We can all still remember our parents scolding us for spending hours glued to the TV, trying to scare us by claiming our eyes would go square if we continued on. Not much has changed in this department, only these days the shows children get hooked on are, often, far less innocent than they used to be. It’s all about action, ridiculously high-pitched voices and animated characters that seem to be in constant, crazed motion. In an effort to find some great throwback shows the kids can still enjoy—the kind that are educational and entertaining—we have compiled a list of the best European children’s shows. They’re a little more mellow than Spongebob Squarepants, and you won’t find a lot of the game-style elements you see in The Amazing World of Gumball, but they are fun, colorful and smart. Most of the shows listed below can be watched in English and the few that aren’t might inspire you and your kids to pick up a foreign language. Here, for you edutainment, are our picks for the 15 best European children’s shows of all time.
15. Los Fruittis (The Fruitties), Spain (1990)
Los Fruittis is a Spanish children’s show that became very popular for its musical numbers. The characters are anthropomorphic fruits who live in a village next to their island’s volcano. Their community is made up of (dried) fruits, vegetables and plants. The main characters are Mochila (a banana), Pincho (a cactus), Gazpacho (a pineapple) and Kumba, the only human in the group. In the Spanish version of Los Fruittis, Gazpacho has an entertaining Andalusian accent, whereas in the English version, The Fruitties, Gazpacho (Roly) sounds Mexican and Pincho (Thorny) speaks with a thick southern US accent. When the volcano next to their village erupts, Pincho and his friends take off in search of a new village to settle down in. With a lot of song and dance along the way, they have great adventures, and learn about pollution and other environmental issues. In 2014, iTunes released a downloadable CD of all the best songs from the series in both English and Spanish. The series was also the first TV show in history to be digitalized and colored in 8 bits.
If you want your children to learn about the importance of friendship, and interesting facts about the environment through amusing songs, Los Fruittis is an excellent show to start with.
14. Once Upon a Time…, France (1978)
The French Once Upon a Time series was a godsend for parents of children going through the “But why?” phase. Instead of having to walk around armed with an encyclopedia, choose the lazy-parenting method by positioning your growing nerds in front of the TV. No one will judge you for this, because the Once Upon a Time series really is edutainment at its finest. The stories are presented by the characters originally introduced in the first run, Once Upon a Time… Man. Maestro, with his long white hair and floor-length beard, is the leader of the group. He is always accompanied by the handsome Peter and his girlfriend Psi, Peter’s best friend the clumsy Jumbo and his wife Pierette. They often have run-ins with The Pest and The Dwarf, two malicious bullies who represent all that is bad—they are violent, hypocritical and rude. Each season focuses on a different educational topic: The history of mankind (Man, 1987), Space (1982), the functions of the human body (Life, 1987), the history of the American continent (The Americas, 1991), the most important thinkers and inventors throughout history (The Discoverers, 1994), the world’s most significant explorers (The Explorers, 1996) and Planet Earth (2008), which centers on subjects like pollution, global warming and the preservation of the national environment.
13. Les Schtroumpfs (The Smurfs), Belgium (1958)
Thingamajigs, whatchamacallits, you know—those thingamabobbers! Some of these invented substitute words have stuck around, but none garnered as much fame as the Schtroumpf, a word used by Peyo (Pierre Culliford) when he momentarily forgot the word “salt” during a dinner with his friend and fellow artist André Franquin. Amused by their newly invented Schtroumpf language, Peyo felt inspired to build a character around the word. The first Schtroumpf appeared in his comic series Johan et Pirlouit in 1958, a tiny humanoid creature with blue skin, dressed in white clothes. Peyo’s followers really took a liking to the little blue men and by 1959, the Spirou magazine published its first independent “smurf” story (“smurf” was the Belgian/Dutch translation of Schtroumpf). The Smurfs live in the Smurf Village deep within the forest, and their homes look like mushrooms. Each smurf (and it is said that there are 105 in total) is named after the characteristic that best describes his personality: Hefty, Brainy, Grouchy, Jokey, Scaredy, Harmony, Painter, etc. The smurfs are led by Papa Smurf, who, unlike all the others, wears red pants and a red Phrygian style cap and sports a beard.
Following an animated-special titled Les Aventures des Schtroumpfs in 1965, and an adaption of the original story La Flûte á six schtroumpfs in 1976, the American NBC network released the cartoon series The Smurfs, which garnered international success. The show follows the adventures of the smurfs in their fight against the evil sorcerer Gargamel, who has made it his life’s mission to capture them all.
