a supernatural event” — is a winner. There’s so much charm in each episode that pulling off the culprit’s mask never gets old. Thank goodness for those meddling kids. — JG
Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? streams on Tubi.
55. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?
There probably weren’t many ’90s kids who were experts at world geography, but when that globetrotting criminal Carmen Sandiego was on the loose, youngsters were happy to flex whatever knowledge they had to help find her. While Carmen Sandiego was a pretty niche game show, there was a lot for audiences of all ages — and knowledge levels — to enjoy. The producers may have wanted you to come for education, but we stayed tuning in for the musical stylings of Rockapella, whose clever geography-themed wordplay was on full display in every episode. “She put the ‘miss’ in misdemeanor / when she stole the beans from Lima” still lives rent-free in our heads. — CG
Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego is on YouTube.
54.Rocky and Bullwinkle
Jay Ward’s Rocky & Bullwinkle was to television what Mad Magazine was for print: an American institution that entertained while introducing multiple generations of children to the concepts of social satire and post-modernism. The animated variety show alternates between snappily written vignettes involving the titular duo and their Soviet-style antagonists Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale, blundering mountie Dudley Do-Right, the time-traveling pair Mr. Peabody and Sherman, and the fantastical world of fairy tales (Fractured Fairy Tales). The result was critically acclaimed and wildly influential in proving that an audience existed for cerebral cartoons that appealed to adults as well as children. Rocky and Bullwinkle was low-budget but you don’t need money when you have this level of wit and comic sophistication. — NR
Rocky and Bullwinkle streams on Amazon Prime.
53. Double Dare
Game shows were all over network television, but Double Dare was one of the first times that kids could see themselves as the contestants. The show’s host, the affable Marc Summers, assumed his master of ceremonies role as part “cool dad” and part serious, objective enforcer of the rules, and the questions ranged from incredibly accessible to truly challenging, at least for its key demographic. But let’s be honest—the physical challenges are what kept us tuning in. Getting covered in slime, whipped cream, and all other kinds of slippery filth never looked so fun. Arguably more than any other show on the network, Double Dare best embodied Nickelodeon’s key philosophy: kids rule. — CG
Double Dare streams on Paramount+.
52. Darkwing Duck
The Disney version of Batman meets the Shadow, meets...well, a DuckTales spinoff that is beyond brilliant. In fact, Darkwing Duck is so memorable, we’re gonna go out on a limb and say it’s better than DuckTales!
Darkwing Duck suggests that the world of Disney cartoons could be wittier and less careful than some of the other Disney fare. And, unlike the somewhat problematic Uncle Scrooge or the absent father of Donald Duck, Drake Mallard is actually a great dad! - RB
Darkwing Duck streams on Disney+.
51. Power Rangers
The decision to take the special effects shots and the broadest possible plot outlines from the Japanese series Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger and recut it, dub it, and shoot new scenes with a group of American teenagers (with attitude!) was a brilliant one. Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers (and the many, many sequels and spin-offs that would follow) are a gem. Power Rangers is full of absurd creatures and kaiju, reused footage, cheap-looking fights, and repetitive plots. None of that matters when you’re a kid — only Morphin Time matters. — JG
The classic Power Rangers are streaming on Netflix.
50. Star Wars: The Clone Wars
The live-action Star Wars shows like The Mandalorian and Ahsoka are increasingly mining the Star Wars animated series for plots — and for good reason. Star Wars: The Clone Wars contains some of the most gripping storytelling in the entire franchise, give or take an Andor.
But what makes The Clone Wars extra special is that it manages to tackle deep themes and topics — nuanced and detailed looks at how the Jedi and the Republic sowed the seeds of their own (not entirely unearned) destruction — while also being a crackerjack week to week series of adventures in a galaxy far, far away. On top of all of that, The Clone Wars gave young girls the best Star Wars character of all time, in the aforementioned Jedi hero, Ahsoka Tano. — JG
Star Wars: The Clone Wars streams on Disney+.
49. Saved by the Bell
For kids who have yet to reach high school age, Saved by the Bell painted an idyllic picture of a school that kids would actually want to go to. Who needs a cafeteria when you have The Max, a cool restaurant next door that seemingly employs students to work during the day when they should be in class? While Zack Morris and Kelly Kapowski were the main couple to watch, jock A.C. Slater and feminist (and occasional caffeine pill popper) Jessie Spano were the show’s more interesting twosome. Perhaps some held out hope that quirky nerd Screech would end up with fashionista Lisa Turtle, but alas, it wasn’t in the cards. — CG
Saved By the Bell is streaming on Peacock.
48. Family Matters
You’d be forgiven for forgetting that Family Matters is a spinoff of the sitcom Perfect Strangers, as the show quickly established its own identity — even if that identity changed over the course of its run. What began as a series centered on a Black family in Chicago morphed into a star vehicle for Jaleel White’s lovably intolerable Steve Urkel, who spent the greater portion of the show’s nine seasons causing major property damage (“Did I do that?”), conducting scientific experiments, and pining for his lovely Laura Winslow.
While the writers found clever ways to maintain interest (including stunt casting Donna Summer as Urkle’s Aunt Oona from Altoona and introducing Michelle Thomas as his girlfriend, Myra Boutros Boutros Monkhouse), the show’s quality petered off, leading to Jo Marie Payton, who played matriarch Harriet Winslow, leaving the show midway through its final season.
