10 great TV shows to enjoy with your kids

Feature Glen Chapman James Stansfield 26 Feb 2014 - 07:00

From Adventure Time to Old Jack's Boat, James and Glen talk us through ten modern kids' TV shows that geek parents can enjoy too...

“Urgh, I’m so hungover.  I’m going to sit in my pants and watch movies all day”

So invariably goes at least one entry on my Twitter feed every Saturday or Sunday morning. Yes, lying about all day watching TV is great but nine times out of ten when someone writes something like this, I can guarantee that they don’t have kids. For those of us with small children, the television we regularly watch throughout the day comes from a vastly different landscape. To the childless, names such as Makka Pakka, Tree Fu Tom and Yo Jo Jo may mean very little. To some us though they’ve become household names, as our lives are filled with the colourful characters we now encounter via our TV screens on a daily basis. And any parent who comes out with the immortal line “Oh, I don’t let my kids watch television” is, I’m sorry, a liar.

When we were younger, pre-school TV was pretty much confined to seeing which window we’d go through today on Playschool but now in the age of hundreds of channels, there’s a wealth of programmes for the under-fives, and some of them are really rather good. Some are so good in fact, that as adults we sometimes find ourselves continuing to watch after our offspring have left the room. This list then is dedicated to those shows:


Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom


Why kids love it: Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom is, like many pre-school shows, based on friendship and getting into trouble, but here there’s added magic. Like a reception class version of The Hobbit, there are elves, one of whom is Ben, and fairies, one of whom is Princess Holly. The elves don’t like magic and blow trumpets every time they announce themselves while the fairies love magic, often with disastrous results that involve floods of jelly. Add to this their friendship with the human Lucy and vibrant characters such a Ben’s pet ladybird Gaston, who thinks he’s a dog, and it makes for a magical package.

What’s in it for the grown ups? There are really two words to sum this up – Nanny Plum. Brilliantly voiced by Sarah Ann Kennedy, Nanny Plum is housekeeper to Princess Holly’s parents, King and Queen Thistle. Often sarcastic, often casting spells that invariable go wrong (to replace a priceless frozen bird sculpture she uses the spell “Make me a bird, ice thingy”) and frequently hilarious, Plum is the highlight of Ben & Holly. The writing in the show is so tight that there’s often some very funny, sitcom-style bantering going on between the adult characters and it’s never better than when Nanny Plum is involved. King Thistle probably adds the most entertainment next as the hapless and grumpy king who is happy as long as he can get his bath. The creators of Ben & Holly have produced a show that while enthralling for children, has all the hallmarks of a great British comedy. A delight for adult viewers too was this trailer, which ran ahead of recent episodes and paid tribute to Game of Thrones.


Charlie & Lola


Why kids love it: Based on Lauren Child's books, which she began writing in 2000, imagination and sibling love/frustration are the key themes of this great brother and sister show. As Charlie informs us at the beginning of every episode “I have this little sister Lola.  She is small and very funny”. Lola then invariably gets up to something or has an idea about something she wants to do, and Charlie has to guide her. As Lola is four years old, she’s immediately identifiable for the kids watching the show as she’s discovering many of the same things as her audience. Like boys and girls her age too, she often doesn’t understand the consequences of her actions but learns through her imaginative adventures.

What’s in it for the grown ups? Charlie and Lola is very funny. The good-natured battles between the two characters are highly amusing for anyone who has grown up with brothers and sisters. The episode in which Lola ruins Charlie’s Birthday party by opening all his presents is bound to stir some memories for many people. The show is so well-observed that you really do feel like you’re watching a genuine sibling relationship. It also delivers a great deal of humour from the perspective of a parent. A lot of the things Lola says, or can’t believe, are familiar to what our own children come out with, and being a parent can be the funniest thing in the world.


Old Jack’s Boat

Why kids love it: This is a bit of a mixed one. On the one hand it’s the story of a wise old fisherman (Bernard Cribbins) and the assortment of oddballs who populate his seaside town, and on the other it’s a Jackanory-type affair with Jack telling a tale of his adventures at sea with his dog, Salty. Much like James Bolam in the inferior Grandpa in my Pocket, Cribbins presents to the kids a grandparent figure, who will sit and tell them a story. The stories themselves often involve pirates and mermaids, both of which children typically love, while the whole show is presented in a collection of vibrant colours. The dog is also a big draw as my daughter just told me her favourite thing about the show is "when the dog lost her biscuit.”

