Want to school your kids in some science and sociology? Why not go old school? Some of the educational shows that you grew up on are still just as excellent — and relevant — as they were back in the day.
Here are 10 educational programs from decades past, that are still totally worth watching today.
If you were a kid between 1975 and 1985, you probably got most of your U.S. civics instruction from Schoolhouse Rock with classics like I'm Just a Bill, Sufferin Till Suffrage and Three Ring Government. The original run of the show also had series covering multiplication, grammar, and science and later revivals included computer programming and money management. Since these musical cartoons were interstitials showing between Saturday morning programming, there was always a really weird feeling of serendipity to them. And since they reran until 2000, they gained a surreal and nostalgic appeal with the dated 1970's animation suddenly appearing during whatever you were watching in the late 1990's. But kitsch value aside, they're just amazingly good. Go back and watch them now. The music was quality stuff, that featured real talent like The Tokens (The Lion Sleeps Tonight) doing "A Victim of Gravity." The catchy lyrics crammed a semester of learning into three minute songs in a fun and memorable way. If you need a refresher on how the U.S. government works after the election, or need to brush up on sentence structure, Schoolhouse Rock, even today, is the place to start.
Zoom had two incarnations: the original run that began in 1972 and the 1999 reboot. Both shows lasted six seasons and encouraged kids to "Turn off the TV and DO it!" The shows were made of different segments that showcased stories and games sent in by viewers as well as science projects, chat sections about issues important to kids, and mini-documentaries about interesting things kids were doing. Large parts of the show were unscripted segments performed by the all-kid cast, and that's part of what makes the show still appealing today. The games and experiments actually look fun! And since the show enacted stories and plays written by kid viewers, the content frequently wandered into the realm of strange. The "Trouble in Candy Kingdom" skit looks like a precursor to Adventure Time. If you're looking for serious WTF moments, though, watch the original 1972 version. The barefoot hippie children in matching clothes are constantly on the verge of breaking out into a full-on Godspell production. Also, the production of "The Cat Came Back" shows that 1970's children television was a lot less sanitized then today's.
There are so many reasons to go back and watch clips of this show, it's hard to know where to start. The Electric Company filmed 780 episodes from 1971 to 1977, and was in reruns until 1985. It was supposed to be a follow-up show for kids who aged out of Sesame Street, and it contained a more "mature" sketch humor to teach kids grammar and reading skills. Maybe the 1970s was a more innocent time and the double entendre of sketches like "Lick a Lolly" and Grilled Dill Pickles With Chilled Vanilla Filling wasn't intended? Or Not. Even if you have a cleaner perspective, though, the sketches are funny. The show had an amazing cast of talent that included Bill Cosby, Morgan Freeman and Rita Moreno. Check out Morgan Freeman narrating a Spider-Man sketch. The Spider-Man sketches are worth watching on their own, just for their campy insanity. And this show's emphasis on reading skills and learning are still relevant.
Unfortunately you only caught this one if you had HBO in the mid-1980s — which is a shame, because this show felt subversive. Maybe it was the weird warning at the beginning of each show that parents should not watch episodes, or maybe it was the strange egg headed character that would crack open his own head between segments that gave this show and illicit feel. The show was a series of riddles and challenges that taught a wide range of topics from history to biology as well as taught analytical skills. It didn't look or feel like any other children's programming at the time. The quirky and occasionally dark nature of the show is still pretty fascinating. The riddles and trivia are entertaining to watch, and even if they aren't as challenging as they were to a seven-year-old, the animation and trivia still make the show a fun ride. Since there aren't any realistic people and fashion portrayed on this show, it might have aged better than a lot of children's shows — except for the Max Headroom vibe that egg-head guy gives off.
Beakman, along with a zany female sidekick and Lester (a guy in a rat suit), demonstrated scientific principles with fun experiments and some sketch comedy. The show made science fun and approachable with its likeable characters — and despite rampant fart humor, the show never dumbed down scientific theories. High production quality is evident in the film and sound editing which probably helps the show hold up. Maybe it is the way Beakman addresses the audience and acknowledges the TV production or maybe it is the use of graphics and cutaway explanations, but the show has a similar feeling to Myth Busters or Alton Brown's Good Eats that make it enjoyable to watch. And for kids, Beakman with his crazy hair, green lab coat, and New York accent might seem like a less dorky portrayal of a scientist then, let's say, Bill Nye.
This show primarily holds up today because Bill Nye is still awesome and relevant. He is out there fighting the good fight against ignorance, and battling for the importance of science education. The show aired originally from 1993-1998 and consisted of segments of Bill teaching science with onsite visits, skits, and interesting props, all with his unique humor, and segments that featured children doing science based sketches and experiments. The show also included the "Soundtrack of Science" segments, which were parody songs and music videos. If you got a soft spot for science themed music and the 90's the songs hold up. Even though the fashion is dated, the kid sections will still appeal to kids. And Bill Nye is always compelling and entertaining when teaching science.
Don Herbert is the original guy on TV teaching kids science, even if he sometimes went overboard. Amazingly, he began in 1951 on a show called Watch Mr. Wizard that ran until 1965, though most of us are probably familiar with an older Mr. Wizard from Nickelodeon's 1980's show Mr. Wizard's World. This show is not nearly as flashy as its successors, but his science demonstrations, which he does with a child assistant, are interesting — and repeatable by viewers. Mr. Wizard comes off as more of a teacher then an entertainer, which lends the show a bit more gravitas. But the end result is interesting, and since the experiments are done by the children on the show it instills confidence in a young viewer that they, too, can do science.
This show is worth watching for the theme song alone, with its tangential lessons about a capella music. Carmen San Diego was partially developed as a response to a National Geographic survey that showed just how poor American's geography skills were. Sadly, this probably hasn't significantly changed in the intervening years — but from 1991 to 1995, Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? provided an entertaining way to learn about geography. Though it had a game show format each question was introduced with a "clue" that contained interesting cultural and geographic information that was delivered as part of a sketch, making the show more than a competition. The competition aspect though is probably what draws the viewer into paying attention — there's nothing more satisfying than being smarter than a contestant.
It seems like the United States is always having a learning crisis of one kind or another. Square One TV was developed to address a burgeoning math crisis, and aired from 1987-1994. The programming was primarily broken down into sketch comedy and musical numbers. Often, the sketch comedy would lay out a math problem using an outrageous setup like the costs of keeping a dragon and the musical numbers would teach a mathematical concept like Roman numerals in "The Mathematics of Love" or having the Fat Boys (it was the 1980's) teaching us about how big a billion is. The show also had recurring cartoons like Mathman that taught factors. The theme music of Square One TV sets the vibe of a sketch-comedy show like Saturday Night Live, and the content is genuinely funny as well as educational. And since basic mathematics don't really change, it's all still relevant. The recurring sketch Mathnet deserves special kudos. This Dragnet parody has a humor reminiscent of Airplane!, with plots that revolve around solving crime with math, and James Earl Jones as a recurring character.
Reading Rainbow is a show that probably reached most of us at some point in its long run from 1983 -2006. And with that lifespan, it counts as both a classic show and a contemporary one. Each episode was based on a theme from a piece of children's literature, and the show often covered topics about science and technology. Host LeVar Burton once took the show on a field trip to the set of Star Trek: The Next Generation while it was still filming. Perhaps the best lesson Reading Rainbow taught its viewers was how to question, and do research on their own. Books reviews, given by children, always ended with the saying, "But you don't have to take my word for it," and encouraged viewers to read and form their own opinions. The show also provided booklists for library visits and future reading.