That said, the legacy of Family Matters is utterly wonderful for kids. Urkel was a kind of “geek icon” that generations of kids desperately needed, while the basic morality tales of each episode hold up to this day. — CG
Family Matters streams on HBO Max.
It’s impossible to know what the real-life Warner Bros. who founded the motion picture company a century ago—their real names were Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack—would have thought of being reimagined as anthropomorphic feline-canine creatures, but their opinion really doesn’t matter. Audiences could not get enough of Yakko, Wakko, and their equally-important and equally-frenetic sister Dot. While the Warners were the stars of the show, it’s impossible to choose the “best” component of the series.
The theme song is an unforgettable and still easily-karaokable earworm, filled with witty wordplay and dated references (“…while Bill Clinton plays the sax…”) and besides the main trio, kids of all ages enjoyed Pinky and the Brain, Slappy Squirrel, Chicken Boo, and the rest of the cavalcade of curious creatures. There’s no studio lot in the world that’s more fun. - CG
Animaniacs is streaming on Hulu.
46. Clarissa Explains It All
Before she was Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Melissa Joan Hart commanded the role of Clarissa Darling, a somewhat normal teenager who, like most teenagers, felt like she was completely abnormal. Throughout the series she tried to navigate through school, puberty, friendships, and family dynamics — especially when it came to her annoying little brother Ferguson. While the title seems to suggest that Clarissa was explaining how life worked, in most episodes she was just trying to figure it out. Kids tuned in for five seasons to try and figure it out alongside her. — CG
Clarissa Explains It All streams on Paramount+.
The best children’s entertainment is paradoxically sometimes deeply uninterested in entertaining children. That’s certainly true of the gleefully irreverent, wildly post-modern 1990s superhero spoof Freakazoid, which was executive produced by Steven Spielberg, who also appears on the show regularly as a character. The absurdist parody revolves around a mild-mannered computer geek who becomes a sort of super-powered sentient internet after a fortuitous accident. That means that he’s fast, funny, powerful, and incredibly obnoxious, a motor-mouthed, pop culture-crazed goof who is forever shattering the fourth wall and making fun of himself, his world, and everything else like a teenaged, slightly more family-friendly Deadpool. Freakazoid! feels so contemporary and ahead of its time that it’s honestly surprising it hasn’t been resurrected repeatedly the way seemingly everything else even half-tolerated has. -NR
Freakazoid! is available for rent on YouTube.
44. The Little Rascals
When Hal Roach had the idea to take a ragtag group of children of different ages, races, sizes — and singing abilities — and put them on screen together in the 1920s, before television existed, he inadvertently created one of the best programs for children of all time. The Little Rascals, originally released as theatrical shorts under the title Our Gang, remain timeless.
Everyone who has seen them, or watched the well-done 1994 film adaptation, has a favorite character, sight gag, bit of wordplay, or song that was performed. While the ten- and twenty-minute shorts stand alone, it’s worth tracing them down and watching in order, just to see the different generations of kids join the gang, often as very small children, and exit once they’ve aged out. For example, Spanky, easily the most popular “rascal,” first appeared when he was just three years old and lasted until he was fourteen and the series ended. For the uninitiated, might we suggest starting with “Our Gang Follies of 1938,” an unusually big-budget entry that showcases a lot of what made the series so special to this day. — CG
The Little Rascals is streaming on Freevee via Amazon Prime.
43. Garfield and Friends
Even at its Reagan-era best, Jim Davis’ newspaper and marketing bonanza Garfield was never more than a pleasant, pandering mediocrity. Film Roman improved considerably on Davis’ wildly successful if famously formulaic comic strip about a lasagna-loving, Monday-hating fat cat with a series of classic, Emmy-winning specials like Garfield on the Town and Garfield’s Halloween Adventure and then Garfield and Friends, which ran from 1988 to 1994. Lorenzo Music, who co-created The Bob Newhart Show in an earlier life, was the perfect voice for Garfield, besting even the film world’s Bill Murray in his ability to make lazy selfishness charismatic and endearing while the consummate professionals o Film Roman, the veterans behind The Simpsons, The Critic, and Family Guy, provided slickly appealing animation and character design. Unlike its inspiration, Garfield and Friends wasn’t just popular. It was good as well. — NR
Garfield and Friends streams on Tubi for free.
42. Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973)
In the 1970s, when Sesame Street dominated the Emmy Awards for best daytime children’s show, there was a brief hiccup, and, in 1975, that award went to...Star Trek. That’s right, the famous and immortal sci-fi show from the 1960s was briefly reborn from 1973 to 1974, as an animated series for children. The show ditched Captain Kirk’s fist fights from the classic show and replaced the action with more rescues, more representative, and best of all, more kooky aliens.
Though the animation style from Filmation feels stilted by today’s standards, the intelligence and wit of this series holds-up surprisingly well today. Nearly every episode presents some kind of inversion of our assumptions about the villains, and usually, problems can be resolved by talking things through, or with phasers set lightly to stun. Most interestingly, Star Trek: The Animated Series, was the first major children’s TV series to depict the death of a child’s pet on screen in the excellent episode “Yesteryear.” Yes, Fred Rogers lost his fish in 1970, be he himself is not a child. In “Yesteryear,” Spock time travels to help himself as a child, and yes helps himself mourn the loss of his adorable pet, a giant teddy bear monster with fangs. — RB
Star Trek: The Animated Series streams on Paramount+.
