Everybody knows that excessive screen time is bad for kids; the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends zero TV-watching (or other media use) before the age of two. But once children are into the preschool years, even the AAP says that an hour of television is OK, as long as it’s “high-quality content.” And a brand-new study indicates that the right shows, like Arthur, can even “ease aggression in young children.”

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But what counts as high-quality content? Here I’ve selected my favorite programs, with some help from my friends, and with inspiration from other lists (here, here, and here), based on four criteria. They must be:

1.   Educational (with special points for building content knowledge in science, history, literature, art, or music, though teaching social or emotional skills is good, too)
2.   Engaging and well done
3.   Enjoyable for parents
4.   Either currently on the air or available on Netflix Instant Streaming (or both)

I’ve broken my list into two categories: The best shows for two- and three-year-olds and the best shows for four- and five-year-olds.

Best Television Shows for Two- and Three-Year-Olds

1.   Kipper (available on Sprout and Netflix)

2.   Wonder Pets! (available on Nick Jr. and Netflix)

3.   Blue's Clues (available on Nick Jr. and Netflix)

4.   Doc McStuffins (available on Disney Junior)

5.   Curious George (available on PBS Kids and Netflix)

Best Television Shows for Four- and Five-Year-Olds

1.   Backyardigans (available on Nick Jr. and Netflix)

2.   Wild Kratts (available on PBS Kids)

3.   Dinosaur Train (available on PBS Kids and Netflix)

4.   Arthur (available on PBS Kids and Netflix)

5.   Super Why! (available on PBS Kids and Netflix)

To be sure, these selections are subjective. They are shows that my kids and I enjoy (save for Doc McStuffins, which we haven’t seen, but had many friends rave about). And I could have easily gone to fifteen or twenty shows—to include the likes of World Girl or Word World, Team UmiZoomi or Sid the Science Kid, to name a few. (And maybe Sesame Street, though its quality has really gone downhill in recent years.)

So why these programs? Several of them do a great job teaching real content, like science (Curious George, Wild Kratts, and Dinosaur Train), music and dance (Backyardigans), or classic fairy tales (Super Why!). Kids can learn a LOT about the world long before they can read, and these shows help. (Note to the children’s television world: How about a show about history? My boys would LOVE it!)

Others are more focused on developing social and emotional intelligence, especially by depicting characters who are friendly, kind, and work well with others (be they a dog with a British accent, like Kipper, or a pre-adolescent aardvark like Arthur).

Most of all, these shows are fun. And unlike some offerings out there (ahem, Dora, I’m looking at you), they won’t make you want you to poke your eyes out.

Give them a try—and let me know what I overlooked. (And make sure to supplement the screen time with book time—check out my Kindergarten Canon for help on that front.)

Mike Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, executive editor of Education Next, and a Distinguished Senior Fellow for Education Commission of the States. An award-winning writer, he…

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