If you’re like me, you can identify at least half of these shows by characters alone. Childhood television shows are (sadly) quite clear in my memory and it’s easy to recall some of my favorites. That’s why I’m continuing the nostalgia series of posts by reminding you that television isn’t completely terrible when it comes to education.
While many of the following shows are off the air, some are still going strong. I hope this post encourages you to reflect and remember some of your favorite educational TV shows. Once you do that, you should drop me a note down in the comments or mention @edudemic on Twitter and I’ll add your show to this list!
Sesame Street was conceived in 1966 during discussions between television producer Joan Ganz Cooney and Carnegie Foundation vice president Lloyd Morrisett. Their goal was to create a children’s television show that would “master the addictive qualities of television and do something good with them”, such as helping young children prepare for school.
After two years of research, the newly formed Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) received a combined grant of $8 million from Carnegie, the Ford Foundation, and the US federal government to create and produce a new children’s television show. Harold (Doc) Howe II, the US Commissioner of Education, and a friend of Morrisett, provided the first $4 million after brain-storming with his staff how to best reach inner city children via the TV antennas on their roofs with excellent pre-school TV programming which would have behind it, careful formative and summative research on best practices. Since no funds were earmarked for this, Howe decided to use research funds for the initial CTW start-up grant and that began the practice of each segment of Sesame Street being the result of carefully conducted R&D.
One of his assistants, Harold C. Lyon, wrote his doctoral dissertation on integrating the affective with the cognitive. Howe appointed Lyon the U.S. Office of Education’s project officer for Sesame Street and the Electric Company where he met with the CTW Advisory Board using his influence to integrate the affective with the cognitive content of Sesame Streets program content for more indelible learning.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, also known as Mister Rogers, is an American children’s television series that was created and hosted by Fred Rogers. The series is aimed primarily at preschool ages, 2-5, but has been said by PBS as “appropriate for all ages”. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was produced by Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA public broadcaster WQED and Rogers’ non-profit production company Family Communications, Inc. (named Small World Enterprises prior to 1971). It is the second longest running series on PBS, after Sesame Street. The series could be seen in reruns on most PBS stations until August 29, 2008, when it was removed by PBS from their daily syndicated schedule along with Reading Rainbow, Boohbah, and Teletubbies. A number of stations have chosen to continue airing it independently of the PBS feed.
Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? is an American children’s television game show based on the computer games of the same name created by Brøderbund Software. The program aired on PBS from September 30, 1991 to December 22, 1995 (with reruns until October 4, 1996) and starred Lynne Thigpen as “The Chief”, Greg Lee as “The ACME Special Agent (renamed Senior Agent for Seasons 3–5) in charge of training new recruits,” and Rockapella as the house vocal band and comedy troupe.
Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? holds the record for being the longest-running game show on PBS and as the second longest running children’s game show in U.S. television history behind Double Dare (for which Greg was a contestant coordinator). The program received the George Foster Peabody Award for excellence in 1993. The program’s theme song, written by Sean Altman and David Yazbek, has maintained public awareness over the years. In 2001, TV Guide ranked the show at #47 on its list of 50 Greatest Game Shows of All Time.
Schoolhouse Rock! is an American series of animated musical educational short films that aired during the Saturday morning children’s programming on the U.S. television network ABC. The topics covered included grammar, science, economics, history, mathematics, and civics. The series’ original run lasted from 1973 to 1985, and was later revived with both old and new episodes airing from 1993 to 1999. Additional episodes were produced as recently as 2009 for direct-to-video release.
Reading Rainbow is an American children’s television series aired by PBS from June 6, 1983 until August 28, 2009 that encouraged reading among children. The award-winning series garnered over 200 broadcast awards, including scores of Emmy Awards, many for “Outstanding Children’s Series.” The series was created under the leadership of Cecily Truett Lancit and Larry Lancit, at Lancit Media Productions in New York. The concept of a reading series for children was inspired by Twila Liggett, Ph.D., of Lincoln, Nebraska of the Great Plains National Instructional Television Library at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Paul Schupbach, director of the Great Plains National Instructional Television LIbrary; and Tony Buttino, of WNED-TV Buffalo, New York.
