Whether you’re looking to add screen-time to your toddler’s routine or just desperate to finally make dinner in peace, having a few carefully-selected movies for toddlers on hand can streamline a busy day.
We all want to offer our children the most opportunities for learning and growth, but in this era of modern parenting, we also have a million other competing priorities.
So, how do we add in longer periods of screen time like movies while still encouraging our toddler’s emotional, social, and educational development? Are certain movies better for my toddler than others?
In this article, we’ll dive into both of these questions and give you our top ten toddler-friendly movies to start watching right now.
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Movies for Toddlers: What Does the Research Say About Screen Time?
When it comes to screen time and early learning, the research is fairly clear. Kids learn language and other skills way more efficiently by interacting with real people and the world around them.
As a parent, it’s hard to read that and not feel waves of guilt. My son was getting up to half an hour of screen time by 17 months, well before the recommended age for screen time of 2 years old.
While we can’t change the facts, there are definitely ways to a) make screen time more educational and b) lower the negative impacts of screen time on overall learning.
Can Screen Time Be Educational for Toddlers?
The short answer is yes, but there are some considerations.
Like books or toys, screen time can be viewed as another tool in your arsenal for educating at home. It can open up your child’s mind to new ideas and experiences that they couldn’t otherwise access.
Encouraging Interactive Play During Screen Time
One of the best ways to leverage screen time for learning is to make it interactive, both socially and physically. And if you want to learn more about the importance of physical movement for learning, check out our article, Emotional Development in Toddlers!
So how can you encourage interactive and physical play during screen time? Well, if you see an apple tree on screen, pretend to pluck an apple from the tree and offer it to your toddler. Ask: is it crunchy? Is it sweet? What color is it?
If you see children clapping their hands and singing on screen, show your toddler how they can also clap their hands and participate in what’s happening.
Researchers call these participatory cues, and they help toddlers learn.
This is all well and good, but I know there are a lot of working moms out there, myself included, who use screen time as a chance to get work done. Playing with your toddler while they watch tv isn’t usually on our long to-do lists.
What if you can’t be sitting right next to your child while they watch TV, but you still want educational screen time? Read on, my friend!
Keep Programming Slow, Simple, and True to Life
The classic example of this is also my favorite children’s show of all time —Mr Roger’s Neighborhood.
A Washington University study from 1976 found that among nursery school kids, children of all emotional skill levels saw significant cognitive benefits from viewing Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.
That’s pretty amazing. It’s the reason I often use Mr. Roger’s as the gold standard to evaluate other children’s shows.
What is Considered Too Much Screen Time for Toddlers?
I think we’ve all had days where we get in bed and realize we’ve spent way too much time on our phones and computers. It’s not a good feeling.
I have yet to find the Holy Grail of screen time research stating for the record how much screen time a toddler can experience without any negative impacts on their development.
While we wait for the research, the American Academy of Pediatrics currently recommends no more than 1 hour of screen time for children ages 2-5 year olds.
There is no doubt that many families exceed this recommendation at the moment, and if that’s working for you right now, don’t feel like you need to change a thing.
Parenting is a big balancing act, and sometimes it’s necessary or even preferable to let things slide a bit so we can focus on other aspects of our lives. You are doing great!
The Best First Movies for Toddlers
We now know toddlers benefit from slow-paced, simple stories that touch on things they experience in daily life.
To a small child, “I can’t find my stuffed monkey” is a real emotional dilemma worth the 20 or so minutes it takes to resolve.
Meanwhile, no sane adult would watch a 2-hour film whose emotional arc revolves around a set of misplaced keys. (Though they might watch a Seinfeld episode.)
Time and emotional complexity are major factors in determining what films are appropriate for the youngest cinephiles.
For this reason, films geared toward toddlers are often either vignettes (several different stories loosely woven together) or much shorter in length than what most people consider a “movie.”
Most toddlers will naturally break up screen-time with periods of play anyway. A toddler will find it difficult to follow a movie from start to finish, but they can soak in a lot of information while watching random scenes.
In fact, toddlers understand complex dialogue much earlier than we think, so even scenes from movies geared to older children are fair game for toddlers.
