Documentaries to watch with pre-teens?
January 7, 2014 9:21 AM   Subscribe

I'd love for my children (7, 8 and 12) to learn to like documentaries. Can you recommend some that would be good to watch together? Ideally streaming on Netflix or Amazon. I imagine there aren't that many out there suitable for that age group so I won't limit the topics.
posted by Dragonness to Media & Arts (45 answers total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
Planet Earth!

And other nature documentaries.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:23 AM on January 7, 2014 [10 favorites]

Our 7 year old was a big fan of the PBS documentary Saving Otter 501. Not sure where it's available but the whole thing is on youtube.
posted by true at 9:23 AM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yes yes, nature documentaries! Basically anything narrated by David Attenborough is great, and there's a ton of his stuff on Netflix streaming. I especially love the Blue Planet episode about the deep sea.

Oh, and March of the Penguins.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:24 AM on January 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'd be surprised if He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin' isn't available somehow. It's perfect for kids in all those ages, because a lot of it is about kids those ages. It looks at dancer Jaques D'Amboise's dance programs for New York City public schools, and is a sort of "year in the life" of the programs, from the perspective of a handful of kids. It'd be especial fun if any of your kids are into performing (I was twelve when I first saw it and loved it).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:26 AM on January 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

Just be careful with nature documentaries: there's usually death there. How sensitive are your children? We watched "Meerkat Manor" with my six-year-old and he was in tears at the death of the the creatures. We're teaching him that death is a part of life but, man, I'd rather have done it on my own terms and not in the middle of what we thought was just going to be a cute little show.
posted by Mo Nickels at 9:29 AM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Very similar to the last suggestion : Mad Hot Ballroom is a documentary film
posted by TRUELOTUS at 9:29 AM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Would "Walking With Dinosaurs" count? It is a little less documentary-ish than maybe you want, but it is pretty cool and interesting. My son loves it.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 9:29 AM on January 7, 2014

Some Herzog films might be good, too. Cave of Forgotten Dreams, for example.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:31 AM on January 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Just be careful with nature documentaries: there's usually death there. How sensitive are your children? We watched "Meerkat Manor" with my six-year-old and he was in tears at the death of the the creatures. We're teaching him that death is a part of life but, man, I'd rather have done it on my own terms and not in the middle of what we thought was just going to be a cute little show.

I went fishing a couple weeks ago and when I came home my two-and-a-half-year-old asked to see the fish I caught, and I told her, "Sorry, I couldn't find any." She replied with, "But I want to eat them!" So this varies from kid to kid.

I was also going to recommend Planet Earth, or nature documentaries in general, but I'm not too sensitive about watching wild animals get eaten.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 9:32 AM on January 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

I recommend it every time this question comes up, but... Ants: Nature's Secret Power. It is the best--THE BEST--documentary on ants. So, so cool. Captivates me every time I watch it and I've seen it a ton of times. They make the ants perform feats of strength! Some of them shoot acid out of their butts! They domesticate aphids to suck their butt honey! And there's even stuff that's not about butts!

It's just great.

hulu, youtube, I don't have netflix so I don't know if it's on there
posted by phunniemee at 9:32 AM on January 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

Folkstreams has a pretty good selection.
posted by timsteil at 9:34 AM on January 7, 2014

For your 12-year-old, I've got three specific suggestions: Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Bill Cunningham New York, and Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. All currently streaming on Netflix. The first two are probably okay for the younger ones as well, especially "Jiro."
posted by jbickers at 9:36 AM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, and it's a bit schlocky, but the ABC show What Would You Do (sometimes it's a segment on 20/20) might actually be useful to talk about with your kids, at least the older one. A lot of its content deals with bullying and being brave enough to stand up for others.
posted by phunniemee at 9:36 AM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I watched almost all of these on Netflix originally, but I'm not sure of their current status.

Featuring kids:
Mad Hot Ballroom. Babies. Spellbound. First Position. 7-Up. Pressure Cooker. The Hobart Shakespeareans.
(These are all thoroughly G, although most touch on some combination of racism, poverty, or social class. They're roughly sorted in the order I'd probably show them.)