The original team included Lynne Brenner Ganek, Ellen Schecter, and LeVar Burton as host.Each episode centers on a theme from a book or other children’s literature which is explored through a number of segments or stories. The show also provides book recommendations for kids to look for when they go to the library. It is the third-longest running children’s series in PBS history, after Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street.
Reading Rainbow has won a Peabody Award and twenty-six Emmy Awards, ten of which were in the “Outstanding Children’s Series” category.
Former executive producer LeVar Burton announced on his Twitter feed on March 19, 2010, that “Reading Rainbow 2.0 is in the works.”
Bill Nye the Science Guy is an educational television program that originally aired from September 10, 1993 to June 20, 1998, hosted by Bill Nye and produced by Walt Disney Educational Services.
The show aired on PBS Kids and was also syndicated to local stations. It still airs on some PBS stations as an educational program for in-school use. Each of the 100 episodes aims to teach a specific topic in science to a preteen audience. The show is frequently used in schools.Created by comedian Ross Shafer and based on sketches on KING-TV’s sketch program Almost Live!, Bill Nye the Science Guy was produced by KCTS-TV of Seattle.
The Electric Company is an educational American children’s television series that was produced by the Children’s Television Workshop (now called Sesame Workshop) for PBS in the United States. PBS broadcast 780 episodes over the course of its six seasons from October 25, 1971 to April 15, 1977. After it ceased production that year, the program continued in reruns from 1977–1985.
The Electric Company employed sketch comedy and other devices to provide an entertaining program to help elementary school children develop their reading skills. It was intended for children who had graduated from CTW’s flagship program, Sesame Street. Appropriately, the humor was more mature than what was seen there.
Wishbone is a television show which aired from 1995 to 1998 and reruns from 1998 to 2001 in the United States featuring a Jack Russell Terrier of the same name. The main character, the talking dog Wishbone, lives with his owner Joe Talbot in the fictional modern town of Oakdale, Texas. As he tends to daydream about being the lead character of stories from classic literature, drawing parallels between the stories and events in the lives of Joe and his friends, he was known as “the little dog with a big imagination”. The show follows his daydreams, as Wishbone acts out a famous story from literature or folklore.
Only the viewers and the characters in his daydreams can hear Wishbone speak (and furthermore, the characters from his daydreams see Wishbone as whatever famous character he is currently portraying and not as a dog). The show has won four Daytime Emmies, a Peabody Award, and honors from the Television Critics Association. Wishbone’s exterior shots were filmed on the backlot of Lyrick Studios’s teen division Big Feats! Entertainment in Allen, Texas, and its interior shots were filmed on a sound stage in a 50,000 square foot (4,600 square metres) warehouse in Plano, Texas.
The show garnered particular praise for refusing to sugarcoat many of the sadder or more unpleasant aspects of the source works, which usually enjoyed a fairly faithful retelling in the fantasy sequences.The television series also inspired several book series. Altogether, there are more than fifty books featuring Wishbone, which were published even after the TV series ended production, up to 2001. It continues to air reruns by some PBS affiliates.
ZOOM encouraged children to “turn off the TV and do it!” On the show, a cast of (usually) seven kids (known as ZOOMers) present or perform various activities such as games, plays, poems, recipes, jokes, songs, movies, science experiments, and informal chats on such subjects such as hospitals, prejudice, etc., all suggested by viewer contributions. These activities are introduced by such titles as ZOOMovie, ZOOM Play of the Week, ZOOMrap (later ZOOMchat), ZOOMgame, ZOOMdo, ZOOMgoody, ZOOMphenomenon, etc.
The mail-in request became a pop culture reference for its music exhortation to “Write ZOOM, Z-Double-O-M, Box 3-5-0, Boston, Mass 0-2-1-3-4: send it to ZOOM!”. The exhortation was spoken but the ZIP code was sung in a barbershop quartet style.
The program also has various language games, including Ubbi-Dubbi, where the syllable “ub” was added before each vowel sound in each syllable of each word (“H-ub-i, fr-ub-iends,” etc.). Another language game, “Fannee Doolee,” centers around a character who likes any person, place, thing or concept with double letters in it but hates its non-double-lettered equivalent, e.g., “Fannee Doolee likes sweets but hates candy.”
