I was homeschooled and had no cable, so in the afternoon, I enjoyed educational television. In the 80s and 90s, there were several great programs to learn from.
When I was growing up, we didn’t have cable, so we only got the local channels and PBS. PBS had some of the best stuff to watch for homeschooled kids like me. I would get my schoolwork finished, grab some lunch, and sit to watch educational TV. I enjoyed the entertainment, and I always learned a little something too. Here are some of the shows I remember fondly.
I put this classic show first on my list because I love to read. Even when I was a little boy, I was always looking for new books. Reading Rainbow would provide me with new titles to look up at the library. I learned about some of the best picture books I ever read through Reading Rainbow, including Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett. I would watch the show with a pad of paper and write down the books’ titles so I could check them out of the library the next week.
The host, LeVar Burton, was already famous, with his work on Roots and Star Trek: The Next Generation. But LeVar, the actor, and LeVar, the host of Reading Rainbow, were always two different people to me. LeVar, the host, was like a friend or an older brother you could invite over to sit and read books with you. I was always excited when LeVar was on screen. One highlight of my life is when LeVar Burton Tweeted me back when I asked him if he would be at Comic-Con. It was a shame he couldn’t be there, but the fact that he answered my Tweet meant so much to me.
Reading Rainbow showcased one book that would be read throughout the episode as LeVar visited a place of business or spoke to some people to learn about the various things that tied into the book that day. At the end of the show, children would talk about some of their favorite books. It was LeVar’s enthusiastic encouragement for kids to read, and the fantastic book titles they displayed that made this show a winner for me.
Bill Nye the Science Guy
I think every 90s kid knows the Bill Nye the Science Guy theme song like the back of their hand. You can always tell where the Bill Nye fans are by saying, “Bill, Bill, Bill, Bill,” and seeing who responds with, “Bill Nye the Science Guy!” or “Science rules!”. Wherever you tuned into this fun and wacky science show, you knew that you were not only going to be entertained by the silly man in the bow tie and blue lab coat, but you were going to learn something too.
I learned many things from Bill Nye the Science Guy, and often recreated the experiments done on the show when we had the proper materials in the house. Bill Nye made science fun for kids and young teens. I often watched the show with excitement that I would learn something new that I could tell my dad about when he got home from work.
I even own a VHS tape signed by Nye, which is a neat collector’s item for me. I am not a fan of Nye’s new show on Netflix, Bill Nye Saves the World. The show has too much propaganda and not enough actual science and facts. But Bill Nye the Science Guy was always an enjoyable watch for me as a kid.
The Magic School Bus
The Magic School Bus was a show based on an educational book series, but I preferred the TV version. The Magic School Bus was zany and fun. I loved the characters, the plots, and science. This was another show where I walked away with more knowledge on a topic than I had before.
Miss Frizzle, the teacher for Walker Elementary’s second-grade class, was the best, and I always secretly wished she would show up at my door to take me on one of her magical field trips. Arnold was my favorite character. I liked how even though he was terrified of almost every situation, he always stepped up when he needed to be brave and often saved the class. Like when he fought the T-Rex off with Karate because he was the same size as the dinosaur. Every character had a personality and felt like a real kid. I also loved that they never really explain the bus. In a show about science, you have to accept that the bus (and the Friz) are magic. It’s a strange juxtaposition.
Several years ago, I saw on Amazon that I could buy the entire series on DVD for pretty cheap. I jumped at the chance. When it arrived, my friends and I had a viewing party and watched several episodes. We laughed at how silly the situations were but still found it entertaining.
Of course, another book show is on this list. I like books if you couldn’t tell. Wishbone was such an odd idea, and I wish I could have been a fly on the wall when it was pitched. Instead of throwing the guy out of the office, the producers gave him money. Now we have a show where a dog dressed up as Sherlock Holmes and Odysseus.
Wishbone is a suburban Jack Russell Terrier with a big personality and a love for reading. He lives with a young teen boy and his mom in a small town. When the boy and his friends get into shenanigans, the dog relates them to classic literary works. Wishbone reenacts them with his own separate cast. The dog plays one of the leading roles, in costume, of course. This show was strange, but man was it fun. I read several books after seeing them showcased on Wishbone.
I remember being impressed that they did the story of David and Goliath from the Bible, even though the show wasn’t a Christian program. Wishbone was a fantastic and fun show, and apparently there is a Wishbone movie in the works. I’m not sure how I feel about that.
The Joy of Painting
The late Bob Ross’ show, The Joy of Painting, was mesmerizing. I never once sat down and said to myself, “I’m going to watch that painting show.” No, I would click through the channels, and it would be on, and I would always stop and watch. I can’t paint or draw, so I was never interested in recreating the scenes Ross painted, even though the point of the show was that anyone could paint. I was fascinated by the show itself.
I loved Ross’s afro, his soothing voice, the paintbrush’s calming sound on the canvas, and the amazing way he dipped the brush in water and thwacked it against something to clean and dry it, and the beautiful paintings he made while explaining what he was doing. Ross was always so positive as he made his “happy little trees.” Everything about the show was aesthetically pleasing and peaceful.
That’s why I liked The Joy of Painting; it was relaxing and encouraging. Even though I didn’t paint or even had any interest in it, I am a creative type and enjoy good art when I see it. However, I always felt that Ross’s kind encouragement and instruction would allow me to at least make it look somewhat decent if I tried.
How could I make a list of educational kids’ shows and not put Sesame Street on it? I’m sure that most Americans who were a child from 1969 to now grew up watching this show and learning from it. Like Reading Rainbow, I watched Sesame Street when I was little, and not so much around school age. I remember watching Sesame Street early in the morning and hanging on Big Bird’s every word. All the characters had life and were real to me.
From Telly to Grover, from Oscar to Cookie Monster, from Prairie Dawn to Elmo, they all seemed very much alive. I always wanted to go to Sesame Street and talk to Gordan, Susan, Bob, and Miles. They, like their muppet co-stars, were very much real people with real lives. Sesame Street tackled tough subjects like hatred, death, and disabilities with care and simple (but not pandering) explanation that kids could understand.
To this day, I still remember many of the lessons from Sesame Street. Things like turning the water off while you’re brushing your teeth, counting to 10 in Spanish, “C” is for cookie, every fifth integer causes thunder and lightning when a vampire counts, and how rubber duckies are lots of fun! Obviously, I don’t watch the show anymore, but I’m sure they’ve continued with the excellent quality Sesame Street was known for throughout the years.
These shows are all near and dear to my heart. Did you grow up with any of these shows? Do you like them? Would you still watch any of them? Leave a comment below!