41. Muppet Babies (Classic)
The bold stylistic technique that made Muppet Babies unique as well as beloved unfortunately also ensures that it will almost assuredly never be available to stream in any legal format in the United States. The fondly remembered staple of Reagan-era childhoods used film clips of some of the best-known and most lucrative intellectual property in existence to illustrate the vivid fantasy world of baby versions of Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, and the rest of Jim Henson’s puppet creations.
That includes multi-billion dollar franchises like Star Wars as well as Henson’s own creations like Labyrinth. Muppet Babies would remain charming, funny, and lovable even without movie excerpts it’s undoubtedly prohibitively difficult and expensive to clear but they lend this unique version of a classic set of characters a flavor and texture all its own. — NR
Muppet Babies streams on Disney+.
40. Peppa Pig
Peppa Pig is as English as tea time, cricket and the Queen. The wonderfully droll adventures of porcine charmer Peppa Pig, her brother George and their parents makes life in jolly old English seem so idyllic and quaint that it famously led to a rash of fake British accents from American children who internalized the show a little too intensely. Peppa Pig represents the most irresistible, and the most irresistibly British English export since Wallace and Gromit. — NR
Peppa Pig streams on Paramount+.
39. The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show
Bill Melendez and Lee Mendelson’s legendary Peanuts animated specials, most notably 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas and 1966’s It’s the Great Pumpkin brought Charles Schultz’s American institution to television with its melancholy soul and bittersweet brilliance intact. In 1983 Melendez took a rare foray into the world of episodic television with The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show, a series that brought Chuck and the gang to the small screen while maintaining the fragile alchemy and delicate genius of both Schultz’s comic strip and its television special spin-offs. As with the specials, The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show eschewed professional adult voice actors in favor of actual children. In season two, that included Stacy Ferguson, AKA Fergie of Black Eyed Peas, as Sally Brown and Peppermint Patty. — NR
The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show is streaming on Apple TV+.
What is the longest-running animated educational kids’ program in history? The answer may shock folks, but it’s Arthur. Yes, the show about a cartoon aardvark, his pals, and his family, which mined and expanded the world introduced by Marc Brown in his beloved Arthur books. The secret ingredient in the gumbo over the course of its 25-season run (1996-2022) was Arthur himself: who remains sweet, hopeful, honest, caring, earnest, creative, and more as the eight-year-old experienced the joys and challenges of life.
And those joys and challenges include everything from problem-solving, bullying, and making friends to bedwetting, death, and sibling relationships, all made age-appropriate for the show’s target audience, children ages four to eight. — IS
Arthur is streaming on Amazon with a PBS Kids add-on.
37. Bill Nye the Science Guy
It almost feels like a falsehood to say that Bill Nye made science “cool.” Part of the Science Guy’s whole appeal was that he was sincere, exuberant, and just a little awkward. He’s Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor, but actually a scientist (technically his background is in mechanical engineering). This, paradoxically, was the key to why his beloved show worked so well. There was a wonkiness to his experiments that made it so you couldn’t help but share his enthusiasm. — JG
You can rent episodes of Bill Nye on YouTube.
36. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe
If it’s been a while since you watched the original He-Man, the one thing you’ve probably forgotten is that He-Man has a totally unnecessary secret identity. But don’t let this extremely still detail make you think He-Man is somehow not a good show. In fact, just the opposite. With a ton of heart and a truly unique place in children’s adventure fiction, He-Man is better than you remember, not worse. And that’s its true secret identity: It seemed like a corny show designed to sell action figures, but, underneath that, was the real show, which was, and is, amazing. — RB
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe has a ton of episodes streaming for free on YouTube right here.
35. Thomas and Friends
There is something so charmingly, well, British about Thomas & Friends. Though later iterations of the franchise would modernize its look and storytelling, the original episodes from the ‘80s and ‘90s eschewed so much of what we think of kids TV to be today. The model train animation was deliberate and loving but also kind of janky. The trains didn’t speak; rather a narrator described all the action as if one were simply hearing a story. The whole thing is wonderfully uncanny. — JG
Thomas and Friends streams on Amazon Prime.
34. The Electric Company
The Electric Company – which cranked out 780 episodes across six seasons (1971—1977) was the hippest, loosest children’s entertainment series ever produced. The theme song rocks, and so does the cast: Rita Moreno, Morgan Freeman, Irene Cara, and Denise Nickerson (Violet from Willy Wonka!), with Mel Brooks, Joan Rivers, Gene Wilder, Diane Keaton, Walt Frazier, and Carol Burnett among the live-action and voiceover guest stars.
The segments range from sketches to animated bits (The Adventures of Letterman!) to songs, all with a lesson, moral, or piece of advice. Yes, this seems like a dated show, but it influenced much of what came after, and it is truly unique. Again, just look at that amazing cast. (Fun fact: Paul Dooley — Molly Ringwald’s dad in 16 Candles and Pops in The Wonder Years — co-created the show.) Dont you want those folks entertaining your kids? — IS
The Electric Company is available to purchase on Amazon.