What’s in it for the grown ups? Well, come on, it’s Bernard Cribbins telling stories? What more could you ask for? The man is a national treasure. If that wasn’t enough though, Old Jack’s Boat features his fellow Doctor Who alumnus Freema Agyeman as Shelly Periwinkle. She owns a café, does a very sexy wink in the opening titles, AND she can make cakes by magic. Making up the cast is the always fun to watch Helen Lederer as a yuppie type with her mobile permanently attached to her ear.

The show is filmed in the North Yorkshire village of Staithies and it looks every bit the idyllic location, and must conjure up some summer holiday memories for many of us adults who visited similar places. The programme also has the mostly insanely catchy theme tune, performed by Cribbins himself.


Sarah & Duck

Why kids love it: Sarah is seven years old and her best friend is a duck, called Duck. It’s not unlike a relationship a younger child may have with a soft toy, as Sarah cares for Duck and they have little adventures together that range from conducting music on a set of pipes to climbing inside a bouncy ball machine, from practising the bobsleigh with their friend Scarf Lady to helping their friend Jon (whose best friend is a flamingo) get over his fear of stairs. Sarah converses with the narrator, voiced by Game of Thrones’ Magister Illyrio Mopatis, Roger Allam, in super-cute vocabulary that kids love to mimic.

What’s in it for the grown ups? This show is adorable. It’s presented and written in such a sweet way that you just can’t help but fall in love with it. It seems to take place in a wonderful fantasy world, the animal companions for the children not being unlike those in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. The key themes of the show are friendship and problem solving but there are also some great moments of humour. The always-excellent Andy Nyman voices Bag, a character who is, well, a bag, belonging to the forgetful Scarf Lady. He is often grumpy and likes to correct her in a slightly scathing way. Each episode of Sarah & Duck comes in at only seven minutes but every one is an absolute joy of weird characters and jokes. It’s the Twin Peaks of CBeebies.


Tommy Zoom


Why kids love it: If kids are going to have an early introduction to superheroes then they could do worse than Tommy Zoom. Part live-action, part animation, Tommy Zoom is an environmental friendly superhero who each episode, with the help of his canine sidekick and narrator Daniel, saves the world, or the three people who seem to live in it) from a scheme of the evil Polluto. The show is good for little ones because it’s bright and it’s got a talking dog in it. In fact, it’s never really cleared up in whose imagination the animated superhero adventure part of the show actually takes place. As Daniel, voiced by Jerome Flynn, narrates the show then Tommy Zoom could be unique as the only programme to partly take place entirely in a dog’s mind.

What’s in it for the grown ups? This is one of those shows that borders on being annoying yet is somehow compelling. Daniel the dog may be overly self-righteous but his moralistic ramblings are more than made up for by the character of Polluto. Every superhero needs their arch nemesis and Polluto is like a tweenie version of James Bond villain. He even has a cat, called Smog, and emits an evil cackle when detailing his latest plan for world domination.


Peppa Pig


Why  kids love it: Bright colours, talking animals, catchy music and short episodes – Peppa Pig ticks a lot of boxes for kids and when you add to that there's a theme park and an insane amount of merchandise you can be assured that once it's introduced; it'll be a mainstay for years. Sharing the same creative team and much of the same voice talent to the aforementioned Ben & Holly's Little Kingdom, it covers several of the same themes but without the bonus of magical shenanigans. Unless of course you consider anthropomorphic animals magical, in which case there's tons of it. Like many kids' shows, Peppa Pig focuses on the importance of friendship and family, and even if Peppa herself is something of a bossy little runt there are many characters that provide positive examples.

What's in it for the grown ups? If you appreciate bass-voiced male figures doing the best they can there's a fair bit of that. As a father of a daughter I like that there are plenty of positive female role models in the show who demonstrate a very strong work ethic and hold down multiple jobs at the same time. Typically, the female characters fare much, much, better than their male counterparts which is refreshing to see. The show addresses single-parent families and the differences in species is occasionally used to as a way to promote acceptance between races which again is a very positive aspect.



Why kids love it: Again, another classic anthropomorphic animal, albeit this time without the use of a recognisable language. Pingu is a mischievous penguin who lives in the south pole with his family and frequently gets into all sorts of mischief which results in slapstick shenanigans. It's a show that has stood the test of time and for good reason; it's funny and at times quite insane.

