First thing first: According to the recommendations out there babies younger than 18 months should have no screen time at all. The exception to this rule is video chatting with grandparents or other family friends, which is considered quality time interacting with others. Toddlers 18 months to 24 months old can start to enjoy some screen time with a parent or caregiver. By ages 2 and 3, kids should watch no more than 1 hour a day. There’s a great article here about how screentime impacts your baby/toddler.
That’s good advice — but let’s face it: Screens are everywhere. Your little one is probably going to spend some time looking at one, especially when you’re in lockdown at home so make sure his or her screen time is as productive as possible.
I remembered many of the violent cartoons I was watching when I was young, which I really couldn’t imagine impacted me positively, and somehow I couldn’t imagine that some of the bright colored cartoons with high pitched voices were good for children.. or adults. I also realized that many of the cartoons are pretty limited content-wise— meaning that there are a lot of cartoons out there that simply have a pretty basic narrative with no further learning points/ morale/ key takeaways. I found that a bit disturbing — when kids are so small they are not able to distinguish between reality and the virtual world and can be greatly influenced by what they see on the screen — taking some of the actions to their hearts or idolizing the role models that they see depicted in the cartoon (ex. with John Dillermand — I have now several mothers whos small boys are asking when their penis will become bigger, and whether they also can use it to do stuff with… 😳).
I spent several years developing apps for young children — and I knew that our KPIs at the end of the day were mainly based upon downloads, views, and clicks.. so it made me wonder: why should this be any different for the companies developing children cartoons?
Truth is that it isn’t.
Cartoons need viewers in order to remain valid and in production — viewers can be attracted in many ways — some of which are to show bright colors that are catchy for the eye, play loud sounds/tunes that people want to listen to on repeat, or show some content that is somehow different/ disturbing/ standing out.
Censorship of course exists — each of them depending on the platform that is being used for the upload (network, youtube, or some other). But the level of censorship is quite basic — focusing mainly on excluding sexual content/ extreme violence/ foul language, etc.
Back in the 1970s several classic cartoons were actually censored when broadcast on television because they were considered a bad influence on children. For example, Tom and Jerry were taken off air in some countries because the cartoon often showed explosions, gunshots, physical deformations, and weapons — experts found that kids who watched the cartoons tended to be nervous, aggressive, and belligerent. Today you can obviously find Tom & Jerry easily on Youtube. As well as many other cartoons that would not have passed the censorship walls of the 1970s.
So.. what to let toddlers watch if it should be something that doesn’t have their screen addiction as a goal? How do I as a parent choose cartoons that have the intention of showing something useful — something good?
This question made me reflect upon some of the cartoons that I watched growing up in the Soviet Union. Obviously, the USSR had a pretty heavy censorship wall back then — wanting to control and frame the young minds to ensure that they were “developing” in the right direction. Many of the cartoons from that time focus heavily on friendship, the importance of doing hard work, honesty, helping the elder, and comradeship. Values and virtues that I surprisingly think are nice — they are somehow worthy having. Most of the cartoons are all painted in very subtle colors with no violence or extreme noises.
So, at the end of the day this is what we do — if our daughter has some screen time (she is 2 years), the cartoons we show her are controlled, from a specific playlist, and mainly old soviet cartoons (we also show her new ones — focusing more on songs that she likes, or that have some learning element in them).
I’ve included our favorites below — perhaps some of them can inspire you as well!
1. Krtek/ Cartoon about the little Mole
The cartoon was created by the Czech animator Zdenek Miler in 1954, during the time of Czechoslovakia. As you guessed, the main character of the cartoon is a mole who, together with his friends, explores the world, solves everyday problems, confronts enemies. In general, this kind of cartoon was created as an educational product that helps children broaden their horizons. There are practically no words in the cartoon, but it is easily understood by children of all countries. Each episode of the animated series about Krotik lasts on average 5–7 minutes. There are lots of them to choose from.
A Bag Full of Apples
Released in 1974, this heartwarming cartoon is a touching Soviet take on classic fables. A hare carrying a bag of apples home through the woods is targeted by an array of deceitful forest dwellers until he eventually arrives to his hungry children completely empty-handed. But, in an unexpected turn of events, the hare’s kindness pays off. Happily ever after, the film closes with the hare’s family feasting on forest vegetables and singing a cheerful reminder that generosity is always rewarded.