Blue’s Clues is an American children’s television show airing on the Nickelodeon family of channels. The show premiered on September 8, 1996 and airs on Nick Jr. and other channels, although production of new episodes ceased by 2006.
Versions of the show have been produced in other countries, most notably in the United Kingdom. It was created by a “green team” of producers, Todd Kessler, Angela C. Santomero, and Traci Paige Johnson, who used concepts learned from child development and early-childhood education research to create a television show that would capture preschool children’s attention and help them learn. They used the narrative format in their presentation of material, as opposed to the more traditional magazine format, and structured every episode the same way.
Barney and Friends, also referred to by HiT Entertainment as Barney the Friendly Dinosaur, is an independent children’s television show produced in the United States, aimed at children from ages 1–8. The series, which first aired in 1992, features the title character Barney, a purple anthropomorphic Tyrannosaurus Rex who conveys learning through songs and small dance routines with a friendly, optimistic attitude. Since September 18, 2009, the show has been on hiatus.
Beakman’s World is an educational children’s television show produced by ELP Communications, Columbia Pictures Television, Universal Belo Productions, and Columbia TriStar Television Distribution.The program is based on the Universal Press Syndicate syndicated comic strip You Can With Beakman and Jax created by Jok Church. The series premiered September 18, 1992 on The Learning Channel (TLC) cable network and in national syndication (225 stations, a freshman year record). On September 18, 1993 it moved from national syndication to CBS Saturday morning children’s lineup.
At the peak of its popularity, it was seen in nearly 90 countries around the world. The series was canceled in mid-1998. Reruns returned to national syndication in September 2006, after which it was transferred to local stations such as KICU. The show debuted a year prior to Bill Nye the Science Guy, which covered similar topics. The show’s host, Paul Zaloom, still performs as Beakman in live appearances around the globe.
Dragon Tales is an animated pre-school children’s television series chronicling the adventures of two siblings, Max and Emmy and their dragon friends Cassie, Ord, Zak, Wheezie, and Quetzal. The television series, based on characters designed by Ron Rodecker, was created by Jim Coane, an Emmy-award-winning creator and executive producer. Originals have been shown on the PBS Kids Channel/PBS Kids Sprout and PBS in the United States from Labor Day 1999 to November 25, 2005. However, PBS has declared that it will no longer hold the license to the series starting on September 1, 2010. Dragon Tales has been removed from the PBS websites. Episodes of the show are still sold on DVD.
Teletubbies was a BBC children’s television series, primarily aimed at pre-school viewers, produced from 1997 to 2001 by Ragdoll Productions. It was created by Anne Wood CBE, Ragdoll’s creative director, and Andrew Davenport, who wrote each of the show’s 365 episodes. The programmer’s original narrator was Tim Whitnall. The programme first aired on 31 March 1997, was syndicated in the United States on the PBS network on 6 April 1998 and aired until June 19, 2005.
In 2001 production was canceled and it was announced that no new episodes would be produced, with the last episode being aired on 5 January 2001. However, a total of 365 episodes had been produced – enough for a full year. The series was one of four PBS shows to be taken off its regular airing, the other shows being Boohbah (in 2005), Reading Rainbow (in 2006) and Mister Rogers Neighborhood (in 2008).
Zoboomafoo is an American children’s television series that aired from January 25, 1999, to April 21, 2000, and is still shown today in syndication depending on the area, and it is regularly shown on PBS Kids Sprout. A total of 65 episodes were aired. A creation of the Kratt Brothers (Chris and Martin Kratt), it features a talking Coquerel’s Sifaka, a type of lemur named Zoboomafoo, – or Zoboo for short – and a collection of repeat animal guests. Every episode begins with the Kratt brothers in “Animal Junction”, a peculiar place in which the rules of nature change and wild animals come to visit and play. On January 19 2004 the show was pulled from its weekday airing.