What's in it for the grown ups? I mentioned Pingu's insanity above and I had one particular episode in mind when I did; an episode that scared the bejeezus out of my daughter when she first watched it. I later learned that the episode, Pingu's Dream, was once banned because of just this talent for freaking kids out. It features a giant walrus that terrorises Pingu in a similar way to Freddy Kruger; he haunts his dreams, chases and tortures him. Traumatic nightmare-monsters aside, Pingu is good clean family fun that hits the double whammy of introducing your child to stop-motion animation (why not use it as a nice stepping stone to the works of Ray Harryhausen?). There's also plenty of toilet humour in Pingu; numerous moments when I look up and he's urinating everywhere. Whilst this is no doubt funny, perhaps give these episodes a miss whilst potty training eh?



Why kids love it: This will be the last of the anthropomorphic animal entries, I promise. It's one my daughter stumbled on whilst browsing Netflix and seems to have been something of a hit. Trotro is a small donkey boy who's equally as obnoxious as Peppa Pig but tends to get shown up for it more often than not. It's what you'd expect; brightly coloured fun delivered in short bursts with a catchy theme tune.

What's in it for the grown ups? It's a French animated show based on a popular series of books by Bénédicte Guettier so you can view it as an introduction to foreign cinema for your little one. Perhaps think of it as Blue is the Warmest Colour for kids, but with donkeys instead of people and er, the naughtiness removed.


Adventure Time

Why kids love it: For very much the same reason that adults love it; Adventure Time is awesome. It may seem slightly out of place when listed with some of the shows on this list, and you may question how responsible it is to show it to a toddler, but it's worth pointing out that I watched RoboCop at eight and I turned out Okay(ish). Adventure Time is the creation of Pendleton Ward and follows Finn the human and Jake the dog, who has magical powers as they find themselves in a series of, well, adventures in the land of Ooo. Brightly coloured, action-packed and very funny, Adventure Time is one of the finest animated shows around. Admittedly, it has lead to my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter saying “dude” a lot of late, but I can live with that.

What's in it for the grown ups? As if you're not sold on this already. Okay, fine; again, it's brilliant, hilarious and insane. Jake is possibly one of the most gifted but ultimately lazy heroes I've seen. Like a talking dog version of Bill Murray, there's the strong sense that if Jake wasn't spurring him on nothing would get done. It's a show that will prove a hit with your child and one that you can watch and enjoy in a different way given that much of the humour is pitched at adults. It's brilliant, buy everything.


Yo Gabba Gabba!

Why kids love it: As big a hit as many of the aforementioned shows have been with my daughter, if I had to pick one that she's watched and enjoyed more than any other it would be Yo Gabba Gabba! Since before she was walking, the bright colours, characters and musical sequences captivated her and now she dances and sings along, which has been great to see. The brainchild of Christian Jacobs (Lead Singer of The Aquabats) and Scott Schultz who worked together as teens on skateboarding videos and after becoming fathers set out to make an entertaining kids show showcasing real artists and performers, and very much achieved that. Episodes move at a brisk pace and focus on particular themes as the inhabitants of Gabba Land (Brobee, Plex, Muno, Foofa, Toodee) under the guidance of DJ Lance Rock, learn life lessons and become better people through play, song and dance with the action being broken up with guest musical performances from some big names, short cartoons and 8-bit video game clips.

What's in it for the grown ups? When you become a parent there are a number of questions you have to ask; once you've got the big ones out of the way like name, breast or bottle-feed, re-useable or disposable nappies etc you soon get to arguably the biggest questions of all; do I want Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh to be my child’s art teacher? And do I want Biz Markie to teach my kid how to beat box? The answer to both is obviously yes.

To list the cool guest stars both musical and not would take far too long so I suggest you quickly look them up; it's really an embarrassment of riches that you'll get as much out of as your kids. As cool as some of the musical guest stars are, some of the original songs composed for the show are also outstanding. There's a song titled Think Happy Thoughts in the Sleep episode which in my mind is the finest to feature in a show primarily aimed at kids since Rainbow Connection (incidentally performed on a later show by Paul Williams), it's really that good. If you're looking to pick two episodes to see if they stick I'd suggest Sleep and Differences are particularly strong.

(Full disclosure, I should point out that when I first saw the show I absolutely hated it; it seemed to be migraine-induced hipster nonsense but I was soon won over. The show's heart is in the right place, it promotes messages in an effective and not too preachy way and is also loads of fun. Unfortunately the handling of the show in the UK seems to have been a little troubled from what I've heard (I own all eps imported) but there are DVDs available. It's well worth seeking out.)

