So you’re in quarantine, and you’ve got kids playing too much Roblox while the school system scrambles to put digital learning in place. Even for families with experience educating at home, it can be a daunting task coming up with learning experiences to fill a student’s day, especially with most public libraries closed during the COVID-19 crisis. While television is not the cure-all for the problem, a nice educational program, perhaps one that includes instructional materials, could be just the thing to fill in the instructional gaps and give flustered parents a little break from playing teacher.
We’ve listed here our favorite educational television program in each of the main subject areas: math, science, language arts, and social studies. Most of these are available via PBS and are often presented along with materials for follow-up lessons. There’s obviously a lot more out there for the elementary set than any other age group, but we tried to include programming that could appeal to a wide variety of grade levels broken down by subject.
Math: Genius by Stephen Hawking
In the opening credits of Genius by Stephen Hawking, the titular physicist says, “I believe that anyone can answer big questions for themselves.” This show takes the questions we all ask such as “Can We Time Travel?” and “Where Did the Universe Come From?” and turns them into the episode titles designed specifically to explore those ideas through practical demonstrations, commentary from experts, and the interaction of three so-called “regular people” that act as the audience’s proxy. The large-scale experiments and incredible stunts will appeal to students of many ages as they come to grips with molecular biology, astrophysics, and even Hawking’s speciality, quantum mechanics.
Genius by Stephen Hawking was produced in 2016 but is currently available to stream through your PBS station and is free to Amazon Prime subscribers.
The younger set always has Odd Squad, which is honestly hard to beat and can even be entertaining for parents.
Science & Social Studies: NOVA
PBS knew that learning at home would be a priority during the COVID-19 pandemic, so they recently began a free marathon of episodes of their famed science program, NOVA, starting with their collection entitled “Space & the Universe” as of March 26, 2020. Further marathons are planned for each successive week. There are other NOVA resources on the PBS LearningMedia website, generally in the form of video excerpts that include teaching tips, discussion questions, and background essays, but the episodes certainly stand on their own for a lively family discussion afterwards.
But NOVA covers more curriculum than just science. If you head to the NOVA website and click on “Topic,” you’ll also find resources and videos in the areas of world history and military analysis for use in social studies. NOVA has been around for over 40 seasons so it’s definitely a tried and true program, and many seasons are available for free via Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, and the PBS streaming app.
Cosmos: Possible Worlds, airing now on the National Geographic channel, is also a wonderful show that covers both science and history, mostly in the area of anthropology. Although not as continuously airing as NOVA, it certainly covers the same hopeful and contextual topics.
Language Arts: The Great American Read
Hosted by noted journalist Meredith Vieira, The Great American Read seeks to draw connections between many of the classics of literature and the ways in which they’ve affected us on a cultural and personal level. It’s like a giant book club with celebrity interviews presented alongside commentary from authors and everyday fans of reading. For everyone who’s thinking about starting a book club via Zoom or Google Hangouts, this show is the perfect companion to get the conversation started with personal stories from other readers.
The eight episode season currently available on PBS and Amazon Prime includes topics like “Villains and Monsters,” “What We Do for Love,” and — a great one for Den of Geek readers — “Other Worlds.” The Great American Read reportedly culminates with the reveal of America’s most-loved novel.
An honorable mention in this category goes to PBS’s Shakespeare Uncovered for those with a penchant for The Bard.
Resources: Middle & High
This is obviously just a cross section of free programs out there that can contribute to a home curriculum of educational content during the long housebound hours, but even if it just acts as a supplement to the arts and crafts activities elsewhere in the day, the time spent watching these shows can act as content, a break for parents, and even quality family time. Whether the local school system has something in place for students to fulfill their compulsory education requirement or not, a new routine established in these strange times can be a good thing. Who knows? Maybe your love of these shows will even continue beyond the bounds of quarantine!