33. Molly of Denali
A relatively recent PBS series, Molly of Denali is series that excels at representation in a way that some other so-called “classic shows,” struggle with. Molly is a native of Alaska, and the show naturally, and whimsically introduces all sorts of themes about indigenous peoples to its wonderful storylines. Of the newer crop of PBS offerings, Molly of Denali deserves the label of “instant classic.” — HS
Molly of Denali streams on PBS Kids.
32. Avatar: The Last Airbender
There’s a chance that, for a certain generation of kids Avatar: The Last Airbender is the most important TV show. The Nickelodeon series, a loving, respectful, and deeply thoughtful homage to anime and Eastern cultures, is such a masterful synergy of world-building, characters, animation, and storytelling, and all of these elements (pun intended) come together for an epic story that rivals Star Wars or Harry Potter when it comes to the impact it has had on those who fell in love with the Gaang.
If you’re looking for a show that does fantasy in a way that actually helps kids, rather than confuses them, Avatar beats the Force and Hogwarts any day of the week. — JG
Avatar: The Last Airbender streams on Netflix.
31. Gilligan’s Island
There may not have been children on Gilligan’s Island, but the misadventures of the Skipper, his little buddy Gilligan, the wealthy Howells, brainy Professor, glamorous movie star Ginger, and farm girl next door Mary Ann, who fell victim to what has to be the worse three-hour tour in history, were perfect fodder for kids who wanted to see adults in silly situations. There’s a certain joy in knowing how a story will end, especially if you don’t know exactly how you’ll get there. Just as every South Park viewer waited to find out how Kenny would meet his maker throughout the show’s first five seasons, Gilligan devotees got a kick out of knowing that, no matter how hard they tried, the seven shipwrecked acquaintances were never going to get off the island. — CG
Gilligan’s Island is streaming for free on Tubi.
30. Puffin Rock
Hands down, one of the gentlest shows for toddlers and preschoolers from the 21st century. Featuring a bunch of creatures who live on a little island near Ireland, the best thing about Puffin Rock is the constant, slightly baffled narration from Chris O'Dowd. It’s like he’s channeled his character from Brides Maids and turned it into an omniscient god for this cutesy children’s universe. Also, for parents, this unflappable voice and narration style works as a kind of inner mantra. Having a hard time? How would the Chris O’Dowd Puffin Rock narrator articulate it? See, you feel better already. — RB
Puffin Rock streams on Netflix.
29. The Magic School Bus (Classic)
Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen’s Magic School Bus books let kids uses their imaginations to further bring to life the adventures of Miss Frizzle and her students, as they rode their yellow bus like a time machine into a wide variety of stories. The animated version of The Magic School Bus (1994-1997) took it to the next level, with colorful imagery, toe-tapping music, and the boundless energy provided by Lily Tomlin as the voice of Miss Frizzle. A follow-up series, The Magic School Bus Rides Again, ran for two seasons (2017-2018) and centered on Miss Fiona Felicity Frizzle (voiced by Kate McKinnon) and also featured Tomlin’s Miss Frizzle as Fiona’s older sister. — IS
The Magic School Bus streams on Netflix.
28. Tumble Leaf
The number one thing this show has going for it is that it’s a visual feast. With an animation technique that utilizes stop motion, and a style seemingly borrowed from Wes Anderson, Tumble Leaf is quirky in all the right ways. It’s also, refreshingly, a show in which its young creatures solve logistical problems, rather than emotional ones. The Fig, Maple, and the rest of the Tumble Leaf crew are a stable lot and their can-do attitude and rallying cry “let’s figure this out!” is infectious. On top of all of that, the basic idea of a treasure chest called “a finding place” is brilliant. When you watch Tumble Leaf with your very young ones, they’ll want to make they’re own “finding place,” which can instantly turn household objects and forgotten toys into things of wonder. — RB
Tumble Leaf streams on Amazon Prime.
27. The Real Ghostbusters
In 1984, Ghostbusters was not a children’s brand. By 1986, the cartoon series The Real Ghostbusters changed everything. Not only did this show forever alter the pop culture definition of a “ghost” (but seriously, what were some of those creatures?) it also disabused ‘80s and ‘90s kids of their preconceived notions of the word “real.”
The first script editor on The Real Ghostbusters was comic book and sci-fi TV maestro, J. Michael Straczynski. Sci-fi fans know him as the creator of Babylon 5, the guy who co-wrote wrote the first Thor movie in 2011, and the co-creator of Sense8. If you feel like the early seasons of The Real Ghostbusters have a legitimate science fiction flavor, that’s why. Straczynski is that good. — RB
The Real Ghostbusters streams for free on Crackle.
26. Superman (1940s)
There are a lot of ways to introduce your kids to The Man of Steel, but the Max Fleischer animated shorts remains the absolute best place to start.
What do kids learn from this Superman? Well, other than the fact that he always stands up to bullies, the Fleischer shots also teach kids about the power of minimalist art forms. These shorts barely need dialogue to convey the story. Superheroes can be art, these timeless shorts are proof. — RB
All the 1940s Superman cartoons are streaming on YouTube.
