Like many parents, I have struggled with how much screen time to allow my child. What I’ve settled on is tightly limiting “junk” TV and videos but allowing moderate amounts of quality videos. At this point I do not merely tolerate screen time; I actively welcome it as an important contribution to my child’s education. Here I want to briefly review several high-quality science series that my five-year-old absolutely loves.
Mystery Doug is a series of over a hundred science videos produced by Doug Peltz and the team at Mystery Science. The videos are available at no charge through YouTube and Mystery Science’s web site. When viewed through the web site, which (I think) requires free registration, the core videos accompany supplementary materials.
My child loves these short videos, and so do I. The set-up is that Doug introduces some mystery of nature—”Where does salt come from?”, “Why are flamingos pink?”—then explains the context of the question and gently guides viewers to the answers. What I especially like about Doug’s approach is that he doesn’t just tell students the answers; instead, he encourages students to draw on what they already know and on new information to anticipate the answers. So the videos are not just about knowing what scientists know but thinking how scientists think.
One video that I especially liked and learned a lot from is Doug’s explanation of why Pluto is not a planet:
My family also has a household subscription to Mystery Science, which takes the same basic approach, and which we also really love. Some of that material is available at no cost. As of this writing, the cost for a year’s homeschool membership is $49, which I regard as absurdly cheap. It’s a great deal.
A disclosure here: I personally know one of the people involved with starting Mystery Science. I get no financial benefit from praising its programs.
Here is a fun anecdote: After watching Doug’s video on airplane flight, I wrote in to the company to complain that the information didn’t comport with what I believed. Turns out I was wrong, and Doug was right. I thought the curved-wing airfoil is more important to lift than it actually is. The curvature does have some effect (which I won’t try to describe here), but simply the angle of the wing plays a huge role. So Doug’s video is not comprehensive but it’s correct as far as it goes. Anyway, this is one video out of scores.
Thanks to Doug and his staff, my child has developed important insights into the workings of the natural world and the methods to learn more about it.
It’s Okay to Be Smart
Joe Hanson’s It’s Okay to Be Smart, a YouTube series of over 300 videos (and counting) produced by PBS, is another of my child’s favorites. Sometimes Hanson meanders into current events—for example, he has several videos about COVID-19—and I’m okay with that.
Although I’ve personally watched only a few of these videos, I am consistently impressed with them. These are aimed at a more mature audience than are Mystery Doug videos, but that hasn’t bothered my five-year-old at all.
Deep Look, another PBS series available through YouTube, is not squarely aimed at children, but it’s fine for kids. It tends to focus on the strange and the gross, such as face mites. It also introduces viewers to some essential concepts of biology, such as sexual selection. For example, one video describes how male earwigs do battle with their pincers. The cinematography is excellent, and the videos offer some really vivid and memorable lessons.
Generation Genius costs $95 for a year of home use, which I think is well worth the price. These videos, which tend to run 10–20 minutes, seek to offer a more-organized presentation of science. Interestingly, although the videos are categorized by three age groups (K–2, 3–5, and 6–8), my five-year-old just watches all of them at will. I figure if he doesn’t get everything in the more-advanced videos he can return to that material later.
The main presenter, Jeff Vinokur, has a doctorate in biochemistry, so he’s definitely qualified. He’s a dynamic presenter—a bit cheesy for my tastes, but I’m not the target audience.
The second day we had this program, my kid threw a minor fit when we insisted he turn it off for dinner. I figure if you have to literally tear a child away from learning about science, the program is a good one.
Wild Kratts is part science, part superhero entertainment. It’s hard to describe how much my child loves this show. I once had to capture a poisonous spider in the house and traipse it down to the open space so that it could live “free and in the wild”—one of the Kratt brothers’ iconic expressions.
The set-up is that the Kratt brothers discuss animals and the natural world, then their cartoon alter-egos get “creature powers” to do battle with various villains.
From the show my child has learned, for instance, how various creatures form a food web, a really important discovery.
A few full episodes of the show are available at no charge on the web site. Amazon offers a few seasons through Prime. All of the seasons are available through Amazon through a PBS Kids upgrade, which costs a few extra dollars per month.
By the way, PBS Kids also offers Daniel Tiger and Dinosaur Train, two more of my child’s favorites (although he’s largely outgrown Daniel Tiger at this point). If kids are into dinosaurs, Dinosaur Train offers lot of interesting facts in the context of fun stories.
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I’m sure there are other great science shows out there that we haven’t tried yet. I haven’t watched any Xploration DIY Sci shows (also available through Amazon Prime) but it’s on my list (see update). I haven’t watched any of Khan Academy’s science videos yet.
Update: Readers also recommend Smarter Every Day and Mark Rober. Netflix picked up Emily Calandrelli‘s Emily’s Wonder Lab. Stat has an interview (text) with Calandrelli.
Update (September 6): I finally watched a couple episodes of Steve Spangler’s Xploration Station DIY Sci, available on Amazon or through Spangler’s web site. These videos are really amazing. Spangler combines real science education with fun experiments and stunts. For example, to illustrate air pressure, he makes a steel drum implode. A fun detail: Spangler lives in Denver, close to me!
I don’t see videos as a substitute for hands-on science, of course. We also do simple science experiments at home, we have a microscope and such, and we get a lot out of the local nature museum. But for good, dynamic introductions to the natural world and the scientific way of thinking, the video series we’ve found are fantastic.