I'm going to start this discussion with a slight tangent. Some time ago I read a study about trying to reduce sibling rivalry. Now, I don't have the study in front of me, so I might not get all of the details right, but this was the main idea. In the study they had a control group and an intervention group. The intervention group read stories about siblings who were fighting and then resolved their problems. The authors of the studies expected that the group that read and discussed the stories would show reductions in sibling rivalry behaviors compared to the control group. In fact, they found the opposite. The children who read the stories got worse. They fought more and engaged in a wider variety of undesirable behaviors. It turned out that they were learning new ways to fight from the books. It didn't matter that the stories in the books ended happily. What was important was the fact that the books featured fighting to begin with. The lesson I took away from this was that I wanted to avoid books and television programs that featured conflicts. I didn't want to teach them anything negative they didn't already know.
So, when I'm choosing shows for my kids to watch I'm looking for shows that are high in cooperation and being nice and low on any kind of conflict scale. I also like shows that have a slower tempo and haven't been jazzed up too much.
Current Household Favorite: Handy Manny
Right now the children love Handy Manny. We don't actually get the Disney Channel, so we watch the episodes available on DVD. It doesn't seem to matter how many times they've seen them, they want to watch more. Handy Manny is a repairman and his tools. Each episode features something that needs to be fixed or assembled and Manny works with his tools as a team to "get the job done". There are a few extremely mild conflicts (the two screwdrivers are a bit competitive with each other, the wrench tends to be scared of things, and the neighbor Mr. Lopart often refuses help when he needs it), but nothing major. Overall I like how the show teaches teamwork and always features Manny and his tools helping someone.
Second Place: Wonder Pets
Wonder Pets was the first show I introduced the kids to. The episodes are about a team of pets (Linny the Guinea Pig, Tuck the Turtle, and Ming-Ming the Duck) who help animals in trouble. The theme of this show is also teamwork. The music is wonderful in this program. Again, the conflict in this show is low. Most episodes have none at all. Occasionally the animals in trouble are in trouble because they're arguing (two seal siblings fight over a fish treat for example). Occasionally Ming-Ming and Tuck argue. These things happen in a minority of the episodes though, and even when there is a conflict it is usually mild. Great show. I cannot recommend it enough. It plays on Nick Jr. I believe and is also available on DVD.
Third Place: Curious George
Curious George plays on PBS and is about Curious George the monkey. The episodes are usually about a preschool appropriate science, math, or engineering concepts (examples: measuring, tadpoles, shadows, balance). The episodes are entertaining. My only objection is that George is often unintentionally "naughty" and doesn't usually deal with the same consequences for those behaviors that the typical child might get if they were "naughty". That's a mild objection though and overall I think the program and its content is wonderful.
Honorable Mentions: Blues Clues and Special Agent Oso
Blues Clues is a Nickelodeon program featuring a dog named Blue and her caretaker. The show is a bit difficult to describe but it is educational in nature and really appealing and engaging at the same time. The only reason it is not higher in the list is because it is never the first, second, or third choice for my kids. I wish it was.
Special Agent Oso is a Disney program about a teddy bear who is a Special Agent. His assignments are to help children with tasks they're having difficulty with (playing hide and seek, making a card, sorting recyclable items). The task is always broken down into three simple steps. I like this show, but since we don't get this channel we've only watched a few episodes on the computer. As far as I know it is not available on DVD. This show is also a bit faster paced than I would like, but only a little.
Do you guys let your little ones watch television? If so, what programs do you like?