The Pee-wee Herman character was developed by Reubens into a live stage show entitled The Pee-wee Herman Show in 1980. It featured many characters that would go on to appear in Playhouse, including Captain Carl, Jambi the Genie, Miss Yvonne, Pterri the Pterodactyl and Clocky.
While enjoying continuous popularity with the show, Reubens teamed with young director Tim Burton in 1985 to make the comedy film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. It became one of the year’s surprise hits, costing a relatively modest $6 million to make but taking in $45 million at the box office.After seeing the success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, the CBS network approached Reubens with an ill-received cartoon series proposal.
In 1986, CBS agreed to sign Reubens to act, produce and direct his own live-action Saturday morning children’s program, Pee-wee’s Playhouse, with a budget of $325,000 per episode, (comparable to that of a half-hour prime-time sitcom) and full creative control (although CBS did request a few minor changes over the years).
In the original series Bob appears as a building contractor specialising in masonry in a stop motion animated programme with his colleague Wendy, various neighbours and friends, and their gang of anthropomorphised work-vehicles and equipment (all made of clay). The show is broadcast in many countries, but originates from the United Kingdom where Bob is voiced by British actor Neil Morrissey.
The show was later created using CGI animation starting with the spin-off series Ready Steady Build.In each episode, Bob and his gang help with renovations, construction, and repairs and with other projects as needed. The show emphasizes conflict resolution, co-operation, socialization and various learning skills. Bob’s catchphrase is “Can we fix it?”, to which the other characters respond with “Yes we can!”. This phrase is also the title of the show’s theme song, which was a million-selling number one hit in the UK.
Dora the Explorer is an American animated television series created by Chris Gifford, Valerie Walsh, and Eric Weiner. Dora the Explorer became a regular series in 2000. The show is carried on the Nickelodeon cable television network, including the associated Nick Jr. channel. It aired on CBS until September 2006. A Spanish-dubbed version first aired as part of a Nick en español block on NBC Universal-owned Telemundo through September 2006; since April 2008, this version of the program has been carried on Univision as part of the Planeta U block.
Clifford the Big Red Dog is an American children’s book series first published in 1963. Written by Norman Bridwell, the series helped establish Scholastic Books as a premier publishing company.Clifford was the runt of the litter, and was chosen by a city child named Emily Elizabeth as her birthday present. No one expected Clifford to grow, but Emily Elizabeth’s love for her tiny red puppy changed Clifford dramatically. Before long, he was over 25 feet tall, forcing the Howard family to leave the city and move to the open spaces of Birdwell Island.
Thomas the Tank Engine is a fictional steam locomotive in The Railway Series books by the Rev. W. Awdry and his son, Christopher. He became the most popular character in the series, and the accompanying television spin-off series, Thomas and Friends.Thomas is a tank engine, painted blue with red lining, and displays the running number one.
All of the locomotives in The Railway Series were based on prototypical engines; Thomas has origins in the E2 Class designed by Lawson Billinton in 1913.Thomas first appeared in 1946 in the second book in the series, Thomas the Tank Engine, and was the focus of the four short stories contained within.In 1979, the British writer/producer Britt Allcroft came across the books, mortgaged her house and used her savings to bring the stories to life as Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends (later simplified to Thomas and Friends). The programme became an award-winning hit around the world, with a vast range of spin-off commercial products.
Boohbah is a 2003 children’s television series produced by Ragdoll Productions and aimed at children between three and six years old. It premiered in April 2003 on ITV in the United Kingdom, and on 19 January 2004 in the United States on PBS. It was created by Anne Wood with scripts by Alan Dapre and Robin Stevens (of Pob fame).
Anne Wood also created the children’s show Teletubbies (another Ragdoll series). The similarity between this show and Teletubbies, both of which have a science fiction theme, is notable. The website says, “The design of the show – visually and otherwise, draws upon early concepts in science, maths and art and combines these with ‘televisual magic’ to create a uniquely funny television experience.” One of the show’s trademarks is a child’s voice pronouncing the show’s name in sing-song (BOOH…..BAH).