Special mention: To pretty much anything on CBeebies a channel that produces a vast range of quality kids' television that more than justifies the licence fee for any parent. We praised the work of Justin Fletcher a while back, and that celebration very much remains justified. There are also great shows such as Mr Bloom, I Can Cook etc that remain fun and present easy activities to do with all the family.

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What anout Shaun the Sheep? Bite-sized bits of Aardman magic!

Great article - lists pretty much all the shows we watch as a family in my house. Nanny Plum is an unsung comedy hero (coupled with Miss Rabbit from Peppa too of course).

Just one word of caution, the Old Jack's Boat Christmas special is undoubtedly the saddest / moving thing you will ever see in your whole life EVER... Written by RTD and beautifully acted by Bernard Cribbins it had all of us snuffling on the sofa.

What? No Ponies?! Tsk.....

Well okies, let me recommend it right here, right now.

Gone are the candy coloured pattern swapped generic clones of the 80s, Friendship is Magic and brings with it a show that kids will love but adults can enjoy as well.

Sarah and Duck is one of the best things on TV at the moment, it's great. I watch it believing that Roger Allam is Sarah's Dad, it adds a whole new level.

Also, sorry to everyone else, but Freema Agyeman is winking at me.

+1 for Nanny Plum.

I was re-watching Rainbow recently, I still love it now as much as I did as a kid. Zippy still cracks me up.

Me and my 3 year old daughter are working our way through Samurai Jack. She absolutely loves Aku: Tge shape shifting master of evil. So much so that we've spent the last few days doing paintings of him.

"The Twin Peaks of CBeebies" is a wonderful description of Sarah and Duck.

Seriously, no Spongebob? I know plenty of adults who watch that without children

It's one I've tried to get my daughter to watch but she isn't keen so far (same with Scooby Doo) no doubt they'll be fixtures soon enough but as it stands they aren't so didn't qualify for my entries (back 5). Obviously can't comment for James though.

Nice stuff! Sarah and duck appeals to my niece and for me the tones of The Thick of It's roger allan is a delight. Charlie and Lola - what's not to like?

Roger Allam, that is. Plays the tory minister Peter Mannion in The Thick of it.

True, one needs the child to enjoy the show in the first place. Got my nephew, who's five years old, into Danger Mouse and the surreal Tales from Fat Tulip's Garden. Sir Tony Robinson at his very best. If i discovered he got his knighthood for this show it would be richly deserved.

Roy Skelton, much missed.

Old Jack's Boat is an interesting show. I watched it with my little niece, who commented that Jack was always telling "tall tales". Quite an astute observation for a 7 year old. Nice to see Janine Duvitski (always good value in everything from Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party to David Renwick's One Foot in the Grave), i heard she'd retired from acting, so this appears to be a small coup. The look of the show is reminiscent of Balomory, though this time it's Staithes in North Yorkshire which provides the beautiful coastal scenery.

As great as it was, in recent seasons with the departure of Lauren Faust they're beginning to take the lazy route of leaning a little too heavily on adult pop culture references, and I'm getting the feeling that Hasbro is having an increasing influence on the show plot for the sake of selling spin-off toys (leaked marketing images of the cast with gaudy rainbow colours are an extremely worrying indication of the season finale). My tongue-in-cheek prediction is that by the end of next season all the main characters will have been elevated to demigod alicorns with their own palaces, and all will have boyfriends.

A 3 year old watching Samurai Jack? Thats impressive considering a lot of the episodes are mostly Jack walking through landscapes with barely a line of dialogue (no complaints here though, its a masterpiece of animation).

It has a similar tone to the animations Crystal Tipps and Alistair (1974) and Victor and Maria (1986) both created by the graphic designer Graeme Macallum, who used them to further his career in the BBC and later ITV. If you want really weird though, no-one has yet topped Ludwig, shown on BBC1 back in 1977 and nowadays largely forgotten. It was about a violin-playing egg, who possessed wiry arms and legs, not unlike the BBC 2 logos with the yellow backgrounds from the early noughties. The strange Ludwig, enchanted various woodland creatures including a magpie, the other main protagonist. The show was literally observed by an animated deerstalker-wearing birdwatcher, narrated by Jon (Mr Chormondly-Warner) Glover. The theme tune was a variation on a Beethoven piece, thus the show brought classical music to the youngsters of the seventies. Charlie Brooker satirised it in How TV Ruined Your Life last year.

Batman The Animated Series is a timeless classic that both parties can enjoy, although I'm pretty sure some of the episodes gave me nightmares as a 5 year old. The first season is more kid-friendly in tone.