March of the Penguins. Cosmos. Anything David Attenborough.

Entirely G rated but possibly dull for this age group:
Michael Palin's various travel shows (nonfictional TV; sort of a doc the way that Planet Earth is a doc.) Journey of Man. Wordplay. Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Between The Folds.
posted by tchemgrrl at 9:40 AM on January 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

If you like Phunniemee's idea of expanding your net to include cheesy television, I would strongly recommend "Extreme Makeover: Home Editions." This is a link to a little piece I wrote when it went off the air, about the experience of watching it with my kids.
posted by jbickers at 9:46 AM on January 7, 2014

Kid BlahLaLa loved Searching for Sugarman and he was 8.5 or 9 when we saw it.
posted by BlahLaLa at 9:46 AM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I really enjoyed Happy People: A Year in the Taiga which I think kids that age might enjoy as it involves trappers building their own forts and training their dogs and snowmobiling.

Secrets of the Viking Sword was pretty good, and Stephen Fry in America was entertaining and enlightening (corpse farm?!?) too. Any PBS Nova documentary is good. Some of the Nat Geo documentaries are questionable.
posted by jillithd at 9:49 AM on January 7, 2014

Do your kids like Disney and Pixar movies? Get them watching the extras that showcase interview with the movie makers and many documentary style looks into the production process. It makes watching the final picture so much more interesting and rewarding.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 10:02 AM on January 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Do your kids like sports? My baseball-loving 8-year-old son and I were transfixed by the ESPN documentary Four Days in October, about the Red Sox's improbable comeback against the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS, and I've heard that the whole 30 for 30 series is really high-quality.
posted by escabeche at 10:03 AM on January 7, 2014

I'm not even a fan of ballet but I thought First Position was amazing. The subjects of the documentary are children- both boys and girls, and it's incredible to see the dedication and work ethic these kids have.
posted by shornco at 10:03 AM on January 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Mad Hot Ballroom was a lot of fun and very accessible.

7 and 8 might be too young not to be bored, but if you watch with them and they can follow the subtitles, Please Vote for Me is pretty fun.
posted by Mchelly at 10:04 AM on January 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh! Escabeche reminded me - Small Ball was a 2004 documentary about a Little League team's attempt to get into the Little League World Series. It works with the perspective of both the coaches and the kids, so it may fly over your youngest kid's head, but it was pretty fun. The coaches are wonderfully fair and clear-eyed about the game - at one point they rally the kids after a loss by saying that you know what, that's just baseball, that sometimes you go out there and do your best and it just doesn't gell, and that's just that and it's okay and the kids still played their all and that's all that matters. There's also a hands-down adorable schtick about how gradually the lyrics to "Everybody Wang Chung Tonight" become a team rally cry.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:39 AM on January 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh, and - March Of The Penguins and Hoop Dreams. Hoop Dreams may go over the youngest kid's head a bit now, but it's still fantastic.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:44 AM on January 7, 2014

When my siblings and I were in that age range, we were obsessed with nature documentaries.

Thinking of something specifically streaming on Netflix right now, a lot of folks are talking about Blackfish, which is about orcas. That said, I have not seen it yet, don't know if it's specifically appropriate, and I think it might get into the ethics of places like Sea World. (So maybe not a good choice if you guys are season pass holders there?)

Skimming the doc section of Netflix I see The Blue Planet, The Life Of Mammals, a bunch more David Attenborough specials for the BBC, Amazing Planet from the Discovery Channel, tons of Shark Week content (YMMV on a lot of levels), lots of National Geographic stuff (I'd personally sort out the "Wild Alaska" type wheat from the "Extreme Hoarding Doomsday Prepper Sister Wives" type stuff)

Science docs in general are pretty great for kids that age. I cut my teeth on lots of NOVA. Walking With Dinosaurs is on Netflix, as is a lot of Stephen Hawking stuff for the Discovery Channel, and BBC's The Planets. There are a few interesting anthropological documentaries (after clicking over the the Doc page I'm dying to watch Happy People: A Year In The Taiga about people living off the land in rural Russia, and Wild China looks pretty good too), but I would be a little concerned about those derpy ANCIENT ALIENS and SECRETS OF THE VIKINGS type things.

