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The Best Things Are Free: Roku’s Family & Kids Hidden Gems

| June 6, 2024 | By

School’s out and hopefully the young ones have sports, swimming, and camps on the horizon. Inevitably, summer means kids have a bit more screen time . . . and we’re here to help.

Considering the hefty bills that streaming services can incur, many families seek out quality free options — and The Roku Channel is certainly one of the most accessible. It comes pre-loaded with all Roku devices and TVs, which are increasingly popular, so it’s been a trending option.

Parental caution about Roku platform 

The Roku Channel (which also streams free online) is like a small-scale Netflix, in that it licenses a lot of films and TV series from top studios, which are rotated in and out every couple of months. Variety is good, but explicit content is also easy to access here, so beware.

Roku has a few original programs, with recently released Honest Renovations a highlight. Mostly, you’ll find 75 short-form shows brought over from now-defunct Quibi, but Roku's originals library is slowly building. This is free, after all.

Note that The Roku Channel is always trying to upsell you on subscriptions. Because a parent’s credit card usually gets preloaded on Roku, and there are frequent ad breaks with whatever’s on The Roku Channel, kids could easily click one remote button to buy something. Parental supervision is strongly advised on multiple fronts.

The current library for Roku Channel isn’t well-publicized, so it does take some hunting to find the good — and all the rotating content means the list below may soon become outdated. For now, here are some kids and family hidden gems on The Roku Channel.

For the Whole Family

Honest Renovations (docuseries/home improvement, 6 episodes)

With a family-centric focus, Honest Renovations features two home consultants — actresses-turned-entrepreneurs and best pals Jessica Alba and Lizzy Mathis — who help families by improving living spaces.

As someone who hasn’t seen HGTV, I wanted less chit-chat and more cost estimates and technical details of renovations (see This Old House below for more of that). But these hosts have undeniable chemistry and rapport with guests, making this a great watch.

Note: one episode has a mild profanity, but generally TV-G.


Great American Baking Show (reality/competition, two seasons)

In 2023, Roku rebooted this Yank-flavored version of the Brit hit. A new season recently premiered, with the same current judges (Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith) as Netflix's Great British Baking Show, the same format (baking competition in a tent on the grounds of a British manor), but with two American hosts (Casey Wilson and Zach Cherry), and a cast of American bakers far from home.

Wilson and Cherry work well together, and the bakes/terminology might be a bit more understandable to U.S. audiences. If you like the original -- with its high baking tension but zero interpersonal conflict and general atmosphere of friendly competition -- you'll like the spinoff.


Too Cute (docuseries, 78 episodes)

The definition of background TV, this Animal Planet series is a continuous loop of puppies, kittens, and other fluffy animals, with no content concerns. Even the youngest kids will enjoy watching Too Cute for at least a bit, as a fun celebration of cuddly critters. 


This Old House (home renovation, 769 episodes)

Decades prior to the Magnolia Network, PBS premiered This Old House in 1979, where carpenters, engineers, and home-improvement experts renovate an aging residence in need of attention.

In a little-known deal, Roku bought the entire This Old House library, company, and studios in 2021, with now hundreds of classic episodes available free.

Unlike the many, many home-renovation shows that came after it, This Old House is not personality-focused but project-focused, so it's a boon for those wanting more technical details, practical advice, and discussions of cost.


For Elementary School (Ages 6-11) 

Ferngully: The Last Rainforest (1992 animated feature film, G)

Don Bluth, who famously left Disney in the early 1980s after working on The Fox and the Hound among other projects, always moved to the beat of his own drum. Bluth created two of the most memorable non-Disney animated features: An American Tail and The Land Before Time.

Ferngully, which skews younger than other Bluth films, features Tim Curry hamming it up as the villain. Currently also on Roku, Bluth’s All Dogs Go To Heaven and The Secret of NIMH are a bit more edgy than Disney fare and perhaps best viewed by kids ages eight and up. 


Running for Grace (2018 live-action drama, PG)

In Hawaii during the 1920s, an orphaned teenager of mixed ethnicity (half-white, half-Japanese) was legally not allowed to be adopted. But he could run, so he went to work for a recently hired physician (Matt Dillon) to deliver medicine to coffee pickers in the fields.

When a villainous big-city doctor (Jim Caviezel of Sound of Freedom) enters the picture, this engaging, beautifully shot film explores vital themes on the harms of discrimination and the value of every life.


For Young Viewers (Ages 2-5) 

Charlie and Lola (animated dramedy, 77 episodes)

Before Bluey creator Joe Brumm came up with the world’s most popular doggo family, he got his start as an animator on this clever and sweet series. With characters’ foreign-to-U.S. accents and caring chemistry between two siblings, it just might remind you of the Heelers, even if the animation is a bit more rudimentary than Bluey.


Thomas & Friends: Big World! Big Adventures! (stop motion/CG animation, 212 episodes) 

Based on the 1946 book Thomas the Tank Engine and its sequels, written by Anglican minister Rev. William Awdry (1911-1997), the talking-trains franchise has evolved quite a lot.

Since the early 1980s, Thomas and Friends has been a mainstay of children’s TV, with a focus on cooperation, teamwork, and other social-emotional themes. Kids still love it, particularly faster-paced episodes of the last 15 years. 


Super Wings (CGI animated, 259 episodes) 

This import from China and South Korea features many basic learning concepts, integrated with colorful talking planes that kids enjoy. While this is not the sharpest writing or animation work—and, similar to Paw Patrol, is designed to sell toys — I think it’s super that my kids have learned some double-digit math concepts from these planes.


The Roku Channel is available online and widely on streaming platforms.

Image: (L-R) Jessica Alba and Lizzy Mathis of Honest Renovations/The Roku Channel

Josh M. Shepherd covers culture, faith and public-policy issues for various media outlets. He and his wife are raising two children in Northern Virginia.

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