The debate over how much screen time is healthy for children has been effectively obliterated by the coronavirus crisis. But if you're seeking an alternative, look to podcasts.
Though episodic radio may not seem like an obvious choice for children's entertainment, there's a vast back catalog of podcasts designed specifically for a younger audience, focusing on everything from history to science to mindfulness. These seven shows will keep kids laughing, learning and thinking, and might teach adults a thing or two along the way.
-- 'Brains On!'
While some children are science whizzes, others find the subject a real struggle, and American Public Media's engaging "Brains On!" is attuned to both types of young listener. The host, Molly Bloom, is joined by a different child each week and takes a tone that's instructive but never patronizing as she investigates questions like "Do plants have feelings?" or, more recently, "Why is social distancing so important?" It's the pint-size co-hosts that give the show its charm with their genuine curiosity, while regular segments like "Guess the Mystery Sound" are just plain fun for listeners of all ages.
Starter Episode: "Staying Home: How Social Distancing Helps Fight Coronavirus"
-- 'Peace Out'
Studies have shown that meditation can help children feel calmer and learn more effectively, and the bite-size bedtime stories of "Peace Out" are a gentle place to begin. Each episode aims to teach children how to regulate their emotions through mindfulness techniques like visualization, breathing exercises and body awareness, before it segues into a soothing story designed to induce sleep. Though intended for children, the meditations work just as well for adults -- for time-crunched parents struggling to fit in self-care alongside child care, "Peace Out" could actually be a godsend.
Starter episode: "Pebble Patience"
-- 'Short & Curly'
"Should we ban families?" asked a recent episode of this Australian podcast, encapsulating the show's thought-provoking approach to teaching children about ethics. The question encouraged children to ponder privilege and its absence: Why are some babies born into loving, supportive families while others are not, and does Plato's brutal solution (banning families) have any merit? "Short & Curly" expertly tackles the challenge of making philosophy accessible to children, with the hosts, Carl Smith, Molly Daniels and Dr. Matt Beard, taking the audience through gripping thought experiments. Along the way, listeners are encouraged to "hit pause" at key moments to think and discuss. Though many of its lessons are timeless, the show also presents an opportunity to start a dialogue about self-sacrifice (like staying home) for the greater good (flattening the curve).
Starter episode: "Should We Ban Families?"
-- 'Ear Snacks'
There's an echo of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" in this kind, silly and thoughtful musical podcast, which aims to teach children about the world while reminding them to smile. Led by musicians Andrew & Polly -- who've created songs for Sesame Studios, among others -- "Ear Snacks" leads with a catchy soundtrack and features the voices of children weighing in on a range of subjects, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the U.S. census. Packed with earworms and made with heart, the show is a layered delight for young ears, although parents may find the beep-boop sound salad grating after extended listening.
Starter episode: "Little Bitta Joy"
-- 'Eleanor Amplified'
Podcasts have sparked a renaissance for the serialized radio play, and there's no reason children can't get in on the fun. Created by John Sheehan, a former producer for "Fresh Air With Terry Gross," this entertaining adventure series follows a plucky young radio reporter in fictional Union City. Using all her moxie and investigative skills, the eponymous Eleanor works to thwart dastardly plots, expose wrongdoing and speak truth to power. Setting aside the show's plot twists and thrilling world-building, it will instill in your children an appreciation for journalism and its role in holding villains accountable.
Starter episode: "Pilot (Robot)"
-- 'The Past and the Curious'
Come for that delightful pun title, stay for the accessible but never dumbed-down history lessons. Each episode of this monthly show features bite-size audio dramas that illuminate corners of history that children are unlikely to learn in school, often emphasizing the overlooked accomplishments of women and people of color. Highlights include deep dives on escaped slave-turned-pioneering politician Robert Smalls, "Frankenstein" author Mary Shelley, and Bessie Coleman, the first African American woman to earn a pilot's license. The zippy storytelling is supplemented by original music and a regular "Quiz Time" segment that encourages children to retain what they've learned from past episodes.
Starter episode: "Robert Smalls and Basketballs"
-- 'Book Club for Kids'
This virtual gathering space for young readers feels more vital than ever in the social distancing era. Having started life in 2000 as an NPR segment, "Book Club for Kids" has now been operating as a podcast for five years, hosted by radio journalist Kitty Felde. Each episode features three middle schoolers chatting about a favorite book, followed by an excerpt read out loud by a celebrity guest (a fun added layer for adults). The show also features regular appearances from authors, giving children insights into the craft of writing to supplement their love of reading.
Starter episode: "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn"