This past Mother’s Day, my wife and I rushed in our car to the local Urgent Care ER, because our two-year-old son had fallen and gashed his head.
The doctor proclaimed that four stitches were necessary. How to keep a toddler still while the doctor and nurses work on him? It occurred to me to play his favorite firetruck video. I kept the sound off as they began the procedure.
His wide eyes, staring at the video, were only inches from where the doctor began to thread the stitches. Knowing it by memory, I narrated the video to calm him: “Look, your fire truck friend is putting out the fire to help people – just like your doctor and nurses, they’re helping you.”
They were amazed at how focused he remained. Six months later, his scar is barely noticeable.
It turns out that YouTube videos serve many purposes. During the recent pandemic, with increasing time working from home, my wife and I have become adept at supplementing playtime with some screentime learning. PBS Kids and Disney Plus have a few good options.
Starting with episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (toddlers still love his puppets), we began to see YouTube Kids as an option–with caveats. Research shows the platform is designed to be addictive, so we strive to limit its use.
Previewing a variety of kids’ content, sometimes we struck out with blatant toy promotions or repetition that had no learning value. But we also found a few creators with unique approaches to storytelling that teaches, engaging young ones at a usually-careful pace.
They’re not exactly Pixar, but the storytelling and animation aren’t too far off. Since it launched in 2011, Missouri-based Coilbook has racked up over 3 billion views of short educational videos.
Toddlers will meet William Watermore the Fire Truck, Florence the Ambulance, and a host of other vehicles and toy-sized characters. Some of their science videos are sophisticated, while recently the channel has aged up slightly with action-oriented Sergeant Cooper the Time Cop.
Caitie’s Classroom aka Super Simple Play
Energetic Caitie Claessens' show recalls Mister Rogers’ non-puppet field trips and experiments segments — direct address to kids, encouraging sensory interaction, upbeat but not annoying.
Moving beyond the usual memorization topics, Caitie’s Classroom teaches about the five senses, seasons and a variety of topics. Maybe this generation does have their own Fred.
When it comes to the greatest stories ever told – in the Bible, that is –parents have few options that really keep kids engaged. There’s VeggieTales, and the youngest love it.
But for stories depicted with more biblical nuance and fewer vegetables, Superbook, produced by evangelical ministry Christian Broadcasting Network, has lots going for it. By transporting present-day kids into interactions with biblical heroes, it shows how these stories apply to kids’ everyday situations.
Real Wheels aka Live Action Video
Proving that YouTube archives almost everything, my son’s love of helicopters inspired me to search out a video series I recalled from growing up. Sure enough, all dozen-plus volumes of Real Wheels – titles like “There Goes a Helicopter” and “There Goes a Dump Truck” – can be found free online.
The leads, goofy Dave and his foil Becky, do some light physical comedy as they train with professionals–who also impart wisdom to kids about their jobs.
Brain Candy TV
With a colorful, humorous style, Brain Candy TV teaches numbers, colors, shapes, and all the basics. Narrator/creator Michael Moore, a Canadian multimedia photographer with expertise in 3D animation, clearly has a love for learning and knows how to engage kids – usually with fast vehicles and cute animals, like his dog and show mascot, Lizzy.
When watching a recent Brain Candy video about counting by threes, their sequence stopped at 30 … and our two-year-old yelled out “33!” While parents are wise to limit screentime, we can also see educational benefits from kids’ curated engagement with select content.
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.