12. La vuelta al mundo de Willy Fog (Around the World in 80 Days), Spain (1988)
Based on Jules Gabriel Verne’s 1973 novel Around the World in Eighty Days, La vuelta al mundo de Willy Fog depicts the various adventurous of Fog’s journey, only with a twist—in the BRB Internacional animated cartoon series, Fog and his friends are presented as anthropomorphic animals. Willy Fog (a lion) is a wealthy English man who regularly attends a stylish Gentleman’s Club. One day, he decides to make a bet with the rude and sneaky banker Sullivan and three other members of the club: Willy insists he can travel the world in 80 days and arrive back on the due date of December 21st, 1872 at exactly 8:45 PM—and he’s willing to bet his entire fortune of £ 20,000 on it. Willy takes off with his trusted butler Rigodon (a tomcat) and his friend Tico (a hamster), their methods of transport ranging from trains, hot air balloons and even an elephant. In an attempt to jeopardize Willy’s chances of winning, Sullivan sends his accomplice Transfer (a wolf) out to follow him and make matters more difficult for Fog and his friends. Willy, Tico and Rigodon encounter various difficulties along the way but, fortunately, they make it back in due time.
Although the series was obviously created for a young audience, it does deal with some rather adult themes. Any child under the age of ten will forever remember Willy and his friends rescuing Princess Romy (a cat) from being burned in a Sati ritual deep in the jungle. Princess Romy could be seen seemingly unconscious on a stretcher, as she was carried to the ritual site where the flames were eagerly awaiting her. But as is the norm for courageous young men such as Fog, he rescues his friend just in time.
11. Fabeltjeskrant (Fabel Paper), The Netherlands (1967)
Holland has many interesting traditions such as the famous Koningsdag, the King’s birthday, when the entire country is decorated, and dressed in orange and there’s a party on literally every street corner. But aside from being known as real feestbeesten (party animals), the Dutch community also treasures a bit of quiet time. Since the late sixties, children and adults have enjoyed a bedtime ritual of the special variety: De Fabeltjeskrant (The Fabel Paper). De Fabeltjeskrant was the brainchild of Leen Valkenier, who initially based the stories presented in the show on the works of Jean de La Fontaine. This quickly changed and the stories took on a more realistic feel with the characters often referring to real-life situations and news in a manner that wasn’t all too obvious for the children but extremely amusing for the parents. Each episode of De Fabeltjeskrant opens with Meneer Ueli (Mister Ueli) reading the latest headlines from Fabel Paper, the exclusive news source for all the animal citizens of Fabeltjesland (Fabel Land). The puppets, including Bor de Wolf and Gerrit de Postduif (Gerrit the Carrier Pigeon), are colorful, creative and extremely adorable.
The first show ran from 1967 to 1972, but was picked up again in 1985. At this point, the Netherlands had established itself as a multicultural country, which was also reflected in the Fabeltjesland, when other animals like Zaza Zebra and Mister Maraboe from the Derde Dierenbos (Third Animal Forest, in other words, Third World), made their way to the Fabeltjesland.
10. Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends, Britain (1984)
Parents go through great lengths to make their children happy, and Wilbert Awdry was no exception. When his son Christopher was bedridden with the measles, Awdry took it upon himself to create a series of stories revolving around a group of locomotives and their daily adventures, in order to keep Christopher entertained. The stories turned into a collection of books titled The Railway Series. In 1953, The Railway Series editor, Eric Marriott, was approached by the BBC, as they were interested in recreating two stories of the first book, The Three Railway Engines. It aired on June 14th, 1953 and was a colossal fail. The stories’ protagonist Henry ended up derailing and viewers watched as a human hand picked it up and placed it back on the rails. The project wasn’t revisited until 1979, when Britt Allcroft came across Awdry’s book while conducting research for a documentary about the Bluebell Railway. She was taken by the characters and their stories, and felt she could adapt them for television. It took several years for her to source the necessary funding, but by 1984 production was in full swing.
The main character of the show is of course the cheeky little engine Thomas. He is extremely proud about the fact that he has his own branch line, but is often overly ambitious, which gets him into tricky situations. Some of his friends include the wise Edward, a 4-4-0 tender engine who is always happy to help his friends when they’re in need of sound advice; Henry, who is often sickly and depressed, but also very intelligent, with a great love for nature and Percy, the youngest of the lot who likes pulling pranks on the older engines and is very eager to learn new things. Up until series 13, the episodes were narrated by a single storyteller in order to recreate the feel of a soothing bedtime story.
9. Hip-Hip and Hurra, Poland (2011)
Now that we’ve covered some of the classics, here’s a modern twist on children’s shows from Poland. Hip-Hip and Hurra are a detective duo consisting of the ever-hungry pink hippo Hip-Hip and his über-energetic and slightly whacky assistant Hurra the weasel. They live in a world of animals trying to exist as humans. Each episode introduces a new mystery Hip-Hip and Hurra solve, sometimes with the help of their apprentice Misia, an ant that lives in Hip-Hip’s pocket and often conducts spy work for the detectives.This show is another great aid for parents with endlessly curious children. Through their various cases, Hip-Hip and Hurra offer answers to important questions such as: How are babies born? How do clouds form? Where does the rainbow come from? How do flowers eat? The show focuses on important environmental issues and questions relayed in a simple manner children can understand, and are told with the kind of humor parents will love.