25. Fraggle Rock
Kids and adults love Fraggle Rock in equal measure. This Jim Henson project serves up wildly colorful puppets, catchy songs, inventive sets, and lively humor. It’s pure entertainment with the educational elements feathered into the fun, rather than the reverse. Over the course of nearly 100 episodes (five seasons, 1983-1987), Fraggle Rock gave us Red, Boober, Wembley, Gobo, and Mokey, as well as their fellow Fraggles singing, dancing, exploring, and, occasionally working. Meanwhile, Uncle Traveling Matt spent a great deal of time in Outer Space aka the Human world. Fraggle Rock begat an animated series and, most recently, a winsome reboot, Fraggle Rock: Back on the Rock, featuring most of the same characters and their voices/puppeteers, returning too. — IS
Fraggle Rock is streaming on Apple TV+.
24. SpongeBob Squarepants
Not every kids’ show needs to be educational. This brings us to SpongeBob SquarePants, about a frenetic, well-meaning sea sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea, pals around with a very dopey starfish, and flips burgers at the Krusty Krab, where he works for the pirate-loving Mr. Krabs and alongside the ever-cranky Squidward. Cue day-glo animation, whipsaw-quick editing, nonstop visual and spoken jokes (some for the kids, some for the adults), and whimsical music. SpongeBob launched in 1999 and exploded into a cultural phenomenon that spawned movies (with Johnny Depp, and Keanu Reeves), a Broadway musical, tons of tie-in merch, a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float, and on and on. And speaking of on and on, Nickelodeon continues to drop new episodes, with the show closing in on the 300 mark! — IS
Spongebob Squarepants streams on Paramount+.
In some other version of this list, this show is number one. In 1984, the fact that anyone didn’t view the debut of Transformers as a world-shattering moment is truly shocking. The premise combines two things that little kids love: utter absurdity and utter commitment to said absurdity. Meanwhile, the sci-fi world building of Transformers held together better than Star Wars and made several generations of children deeply attached to robots who — really think about this — transformed into cars, planes, trucks, and sometimes, cassette tapes. The brilliance of the Transformers was, when you left your house, you could imagine anything as a possible robot in disguise. They were always with you. — RB
Transformers (1984-1987) is streaming for free on Tubi.
22. The Wonder Years
Running from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, and spanning from 1968 to 1973, The Wonder Years fully deserves its reputation as one of television’s finest dramas. Kevin Arnold’s (Fred Savage) coming-of-age tale touches on first love, friendship, sibling rivalry, the fun, and the follies of middle-class family life. Everyone watching crushed hard on Winnie (Danica McKellar) and wanted a best friend like Paul (Josh Saviano). Beautifully filmed and sensitively written, the show also boasted great period costumes, a perfect theme song (Joe Cocker’s cover of “With a Little Help from My Friends”), a superb core cast, and amusing recurring characters (including Robert Picardo as Coach Cutlip). It’s a classic. — IS
The Wonder Years is streaming on Hulu.
21. Batman: The Animated Series
It’s closer to known fact than hot take to say that this was the best Batman adaptation there’s ever been or that the late, great Kevin Conroy was the best Dark Knight. Bruce Timm’s heavily noir-influenced take on the Caped Crusader is a masterpiece; a fully realized world of superheroes and crime. Though Batman: The Animated Series rarely shied away from some of the more unsavory aspects of Gotham, it was never “mature” — it just has an immense respect for its audience. — JG
Batman: The Animated Series streams on HBO Max.
20. Doc McStuffins
Created by contemporary kids show mega-genius, Chris Nee, the basic premise of Doc McStuffins takes the general conceit of Toy Story (toys are alive!) and turns it into a science fiction hospital show. The show is relentlessly upbeat, the characters absurdly charming, and the specificity of each toy’s specific malady increasingly surprising. At some point, Doc Mcstuffins doesn’t really worry about there not being direct analogs for some of the things that need fixing with the toys. This is how hard Doc McStuffins owns its premise, which is likely the secret reason for its success. — RB
Doc McStuffins streams on Disney+.
19. Dinosaur Train
There’s no dad alive raising a fan of PBS’ greatest dinosaur show who can resist singing its title out loud, in a baritone descending A minor: “Dinosaur Traaaaaa-in.” The charming, fun, and addictive qualities of Dinosaur Train all start with the title song, written by Jim Lang (of Hey Arnold! fame) but inspired by, I don’t know, Primus? It’s a bop that outlines the very strange plot of the show: A Pteranodon has a bunch of babies but one of them turns out to be a T-Rex. They keep him and decide to go on a series of trips on a time-traveling train that takes them all over the Mesozoic era, that 80-million-year period where dinosaurs reigned.
The premise sounds like a toddler pipe dream (“Dinosaurs! And trains! And time travel!”) but thanks to Lang’s deft hand, a deluge of dino facts, properly interesting subplots, and an animation style that is like Cocomelon crawling out of the uncanny valley, the series is as watchable for a three-year-old (PBS says the show is for 3-6-year-olds and they’re spot-on here) as it is for the adult humming the theme songs beside them on the couch. — TT
Dinosaur Train streams on Amazon Prime.
18. The Muppet Show
The brilliance of The Muppet Show is in the simplicity of the premise. Take Jim Henson’s lovable felt and foam creations, task them with staging a variety show in a theater, toss in some hecklers, sprinkle celebrity guest stars on top, mix in a healthy amount of humor for all ages, and you have a recipe for an international hit. Much like The Flintstones, it was hard to pin down exactly who the targeted demographic was for The Muppet Show, which meant that, like The Flintstones, it really was a show for everyone. While some viewers may have tuned for the guest star of the week, the back-and-forth antics between Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, and the rest of the gang was reason enough to keep coming back. - CG
The Muppet Show is streaming on Disney+.