Silly old elf, back to yourself

My 6 yr old daughter loved SJ when she was a bit younger, but its a bit two scary for my 2 yr old lad. Give him a year and I reckon he'll be OK. He adores swords and swordplay and given the fact he seems to know all the moves and stances I can only assume he was a warrior in a previous life.

I thought I had imagined Ludwig in a fevered imagination. So glad to hear it was actually a real show and I am not actually insane....or any more insane anyway.

Then there's the classics...

The Clangers and Danger Mouse both spring to mind. Then there's Chorlton & the Wheels which is odd and crazy...

It may be because i'm from the nineties, but what about the Hannah-Barbera Cartoon Network classics? Dexter's Lab, Johnny Bravo, Powerpuff Girls etc. A great time for toons. They were anarchic and funny.

No love for Regular Show?

You missed a further reason to love Peppa Pig - Brian Blessed voices Grampy Rabbit! It was good before, but the day I realised the Blessed was shouting in an episode was a great moment in Father/ Daughter bonding. Also Miss Rabbit and her multiple jobs and 'The Bing-Bong Song'.
Ben & Holly has the brilliant, bitter banter between Nanny Plum and Wise old Elf to revel in, and chuffed to see some love for Yo Gabba Gabba - I am the proud owner of a 'There's a party in my tummy' T-shirt. It is weird watching the US original when you got used to DJ Lance having an English voice dubbed over and Brobee, Plex, Muno etc. sound remarkably like the cast of the tweenies in the version I saw....

What no love for the Oliver Postgate channelling Adventures of Abney and Teal? And we're all partial to a little Charley Bear round these parts!

no Regular Show in that list = lowered credibiity rating for DoG, sorry!

Can't go wrong with Ulysses 31 teaching philosophy and mythology to kids using action Sci-Fi. See also The Matrix.

There should be the lovely UK classics like Kipper the Dog and Yoko! Jakamoko! Toto! loved to watch these with my son ! Now with 9 years and I am not allowed to give these DVD's away !!

Well, lowered credibility for me and James perhaps. Pretty sure it's on Netflix so I'll see if my daughter takes to it.

I don't know if it's still on, but I thought Rastamouse was top-notch. Hugely appealing puppets; excellent voice-work and a very positive message.

Happy to "cure" your perceived insanity!

*Goes back in time to watch The Animals of Farthing-wood, Mighty Max and co.*

Sadly, Freema is no longer in Old Jack's boat


I'm an elf (cue trumpet)

GRAVITY FALLS!!! with names like Dipper, Mabel, Grunkle Stan & Zoos (my name is not Zoos) its a must! I sit with my 6 year old and its the best 20 mins ever! check it out fellow nostalgic travellers!

We think that the VO is her Dad too! He puts the oven on for her and refers to them doing things together all the time. I've always thought of it as Boosh for kids!
I'm a big fan of B&H and PP also. Any cartoon that uses Jane Horrocks and Brian Blessed's voices is ok by me!
Was surprised to see Pocoyo not here- Stephen Fry voicing a cartoon??!!??

How is Avatar: The Last Airbender not on here?

Sponge bob square pants, fosters home for..., Sarah Jane.

Been going through that recently. The episode 'Avatar' - a Ra's al Ghul story - is particularly dark, what with all the undead skeletons and slime monster thingies. Probably wouldn't show that to younguns.

Not really suitable for younger children. There's mild swearing at times - Mordecai even says "you pissed me off" once, and antagonists frequently get killed at the end. The ongoing will-they-won't-they relationship subplot would probably bore small kids to tears too. Not to mention the characters are basically stoners. Great though.

That was a great time when animators had enough freedom and savvy to slip some quite adult humour past network Standards & Practices and over the heads of kids. I recall PPG had a joke about finding a box marked "toys" in the bedroom of a childless couple.

Tommy Zoom on the list, Regular Show not? For shame...

These kids should be weened on Batman TAS and the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon. Yes I don't have kids or an owl, sigh.

How's the elfing going?

Me & my two year old daughter love Ben & holly & I'd like to add jelly jamm to the list. Very funny in a surreal way with annoyingly catchy tunes. For older kids (though she's mad about it anyway), dragon riders of berk is also brilliant to the point of my mum & aunties enjoying it with her too =)

Old Jacks Boat - anyone see the Christmas 2013 episode with the flashback to how young Jack got married on Christmas Day? Very emotional but a real buzzkill when opening prezzies with your children " Look daddy's sad!"

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