Today is the 56th birthday of one of our most beloved childhood companions: Bill Nye (yes, the Science Guy). To celebrate, and to prove that TV doesn’t always rot your brain, Mom, we’ve compiled a list of the coolest-ever educational shows for kids, on everything from biology to grammar to drawing. Click through to see our list and indulge in a little smarty-pants nostalgia, and be sure to let us know which of your favorites we’ve missed in the comments (yes, we left out Schoolhouse Rock, but it isn’t strictly a television show). Hey, maybe you’ll even learn something! Full disclosure: we did.
Bill Nye the Science Guy
In this stellar example of ’90s television, Bill Nye teaches about the science of everyday objects with wit and — let’s face it — slapstick humor. Originally running from 1993-1998, the show won 19 Emmy Awards and saw a lot of play in classrooms and in syndication, even years after Nye had stopped making new episodes. There was just something about Bill Nye that you couldn’t help but love — he was a grown-up nerd who still had a ton of fun, and kids everywhere found that pretty appealing.
Every episode of Reading Rainbow focused on a book and explored themes from that book in various segments, often featuring celebrities reading out loud to viewers, and ending by offering suggestions for the next time viewers hit the library. Though we’ve always felt that it seems a little counter-productive to have your kids watch TV in order to encourage reading, Reading Rainbow was still one of the most critically acclaimed (winning over 200 broadcast awards, including a Peabody award and twenty six Emmys) kids’ shows, and holds steady as the third longest running children’s series in PBS history.
While science and literacy shows always seem to come to mind first when we’re thinking of educational television for kids, we would never forget Pappy Drewitt, who lived in a magical cabin and taught kids to draw, step by step. Children could sit in front of the TV with a pencil and paper and actually come away with something to show for themselves, and even better, decide that making art was cool.
Watch Mr. Wizard/Mr. Wizard’s World
Mr. Wizard was the precursor to Bill Nye in many ways — an affable, skinny scientist who taught children about science. Simpler in many ways, Mr. Wizard invited a neighborhood kid into his home every Saturday to teach them about optical illusions, rocks, vibration, and other neat stuff. The show, which originally ran as Watch Mr. Wizard from 1951-1965, was revived briefly in Canada in 1971, and then reconfigured into Mr. Wizard’s World for Nickelodeon in the ’80s. Pretty much every kid wanted Mr. Wizard to live in his neighborhood, and in fact Mr. Wizard Clubs began to be a thing, numbering 50,000 in 1965.
Between the Lions
Between the Lions was another PBS show designed to promote literacy, this time with a family of puppet lions and lots of puns, including many that parody other children’s TV shows. Our favorite segment? Gawain’s Word, obviously — not only does it parody Wayne’s World and name-check one of our favorite Arthurian knights, it’s just an all-around awesome idea.
Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids
You may not remember Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids as an educational show, but every episode had lessons regarding real-life problems like stage fright and crushes, and even more serious fare like smoking and violence. Bill Cosby himself opened every show with the note, “This is Bill Cosby comin’ at you with music and fun, and if you’re not careful you may learn something before it’s done! Hey, hey, hey!”
The Magic School Bus
The Magic School Bus, based on a series of children’s books by Joanna Cole, followed a schoolteacher, Ms. Frizzle, as she led her students to a host of impossible places (outer space, underwater, inside Ralphie), guided by her magical bus. Did you know that cooler-than-cool Ms. Frizzle was voiced by Lily Tomlin? Maybe that’s why we like her so much.
This show, which just ended last year, is one of the few to focus on math education, promoting the idea that math is all around us, and empowering kids who might otherwise decide math was too hard for them. Also, it’s super fun.
For our money, this show had one of the best original ideas of all time. Wishbone taught us everything we know about classic literature. Seriously. Okay, not actually, but it definitely gave us a good foundation by interpreting classic stories like The Aneid, Faust, and Henry IV, Part 1 through the adventures of an adorable Jack Russell terrier. Such big imagination on such a little pup!
We’d never forget Sesame Street. The most widely viewed children’s show in the world, it’s an enduring classic that just seems to get better and better with age. Exhibit A: Feist!