Rugrats created a universe of entertaining and sometimes annoying characters, all of whom orbited around Tommy Pickles, an adorable and adventurous one-year-old. The show’s genius is that it told its nearly 200 stories (1991-2004) from the vantage points of Tommy and the babies/toddlers around him. Parents, grandparents, and next-door neighbors, etc., were weird, unpredictable, and, of course, loving caretakers. Like some other shows on this list, Rugrats inspired flotillas of merchandise, a few films (Rugrats in Paris is fantastic), a spin-off (All Grown Up!), and a recent reboot (with much of the original voice talent returning, including E.G. Daily as Tommy). Season two of the new Rugrats debuts on April 14. — IS
Rugrats is streaming on Paramount+.
16. Blue’s Clues
Perfect for preschoolers, Blue’s Clues blended live-action, animation, and education into its 143 episodes (1996-2006, six seasons). Everything clicked, from likable first host Steve (Steve Burns) to the adorable animated dog, Blue, who left clues about her plans for the day, clues that Steve and the audience at home had to decipher. Blue’s Clues felt interactive and immersive. It moved unhurriedly and asked kids to decipher, interpret, or just guess, and provided long pauses following any questions it posed, giving children a moment to talk out loud or converse with a parent, sibling, or caregiver. A reboot, Blue’s Clues & You!, debuted in 2019. There are three generations of hosts, and they’re all great. — IS
Blues Clues is streaming on Paramount+.
The “Ask The Experts” genre of kids TV is too often the kind of show aimed at parents who want to feel good about putting their kids in front of programming to get 30 minutes or so to themselves (while the kids are learning!). The problem is not so much that these shows don’t connect with the kids — there are tons of fantastic nonfiction kids shows — but that the delivery is just so grating. What they lack in well-written script, the hosts, often in a silly lab-coat-looking getup, try to make up for with enthusiasm and volume.
Storybots instead bring personality, with a funny collection of cartoon robots, each with their own point of view (or, you might say, learning style), and connects them with actors parents can recognize. Kevin Smith, Snoop Dogg, Ali Wong, David Cross, and Wanda Sykes show up as “experts” and they nail the roles, one and all. The writing is to thank here. “All you ask about is cats! Why always cats? Can’t I get one dog?” says Snoop Dogg in the “How Do Computers Work?” If you find yourself sitting down to explain to your kid who that computer technician actually is (“the thing about Snoop Dogg is…”), well, mission accomplished, Storybots. — TT
Storybots streams on Netflix.
14. Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood
Daniel Tiger is easily the most depressed character on this list. And that’s saying something. In nearly every single episode, Daniel has a full meltdown about something. He’s never wearing pants, and things in his neighborhood of make-believe seem to suggest he’s living in a Matrix-esque simulation. Technically a spinoff from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the emotional chaos of Daniel Tiger’s day-to-day is much, much darker than the show from which it came. If Bluey is the show that makes parents feel seen (and also insecure) then Daniel Tiger is the show that makes toddlers feel seen. All children do think like these characters. It’s spooky. But it’s also brilliant. — RB
Daniel Tiger (mostly) streams on Amazon Prime with a PBS Kids add-on.
13. Tom and Jerry
No cartoon has ever quite done physical comedy like Tom & Jerry (sorry Wile E.). The chase that you get in each and every episode (there are 164) is a symphony of action, with multiple movements ramping up and down, shifting expectations and, ultimately, gliding into a finish where Jerry, the mouse, escapes the clutches of Tom, the cat. But to say this cartoon is all about a chase is like saying Charlie Chaplin was a man who’s really good at falling down.
Not to put too fine a point on this storied show, but Tom & Jerry is something of a philosophical treatise, a Sisyphean allegory where the roles are clear, the tasks and outcomes predetermined, but the object lessons ever-shifting. This is most obvious in episodes where the chase is disrupted, like in “The Night Before Christmas” (1941). In this classic, Tom gets his win, locking Jerry outside in the snowy cold, and then, instead of curling up by the fire as a cat is want to do, he looks at the door in a few ensuing and excruciating seconds of silence. He is a cat without purpose, and the viewer can’t help but feel dread. Fortunately, Tom shows his “humanity” — opening the door, thawing the mouse, giving them a candy cane, and ending with the required detente. They live to chase another day. What other end could there be? — TT
Tom & Jerry is streaming on HBO Max.
12. Doctor Who
Even longtime fans of the cult British sci-fi series may not know that Doctor Who began as a children’s program. Created in 1963 by Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert for the BBC, the stated goal of Who was to use a time travel premise to introduce children to science concepts and history lessons. At the same time, Doctor Who was to be a family-friendly action-adventure series, starring a protagonist who never carried a gun, but instead, solved problems through their wits and intelligence.