The Russian Winnie The Pooh
Based on the first chapter of AA Milne‘s famous honey-loving bear, the Russian equivalent of Winnie the Pooh is a three-episode series from the late 60s, starred by a gawky brown bear as the eponymous character himself. While on a quest for honey, Winnie and his friends embark on a myriad of adventures, philosophize, and sing a collection of extremely catchy songs while roaming the colorful forest where they live.
While the American Winnie is a cozy, fuzzy bear, the Russian Vinni is a crafty and somewhat manic character. In the first of the Russian series’ three episodes, he floats up to a beehive with a balloon and pretends to be a cloud to trick the bees. Meanwhile, he’s always pacing around on-screen singing fast-paced, slightly absurd songs to himself. All in all, Russian Vinni is a hilarious character you must see.
Cheburashka & Gena the Crocodile
If you thought Baby Yoda was cute, it’s probably because you haven’t met Cheburashka. With his trademark saucer-like ears, fluffy Cheburashka arrives in the USSR in a box of oranges, before tumbling into the path of Gena, a rather cultured crocodile that works in the zoo. Based on Eduard Uspensky’s 1966 book, Crocodile Gena and His Friends, and adapted into four short films, this cult Soviet cartoon is an affectionate homage to friendship and the struggles of fitting in, with themes, characters, and songs that never get old.
Hedgehog in the Fog
If Russians want to say that they’re confused, they might describe themselves as feeling “feeling like a hedgehog in the fog”. The popular idiom comes from this iconic Soviet cartoon, a 1975 film by Russian animator Yury Norshtein. The animation sees an adorable hedgehog head out underneath a starry sky for his daily cup of tea with his bearcub-best friend. But as he gets lost in the fog which has engulfed the once-familiar landscape, the hedgehog embarks on profound reflections about life, death, and friendship. Visually captivating and ever-relevant, this cartoon has earned a soft spot in the hearts of generations.
The Old Dog
Having served his family faithfully, an old dog is kicked out for not performing his guard dog duties. Alone and depressed in the woods, the dog comes across an old foe of his — the wolf. Together they hatch a plan to win the dog’s former owners over by abducting their young child. The plan works and soon the dog is happily back with his family. Beyond its cute story, Once Upon a Dog is also a beautiful depiction of Ukrainian village culture. Full of gorgeous landscapes, well-copied traditional dress, and rousing folk songs, you’ll love this animation.
Travels of an Ant
Travels of an Ant is a gorgeous short film by Eduard Nazarov, creator of Once Upon a Dog. Watch this animation to be transported into the teeming, vibrant world of insects in the forest. A young ant tries to climb high up a tree to take in the sunset. Suddenly, though, a gust of wind carries him far away from his anthill. Too injured to make it back home on his own before dark, his situation doesn’t look good. However, a series of bugs, each with their own, distinct personalities, graciously carry him back home.
Now, this is actually not a Soviet cartoon (it’s made in modern times)— but — it's an old story and this animation of it is awesome. The Kolob, an old Russian round palt (based on the Swedish food item of the same name), suddenly comes to life and escapes from the home of granny and grandpa. The fairy tale’s plot describes Kolobok’s repetitive meetings with various animals (rabbit, wolf, and bear) who intend to eat it, but Kolobok cunningly escapes. With each animal Kolobok sings a song in which he explains, “I got away from Grandmother, I got away from Grandfather, and I will certainly get away from you.” The fox manages to catch and eat Kolobok by distracting him by praising his singing.
Mama to the little Mammoth
This is a little cartoon about a mammoth baby that wakes up on the North Pole where he has been frozen down for many thousand years — he then embarks upon an adventure where he tries to find his mother with the help of other animals around him. It’s a very kind and cute little story.
The Wolf and the Seven Little Goats na Novuy Lad
Inspired by the old Grimms Brothers Fairytale this is a musical version with a twist — instead of eating the seven little goats the wolf sings with them and they make a musical band in the end. It’s a very kind cartoon with some catchy tunes.