Netflix has a lot of Ken Burns documentaries, but I found that stuff super boring at that age. I would also err on the side of not showing them a bunch of politically provocative stuff like Religulous and the Freakonomics doc.
posted by Sara C. at 10:59 AM on January 7, 2014

BTW, it's not Netflix, but a lot of PBS content is available to stream on
posted by Sara C. at 11:02 AM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Do your kids like Disney and Pixar movies? Get them watching the extras that showcase interview with the movie makers and many documentary style looks into the production process. It makes watching the final picture so much more interesting and rewarding.

FWIW, I loved this sort of thing as a kid (my equivalent was behind the scenes featurettes about Star Wars), and in a lot of ways it's what made me want to work in film as an adult. Which is what I do now! While as an adult I think a lot of these things are not that well-done as stand alone documentaries, kids don't care much about that stuff. They just want to learn about cool things.
posted by Sara C. at 11:05 AM on January 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

My kids were all obsessed with Winged Migration-an amazingly gorgeous bird documentary (but make sure to tell them that the seagull with the crabs actually lived-which is true-as that part freaked mine out).

Microcosms is similar, about insects. Both amazing.
posted by purenitrous at 11:05 AM on January 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

It would also be pretty neat to show them 7 Up, if you can find it. A few of the "Up Series" films are streaming on Netflix, but I don't think the first in the series is available that way at the moment. It might be worth a $2 iTunes rental or something.
posted by Sara C. at 11:06 AM on January 7, 2014

Another vote for Microcosmos. I saw it in a packed LA movie theater half filled with kids and they enjoyed it almost as much as all the adults who were obviously stoned.
posted by cazoo at 11:22 AM on January 7, 2014

Anything Narrated by David Attenbourgh (sp). Seriously, the guy was involved in series on plants of all things that was fascinating to me as a 10 year old, also birds, animals, natural history, the list goes on. You can also pick up books tied into the various series in second hand stores that have some amazingly beautiful photos and present even more information in an easy to digest format.
posted by wwax at 11:35 AM on January 7, 2014

Response by poster: I love all the recs, thanks so much. Also, what a great idea to watch the extra materials on their fave DVDs!
posted by Dragonness at 11:42 AM on January 7, 2014

Everyone has mentioned David Attenborough nature docs, so, yes: watch those. But don't watch Blackfish with your kids! I'm 41 and found it very scary and disturbing.
posted by chowflap at 12:02 PM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think the key to getting kids interested in documentaries is to find out what they're interested in and find documentaries about that. I've found that if they find the subject matter in something cool, kids will be able to pay attention to and absorb things from movies meant for adults. My kids (6 and 2) and I pick out a documentary every week at the library, and while they're so-so about all the cool space movies I pick out, they can't wait to get home and watch one of the BBC "Walking With" series, and the giant squid movie we're watching now has had my 6 year old turn to me and say "this is so cool" about 5 or 6 times now (it's part of a series called "Inside Natures Giants", which is available online at PBS's website, but the series does mean "inside" there's more than a bit of dissection, so maybe not if your kids are squeamish). My 2 year old daughter has recently gotten into movies about people in general (The Human Family Tree was a big hit). So, yeah cater to their tastes in subjects at first, and eventually you'll be able to get them to watch stuff outside their current interests.

That said, once you figure out what they're interested in: for general science topics, especially cool space stuff, look to NOVA (we really liked the one about the Mars Rover), and National Geographic is for all things earthbound, including history and current events documentaries nature films (My favorite ones we've seen recently was about Australian Pelicans the migrate to this irregularly forming inland sea, and The Human Family Tree), both of those you can find online at their series websites. For paleontology buffs two BBC Series: "Walking With" and "The Truth about Killer Dinosaurs" (they destroy a mini cooper with a robotic T-rex head, and hit a frozen turkey with an Ankylosaur tail. Both episodes are on Youtube) are my go to for "Wow this is awesome" documentaries. Oh and if someone's interested in physics, "The Elegant Universe" series is online too, and pretty approachable and has cool visual images.