As parents, we’re used to bending the rules a bit to accommodate our kids, and this article is no exception.
You won’t find many feature length films on this list, but you will find some excellent and watchable content that’s perfect for your toddler.
1. Movies for Toddlers: The Secret Garden (1993), Amazon Prime
Mom Ranking: Best Movie for Reliving Your 90’s Childhood
The Secret Garden is a gently-paced story of an orphan who finds herself thrown into the middle of a wealthy but deeply unhappy household.
When she discovers (you guessed it) a secret garden, she unlocks the path to redemption for herself and her newfound family.
This movie was a staple of 90’s daytime TV sure to bring back memories of lazy afternoons at your grandma’s house. (Also, Maggie Smith is in it!)
It’s slow tempo and cast of young characters makes this movie especially toddler-worthy.
It does contain themes of sadness, loss, and disability that may require explanation or context for young children. A scary scene involving an earthquake at the beginning of the movie can easily be skipped.
2. Movies for Toddlers: My Neighbor Totoro (1988), HBO Max
Mom Ranking: Best Movie for Experiencing New Cultures
Set in rural Japan, this beloved animated film offers a glimpse into traditional Japanese daily life as well as Japanese storytelling, which favors atmosphere over action-packed plots.
When two young girls move into an old farmhouse in the countryside, they quickly develop friendships with the locals in their neighborhood. This includes a magical forest spirit, the cat-like Totoro.
Many scenes involve communication using body language or dramatic facial expressions, so even if a toddler doesn’t understand every word, they can still follow the story.
This movie includes conversations about hospitalization and treatment of chronic illness that some children may find sad or upsetting.
3. Movies for Toddlers: The Little Bear Movie (2001), Amazon Prime
Mom Ranking: Best Movie for Inspiring Outdoor Adventure
The Little Bear Movie is about as simple and sweet as it gets when it comes to movies for kids.
During a fun and relaxing camping trip with his Dad, Little Bear meets a “wild” bear cub living in the forest. The story follows their developing friendship.
Toddlers will appreciate the numerous scenes of active free play and straightforward dialogue.
With Bob Ross-esque landscapes of forests, lakes, and fluffy clouds above rolling hills, you’ll feel like you’re watching a children’s book come to life.
4. Movies for Toddlers: Ponyo (2008), HBO Max
Mom Ranking: Best Movie for Stunning Visuals and Story
Ponyo is a magical take on the story of The Little Mermaid from the director of My Neighbor Totoro, Hayao Miyazaki.
Miyazaki wrote and directed Ponyo with the smallest viewers in mind, drawing on experiences from his toddler grandson.
As in a toddler’s mind, the film moves seamlessly from grounded scenes of everyday life to outrageous displays of magic and mayhem.
While there are some intense scenes involving anger and bad weather, the characters’ calm reactions to these events make them seem less scary.
5. Movies for Toddlers: Life in Color with David Attenborough (2021), Netflix
Mom Ranking: Best Movie for Educating at Home
In this immersive nature series narrated by David Attenborough, each episode is really it’s own mini-movie that can be easily added to the home schooling curriculum of your older children.
Life in Color offers hours of vibrant footage of the natural world with a focus on how animals use color for information, hunting, protection, and communication.
While the narration goes way over your toddler’s head, the unusual displays of bright color and the unexpected ways the animals move keep your little one engaged.
Some episodes depict animals hunting and almost eating other animals, so stay nearby in case (read as: when) your toddler has questions.
6. Movies for Toddlers: Daniel Tiger Neighborhood Tiger Family Trip (2017), PBS Kids
Mom Ranking: Best Movie for Summer Vacations
Daniel Tiger is a household staple among families with young kids, so a Daniel Tiger movie is a no-brainer.
Daniel Tiger goes on a family trip to visit his grandfather, learning what it means to travel to new places and how to handle changes in his routine while on vacation.
Whether on a trip to the beach, the farm, or to visit family, I’ve personally used Daniel’s advice to “Find out what’s different and what’s the same.”
This catchy jingle helped our toddler feel at home in new places. As a Mom who loves to travel, this is a huge parenting win!