There are 104 twenty-five minute episodes. The show was shown in the USA on PBS Kids in HD until 2005 when it was taken off the air along with Teletubbies and Reading Rainbow. Boohbah was also shown in the Netherlands on Nick Jr.. Currently, the series continues to air on Tiny Pop in the UK. “Boohbah” means “doll” in Hebrew, and the rounded shape of the central characters is reminiscent of the bouba/kiki effect, but it is not clear if these ideas influenced the name of the show.
The Backyardigans is a Canadian/American 3-D CGI-animated children’s TV series, created by Janice Burgess. It features five animal children, who imagine that their backyard becomes an adventure place. It is a coproduction of Treehouse TV, and the Canadian animation studio Nelvana. Debuting on October 11, 2004, it was originally directed by Robert Scull. Dave Palmer began directing the show in the middle of season one, and has directed all episodes since. It aired on CBS from October 2004 until September 2006. Music for the show is written by Evan Lurie, of The Lounge Lizards, and Douglas Wieselman.
The characters were designed by children’s book author and illustrator Dan Yaccarino.On April 30, 2006, Nelvana and Nickelodeon jointly announced that twenty new episodes were ordered for the upcoming fall schedule. In the UK, the second season debuted on October 30, 2006. The third season was released in Canada in March 2008, and the series made its Australian debut in the same year. A fourth season has been produced and is currently being released in Canada as of February 22, 2010.
The Magic School Bus is an American Saturday morning animated television series based on the book series of the same name by Joanna Cole. It is notable for its use of celebrity talent and combining entertainment with an educational show, according to an article in Animation World Magazine by Annemarie Moody incorporating an interview with Executive Producer Deborah Forte. Broadcasting & Cable said the show was “among the highest-rated PBS shows for school-age children.” The show is also the longest running children’s science television series program to date.
WordGirl is an American children’s animated television series for children aged 6-12, produced by the Soup2Nuts animation unit of Scholastic Entertainment for PBS Kids. The show began as a series of shorts that premiered on PBS Kids GO! on November 10, 2006, usually shown at the end of Maya & Miguel; the segment was then spun off into a new thirty-minute episodic series that premiered on September 3, 2007 on most PBS member stations. This animated show is aimed at people seven and older and is designed to teach about the expansive English language and its vocabulary.
This is also the second (The first was Liberty’s Kids) PBS Kids program to have a TV-Y7 rating. The first two seasons each have twenty-six episodes; on June 10, 2009 it was announced that a third season was ordered, and it began airing on many PBS stations August 23, 2010, consisting of an additional twenty-six episodes. The show has been renewed for three additional seasons in August of 2010.
The Big Comfy Couch is a Canadian children’s television series about Loonette the Clown and her doll Molly, who solve everyday problems on their ‘Big Comfy Couch’. It aired from 1992 until early 2006. Re-runs of the show are still being aired on Treehouse TV. It was produced by Cheryl Wagner and Robert Mills, directed by Wayne Moss and Mills. It premiered on March 2, 1992 in Canada and in 1995 in the USA on public television stations across the country.
The show’s format revolves around Loonette the Clown, who lives with her doll Molly on the eponymous Big Comfy Couch. Episodes are generally focused on a theme or a lesson. For example, Season 3’s episode “Full of Life” explored the concepts of “full” and “empty”, while “Sticks and Stones” dealt with name-calling and teasing.
Arthur is an American/Canadian animated educational television series for children, created by Cookie Jar Group (formerly known as Cinar) and WGBH for the Public Broadcasting Service. The show is set in the fictional American city of Elwood City, and revolves around the lives of 8-year-old Arthur Read, an anthropomorphic aardvark, his friends and family, and their daily interactions with each other. There is a strong emphasis on the educational value of books and libraries as well as relationships with friends and family members. The series is often noted for dealing with social and health-related issues that affect young children, such as the death of a pet, dyslexia, and more recently cancer, Asperger’s Syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease
Doug premiered on Nickelodeon on August 11, 1991, where it continued until December 16, 1994, and was aired in reruns until 2003, being the first Nicktoon. As of 2009, Nickelodeon’s Doug airs reruns on MTV’s affiliates KBEH and KMOH-TV (as an E/I program) in the US and on Nicktoonsters in the UK.In the first episode, Douglas Yancey Funnie and his family (Phil, Theda, and sister Judy) arrive in a new town called Bluffington after moving away from their former residence in Bloatsburg.