Lastly, if you've got a local library, that can be a great source of stuff you might not find otherwise.
posted by Gygesringtone at 12:04 PM on January 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Man on Wire.

Also I previously asked a similar question and you might find the answers there useful too.
posted by Dansaman at 12:24 PM on January 7, 2014

Yes, seconding 7 Up, which my 8-year-old also liked, and which we watched on Netflix.
posted by escabeche at 12:38 PM on January 7, 2014

It would help if you could tell us what some of their interests are, and which themes you want to avoid. I wasn't allowed to see PG movies before I was 11 or 12, while my friends were going to see The Exorcist with their parents. Where on that scale are your kids?

Maybe just for the 12 year old: Exit Thru The Gift Shop. I almost didn't mention this because I couldn't remember how appropriate it would be for young kids but it barely registers on the parents guide except a 5/10 for language.

Here is a list of video game docs. There are many of them on Netflix and they are usually tame enough for all kids.

70s SoCal skateboarding doc Dogtown and Z-Boys may be suitable. It's available for free streaming on

Netflix also has a billion National Geographic specials about everything from animals and nature to The Bermuda Triangle.
posted by Room 641-A at 1:56 PM on January 7, 2014

My kids really loved the reality series Rough Science. Limited seasons are available on DVD.

For your younger kids, any of The Big Adventure movies by Little Mammoth. The Big Train Ride, the Big Zoo, The Big Aquarium, and so on. All narrated by kids. Very well done.
posted by not that girl at 1:59 PM on January 7, 2014

David Macaulay did a series of programs on PBS about architecture based on his books which my brother and I thought were basically the best thing ever around ages 7 and 8. It looks like Castle and Cathedral are on YouTube. There was a Roman city one called, I think, City and a pyramid one called, believe it or not, Pyramid. It looks like there may have been one or two more I don't remember seeing. We definitely watched the Roman one in school either in late junior high or high school, so it's not too young for the 12 year old. (The programs intersperse Macaulay walking around ruins or buildings with these cartoon stories. The Roman one has some scenes with druids that I found kind of scary as a kid, but not to the point of ever being upset by it.)
posted by hoyland at 2:15 PM on January 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Do your children like space? For All Mankind is an excellent look at spaceflight using NASA footage from the 60s and 70s.
posted by Fukiyama at 3:37 PM on January 7, 2014

Be aware that Man on Wire, while one of the best documentaries there is, has a scene of brief nudity.

Spellbound is a good documentary for and about kids. Riding Giants has some language, as I recall, but is otherwise a really exciting documentary.
posted by cnc at 3:46 PM on January 7, 2014

Our kids thought that The Queen of Versailles was hilarious. Rated PG.
posted by schrodycat at 6:04 PM on January 7, 2014

nthing Mad Hot Ballroom. Also:
Jane Goodall's Wild Chimpanzees
I remember seeing both of them on Imax at around your kids' ages and it having a lasting impression on me and also sparking great interest in those subjects.
posted by alon at 6:34 PM on January 7, 2014

You could show them Carl Sagan's Cosmos, and then you could watch Neil deGrasse Tyson's new updated version when it starts airing on Fox in March.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:55 AM on January 8, 2014

The makers of Hoop Dreams, Kartemquin Films, has been making high quality documentaries since the sixties. Many are available for streaming. Some that may be appropriate for children:

5 Girls, which follows five young girls
Inquiring Nuns (I just watched this last week and can vouch that it is appropriate)

They have a documentary on Roger Ebert premiering at festivals this month and I can't wait until it gets a wider release.
posted by Juliet Banana at 11:00 AM on January 8, 2014

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