7. Movies for Toddlers: The Daniel Tiger Movie – Won’t You Be Our Neighbor? (2018), Amazon Prime
Mom Ranking: Best Movie for Saying Goodbye
The Platypus family moves into the Land of Make Believe, and Daniel Tiger helps a new friend mourn the loss of her old life while encouraging her to find things to love about her new neighborhood.
Whether it’s saying farewell to a friend or parting with a beloved toy, this movie spells out in toddler language the normal feelings that arise during the grieving process.
I’ve added this movie to our rotation as we prepare our 2-year old son for a big move coming up this summer. I love that Daniel explains how moving works and what it looks (and feels) like.
8. Movies for Toddlers: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977), Disney Plus
Mom Ranking: Best Movie for the Disney-Bound Family
As an unlikely but proud Disney theme parks fan, I know how hard it is to wait for an upcoming Disney trip. You want the magic, and you want it now!
A fun way to build excitement before a trip is to enjoy some Disney movies, and hands down one of the best Disney movies for toddlers is Winnie the Pooh.
Calm narration and stationary backgrounds help toddlers take in classic Winnie the Pooh stories.
The psychedelic dream sequence at the thirty-seven minute mark is more comical than scary, but it is easily skipped for more sensitive children.
9. Movies for Toddlers: The Snowy Day (2016), Amazon Prime
Mom Ranking: Best Heart-Warming Christmas Movie
This somewhat forgotten movie based on a famous children’s book is perfect for staying in on a cold day.
It’s the sweet and tranquil tale of a young boy named Peter who ventures out into the snow on Christmas Eve.
Expanding on the book, which made waves in 1962 for featuring an African-American protagonist, Peter’s life reflects modern African American culture and traditions.
It has all the elements of a great Christmas movie for toddlers–snow fights, cookies, caroling, presents, family and unexpected acts of generosity.
Best of all, the theme performed by Boy II Men is a lush, quiet hymn worthy of any Christmas playlist.
10. Movies for Toddlers: Room on the Broom (2013), Netflix
Mom Ranking: Best Not Too Scary Halloween Movie
It’s tough to find Halloween movies for toddlers that aren’t super scary! This film adaptation of the book Room on the Broom is fun and whimsical while still solidly Halloween-themed.
In this movie, a friendly witch meets new furry friends and deals with some unexpected setbacks while flying around on her broom.
The repetitive nature of the story is wonderful for toddlers who love watching the same things over and over.
The climax of this film might be a bit scary for sensitive viewers though the “mean” dragon is chubby and kind of cute.
BONUS: Movies for Toddlers: Puffin Rock, Netflix
Mom Ranking: Best Movie That’s Coming Soon
If you’re not familiar with the popular Puffin Rock TV series on Netflix, it’s a gorgeously illustrated cartoon following Oona and Baba, two toddler-aged Atlantic puffins.
Created in Ireland and narrated by the hilarious Chris O’Dowd, this series helps children navigate the challenges of daily life while sneaking in some pretty interesting science facts.
With an unhurried cadence and slow-moving scenery, toddlers have time to take in the entire story.
After delays due to COVID-19, the much anticipated movie is currently in production. When it finally arrives, it is sure to be one of the best movies for toddlers on Netflix.
By offering your toddler interactive viewing experiences and choosing slower, calmer movies with simple plots, you can get the best out of screen time and hopefully ditch some of the guilt around plopping your child in front of a TV.
We hope you enjoy these positive, inspiring movies for toddlers that can help you educate and entertain your little one.
Did we miss any of your family’s favorite films in our list of the top mom-approved movies for toddlers? Tell us about your toddler’s most-loved movies!
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Katy Huie Harrison, PhD, is an author, mom, recurrent miscarriage survivor, & owner of Undefining Motherhood. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and 2 children (Jack & Branham). She believes our society puts too many expectations on women that make womanhood and motherhood restrictive. Her goal is to shift the paradigm about what it means to be a woman and mother, giving all women a greater sense of agency over their own lives. You can find Katy and her work featured in places like CNN’s Headline News, Romper, Scary Mommy, Love What Matters & more.