Six decades later, Doctor Who has, more or less, retained that mission statement. Although the fan base is much bigger than families, and the contemporary versions of the show are better for kids 8 and up, Who has an undeniably upbeat vibe. The titular Doctor is “never cruel or cowardly,” and even in the darkest of these timey wimey adventures, the series is wise, funny, and big-hearted. In fact, in the mythology of the show, our favorite Time Lord has two hearts instead of one, which tells you everything you need to know about how the metaphors on this show work. The Doctor’s time/space machine, the TARDIS, is “bigger on the inside,” and over the years Doctor Who has proven to be capacious enough to take several generations of fans along for the journey. If you give Who a closer look through the eyes of a parent, you can see why Disney+ snatching it up for 2023 makes perfect sense. — RB
11. The Powerpuff Girls
Sugar, spice, and everything nice (plus a little Chemical X). Those are the ingredients that created The Powerpuff Girls, an immensely stylized and smart take on superpowers and girl power. The show had a rogue’s gallery to rival Batman’s (the verbose monkey Mojo Jojo and Him, a Yellow Submarine-inspired devil, are all-timers), and the core trio of Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup were worthy of entry into any Justice League. — JG
The Powerpuff Girls are streaming on HBO Max.
10. A Series of Unfortunate Events
The greatest middle-grade book series produced in the last twenty years is without a doubt Daniel Handler’s excellent Lemony Snicket books, including the volumes that comprise both All the Wrong Questions and A Series of Unfortunate Events. But, the 2017-2019 TV series nearly matches the brilliance of the first 13 books with one simple trick: While most adaptations of great children’s literature tend to condense, the TV version of Unfortunate Events actually managed to expand the Baudelaire saga and give us characters and scenes that were impossible to depict in the books.
The wit, style, intelligence, and pure originality of this series may never be topped. The only real negative thing to say about it is that the fact that hews so closely to the story of the 13 original books, means, there was never going to be a season 4. Certainly not for young kids, but your older kids are gonna love it. And, even if they don’t, you can just watch it by yourself. This isn’t just one of the best children’s shows ever, it’s one of the best TV shows of the past two decades. Period. — RB
A Series of Unfortunate Events streams on Netflix.
The greatest thing about the Octonauts is that it doesn’t try too hard to be excellent. Featuring a crew of brave explorers — who all just happen to be talking animals — the Octonauts travel the world in their undersea ship, the Octopod. With a musical score equal parts John Barry’s 007 and Michael Giacchino’s The Incredibles, the name of the game here is adventure above all. Each character has a catchphrase that is somehow not annoying, which blends well with a format that mixes the best elements of Star Trek, Voltron, and Thunderbirds. On top of that, The Octonauts is 100 percent non-violent and incredibly educational. Via “Creature Reports” (and later, “OctoReports”) we learn about various animal life, natural phenomenon, and more. The Octonauts is a show with a conscience that is never preachy. It’s also full of wit without resorting to banal “quirkiness,” a true rarity among contemporary kids' shows. The only thing bad about this show is that parents will wish it existed when they were in preschool, too. — RB
8. Pee-wee’s Playhouse
When Pee-wee Herman invited viewers into his kaleidoscopic playhouse in the fall of 1986, the show was the only program on CBS’s Saturday morning children’s television lineup that wasn’t entirely animated. Luckily, Pee-wee and his human friends (like the mildly-flirtatious Miss Yvonne and disembodied head, Jambi the Genie) were like cartoon characters brought to life. Paul Reubens (the Clark Kent to Pee-wee Herman’s Superman) broke the children’s television mold by creating a show that was as innovative as it was retro and familiar as it was unique. Where else could you see someone jump inside of a puppet, like the Magic Screen, make a spaceship by playing connect the dots, and then flying into space…just moments before or after watching a classic cartoon from the 1940s. Week after week, Pee-wee encouraged kids to be creative, take up space (sometimes just by screaming “real loud” at the secret word), and be the best friend—and version of themselves—that they could be.
It was a place where “anything can happen,” as Cyndi Lauper sings in the theme song, and where everyone is welcome. For all of Playhouse’s crowning achievements, perhaps one of its most significant was creating a truly inclusive environment. The 1988 prime-time Christmas Special featured a segment on Hanukkah and Black actors like Laurence Fishburne (back when he was Larry), S. Epatha Merkerson, Gilbert Lewis, and William Marshall were series regulars. The show was set in the fictional Puppetland, but things would be much more fun if the real world was like the one Pee-wee lived in. - CG
Pee Wee's Playhouse is available for rent on YouTube.
7. Wild Kratts!
Most cartoons celebrate the cute and the fuzzy aspect of animals. But there’s so much more to the animal kingdom. What about the bite of a polar bear or long flight of a butterfly, the speed of a basilisk or the ink shot of a squid? The Kratt Brothers — Chris and Martin — celebrate the super powers of animals with a show that’s half animal documentary half cartoon adventure.
Wild Kratts! the longest-running series from these real-life zoologists (the Kratt brothers also created Kratt’s Creatures, Zoboomafoo) has such staying power because of an ingenious formula. This is a show that shines a light on the badass side of all creatures great and small, explores the fragility of the natural world, and then satisfyingly takes down ecological villains all in a tightly packed 25 minutes. — JG
Wild Kratts! streams on PBS Kids via Amazon Prime.