There he meets Skeeter, Patti, Roger, and Beebe, and his new life in a new town begins.John Kricfalusi, the creator of The Ren & Stimpy Show, stated on a DVD commentary for his show that among the three original Nicktoons (Rugrats being the other one), Nickelodeon was banking on Doug to be its major hit. This, however, was not the case; Rugrats would go on to be the biggest hit of the three original Nicktoons, going on to have the longest run of any Nicktoon to date and still airing on the channel as of 2011, whereas Doug (in its Nickelodeon incarnation) had the shortest run of the three and is the only one of the three not airing in reruns on any of the Nickelodeon networks.
The show stars three Earth children — Matt, Jackie and Inez — and Digit, a “cyboid” (a bird-like cyborg). The three kids and Digit use their math and problem solving skills to stop the evil deeds of the Hacker and his two cyborg henchmen, Buzz and Delete.The series takes place in Cyberspace, with planet-like bodies called “Cybersites.” Each cybersite is inhabited by “Cyborgs” the virtual inhabitants of Cyberspace. Some are based on real-world places, such as ancient Egypt and the American Old West, or fantasy worlds, such as mythological Greece. The guardian of all Cyberspace is Motherboard; her repairman is Dr. Marbles
The storylines tend to be simple tales of bold adventure. The cast has a simple structure as well: almost all the characters look essentially alike — mostly male, very short (as tall as 3 crab apples high), with blue skin, white trousers with a hole for their short tails, white hat in the style of a Phrygian cap, and sometimes some additional accessory that identifies a personality. (For example, Handy Smurf wears overalls instead of the standard trousers, a brimmed hat, and a pencil above his ear.)
Smurfs can walk and run, but often move by skipping on both feet. They love to eat sarsaparilla (a species of Smilax) leaves, whose berries the smurfs naturally call smurfberries (the smurfberries appear only in the cartoon; in the original comics, the Smurfs only eat the leaves from the Smilax). Smurfs are almost never seen without their traditional white hat on, but the few exceptions suggest that smurfs have no hair, with the exception of Smurfette and later Sassette, who are technically not smurfs.
The Smurfs fulfill simple archetypes of everyday people: Lazy Smurf, Grouchy Smurf, Brainy Smurf, and so on. All smurfs, with the exception of Papa, Baby, Smurfette, Nanny and Grandpa, are said to be 100 years old. There were originally 99 smurfs, but this number increased as new Smurf characters appeared, such as Sassette and Nanny. Smurfette is not one of the original smurfs because she was created by Gargamel, the evil wizard. It’s also coming to theaters soon!
The show features an 8-year-old boy, Diego Márquez, who helps animals in danger, mainly in the rainforest. His cousin is Dora from Dora the Explorer, as revealed in multiple shows. Diego was first introduced in an episode of Dora the Explorer titled Meet Diego! (originally voiced by brothers Andres and Felipe Dieppa). Diego has a jaguar companion named Baby Jaguar who assists him on adventures. Thomas Sharkey, who is the voice of Baby Jaguar, is also the singing voice of the kangaroo “Austin” in the Backyardigans. Baby Jaguar also appears in Dora the Explorer but inconsistently; on Go, Diego, Go! he takes a more active role, which includes being able to speak. It’s unknown whether Diego’s parents let him keep Baby Jaguar as a pet or Baby Jaguar adopted Diego. Diego’s grandfather has a strawberry farm, and he made his first appearance in “Green Iguana Helps Abuelito Plant a New Farm!” It was unknown whether he was Diego’s maternal grandfather or paternal grandfather. Diego is also very ticklish, which is revealed in “Diego Saves Baby River Dolphin.”
Do you know of some other TV shows that are actually educational? There are countless out there and I did my best to include some of the most well-known. I’m happy to add others to this list though so share your thoughts down in the comments or by mentioning @edudemic on Twitter. Thanks and enjoy!