6. Dora the Explorer
Swiper no swiping! If your toddler watches one show, let it be Dora the Explorer. The brilliance of this show boundless. It’s a show that casually introduces English-speaking kids to Spanish while making kids who speak Spanish as their first language feel seen. It’s a show led by a young girl who is a good-natured thrill seeker and also best friends with a monkey. Dora is like Indiana Jones for toddlers. She’s immortal. She’s wonderful. The only question is: Does she live inside of a computer or what? — RB
Dora the Explorer streams on Paramount+.
5. Schoolhouse Rock!
If “knowledge is power,” as the Schoolhouse Rock! theme exclaims, then viewers of the three-minute animated educational musical segments are among the most powerful people in the world. If you grew up between the 1970s and 1990s, there’s a good chance you are familiar with the series’ distinct style—you may not know his name, but I bet you can hear Jack Sheldon singing “I’m Just a Bill” and “Conjunction Junction” right now—and even if you divorce them from the educational content, a lot of the songs still hold up as pieces of music. There have been several attempts to renew interest in the series over the years, including a recent anniversary special on ABC featuring pop artists of today, but nothing beats the originals. — CG
Schoolhouse Rock is (mostly) streaming on Disney+.
4. Reading Rainbow
LeVar Burton can lay claim to three remarkable and career-defining television roles: Kunta Kinte in Roots, a decades-long long stint as Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation (and its movies and spin-offs), and his work as the creator/host of Reading Rainbow. For more than 20 years as a show (1983-2006) and now as an app, Burton and Reading Rainbow encouraged kids to, yes, read, read read — but also to take the lessons from books and apply them to the real world in order to more fully experience life.
Most episodes of Reading Rainbow took a page from Mister Rogers’ factory tours: Burton would visit a place — a bowling alley in Ohio or the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. or the sandy beaches of Sanibel Island in Florida — and talk to an expert there about how that place is meaningful. The episode would then be brought together with a lesson gleaned from a picture book, read by narrators who reflected Burton’s career and personal favorites including Ruby Dee, Patrick Stewart, Alfre Woodard, Pete Seeger, Julia Child, Raul Julia, and James Earl Jones. Like Mister Rogers, the pace is slow, careful, and deliberate — just right for young minds. But Burton relied more heavily on his settings and guests to bring the real world to the kids. The many voices from each episode — of narrator, author, experts, alongside Burton — completed the promise of the theme song, brilliantly sung by Chaka Khan, that “I can go anywhere” with “friends to know, and ways to grow.” That’s Reading Rainbow. –IS
Reading Rainbow streams on Amazon Prime.
It’s popular to say that Bluey is so huge because it captures the actual experience of parents trying desperately to entertain their children. This is false. Bluey presents a bizarre idealistic world in which peppy parents utterly give themselves over to every whim their children ever have.
And yet it's in that idealism where Bluey thrives. Yes, it makes parents feel a little bit guilty, but it also empowers families to spend time together in new and creative ways. From an instructive point of view, Bluey has invented more games to play with your children than, perhaps, any other show in recent memory. The show is down to Earth in the extreme, which is its superpower. In some ways, because of its obsession with the commonplace, Bluey is a kids show about nothing, which is why, it’s about everything. - RB
Bluey streams on Disney+. (But there are some episodes you can’t watch in the U.S.! Here’s our full list of banned or censored Bluey episodes.)
2. Sesame Street
Sesame Street has been on the air for over fifty years and remains the gold standard in children’s entertainment for the entirety of its run. What began as a program to supplement the education of Black and brown kids in America’s cities has grown into an internationally-recognized phenomenon, beloved by kids and adults the world over. Sesame Street’s strength is in its fun, varied, and holistic view of learning. In one segment, you can see a comedic musical vignette with a human teaching a Muppet how to tie their shoelace, and then a moment later, see an animated spot about counting to twelve. It was diverse in the way it approached edutainment, and also in the way it approached humanity—even if often expressed through Muppets like Big Bird, Grover, Telly, Elmo, Bert and Ernie, and the many others that have graced our screens over the last half-century. Sesame Street paints an idyllic neighborhood where people talk through their feelings, often with others who look nothing like them.
It’s impossible to estimate how many people were positively impacted by getting to meet Latinx characters like Luis and Maria, Black characters like Gordon and Olivia, deaf actress Linda Bove, and celebrity guests from different cultures and walks of life who passed through the Street in each episode. Every once in a while criticism springs up about the show—“It was better when I was a kid!”—but those sentiments are really about how attached we all feel to our childhood memories of sitting on the floor while laughing and learning, along with our favorite characters. No matter how old we get, a small part of us will always want to know how we can get (back) to Sesame Street. - CG.
1. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
Fred Rogers spent 30-plus years (1968-2001) as the genial host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and millions of people still consider him a dear family friend, a source of calm in a storm, and a man who made simple sense of the world. Rogers walked into his house, got comfy (off came the jacket and shoes, on came the sweater and sneakers), sang “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and spoke directly to the camera as he addressed his audience of young kids. He told stories, introduced then to the real world (teaching them how macaroni is made, for instance), stepped into the fantasy world of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, and welcomed friends and special guests.
His philosophy and personality influenced not just countless generations of children, but also other children’s entertainers. If there’s an alternate universe in which Fred Rogers didn’t decide to do what he did, we don’t want to know about it. He taught us to look for the helpers, and we’re lucky every day that he did. — IS
Here are all your options for streaming Mister Rogers’.