The animation style is modern, colourful and very creative. The characters are drawn in a simple manner, but with crazy hairstyles and exaggerated moves. Hip-Hip and Hurra are very popular in town and have many friends: Rose the Giraffe, an artist who paints beautiful pictures with her tail (Hip-Hip is madly in love with her but too shy to do anything about it), Kinga the Kangaroo, lady who lives with her imaginary flower friend Adelka and Peacock, a narcissistic TV presenter who is obsessed with his tail.
8. The Wombles, Britain (1973)
Another children’s show that aims to educate youngsters about the environment is the British cult series The Wombles. The pointy-nosed creatures, which resemble furry rodents, were invented by author Elizabeth Beresford and inspired by her children. The British have a tendency to walk off their Christmas dinners, sausage rolls and mince pies on Boxing Day. The same is true of Beresford’s family and whilst walking along the Wimbledon Common, one of her children called it the “Wombledom Common.” Amused by this, Elizabeth returned home and jotted down the funny name and started building The Wombles characters around it. Following the success of the beautifully illustrated books, the BBC commissioned FilmFair to create a series which turned into a big success—they even had their very own band.
While the Wombles live all over the world, the series concentrates on Womble life in the burrows of Wimbledon Common. The Wombles are vegetarian and, once they come of age and leave the “Womblegarten,” they join their elders in recycling the rubbish human leaves lying around, following the motto: “Make good use of bad rubbish.” The Wombles don’t get their name until they reach a certain age, when they are invited to look through Great Uncle Bulgaria’s atlas and choose a name they feel suits them. Thus, the Wombles are named after towns, rivers, countries and even explorers. They keep their existence a secret from humans and aren’t too fond of any other animals but themselves. But they have big hearts and, on one occasion, they even invited the lonely old grandpa, Mr. Smith, to their Wombles burrow for Christmas Eve.
7. Siebenstein, Germany (1988)
Junk shops tend to inspire a special kind of feeling. Filled with treasures from the past, they are the ultimate haven for all those in search of vintage clothes and unique knick-knacks from times long lost. But Siebenstein’s (Adelheid Arndt) junk shop is not only filled with interesting furniture pieces and clothes that bring the spark of the eighties into the twentieth century; it is also home to her mischievous crow Rudi and her smart-ass suitcase, Koffer. Rudi is very opinionated, jealous and obsessed with his crow treasure, a box of marbles. Koffer seems to think he is wise beyond his years, but that’s not really the case. Together they organize the junk shop’s inventory and tend to the clients who come in (a lot of whom are famous German actors). Rudi and Koffer love it when Siebenstein tells them stories, which come to life with animation and usually reflect on a situation they have encountered that day.
6. The Wind in the Willows, Britain (1984)
Written by Kenneth Grahame in 1908, The Wind in the Willows reached number 16 on the BBC’s “The Big Read” surve,y which determines the best-loved novels of all time. It’s hardly surprising this book would rank so high—after all, Theodore Roosevelt wrote Grahame a personal letter praising his work. Having grown up in Cookham (Berkshire), Grahame felt a strong connection to his natural environment and spent many a day “simply messing about in boats” on his beloved River Thames. This inspired him to come up with bedtime stories for his son Alistair, and so the stars of The Wind in the Willows were born: The gentle Mole who loves the comforts of his home, but decides to venture out into the outside world; Mr. Badger, the society-hating wise hermit, who is extremely loyal to his friends and protects them against all odds; Rat, a chilled-out kind of dude who is well-read and a tad stubborn; and Mr. Toad, a wealthy but kind-hearted man-child who takes his fleeting obsessions to the extreme.
Following the 1983 film The Wind in the Willows, the story got its very own show on ITV in 1984. The first episode shows Mr. Toad and his friends celebrating their victory in the battle against the Weasels, while Mr. Toad shares his adventures of his time in prison, his escape and his time on a barge disguised as a barge woman. From then on, each episode tells a unique story in which more lovely characters are also introduced. The stories are always presented with a moral angle and place a strong emphasis on camaraderie, whilst teaching young viewers a thing or two about wildlife preservation, animals and their natural habitats.
5. Pippi Longstocking, Sweden (1969)
? Freckles on her nose, diddle diddle di, a girl came riding, into town one day, diddle diddle di, she was quite a sight, it’s Pippi Longstocking, say ho ho he ha ha, it’s Pippi Longstocking, there’s no one like her! ?
It’s true…there really is no other like Pippi Longstocking (Inger Nilsson). With her freckled face and trademark funky braids, her raggedy outfit, mismatching socks and pointed boots, she is definitely a sight—especially when she comes riding into town on her horse Lilla Gubben (Little Old Man), with her monkey Mr. Nilsson on her shoulder. Pippi may not have manners, and she sure as hell doesn’t abide by the same social etiquette her peers do, but that’s why we love her. She lives a life of leisure and adventure and she wouldn’t have it any other way. Having grown up at sea with her father, Captain Efraim Longstocking (Beppe Wolgers), she now resides in her very own home, the Villa Villekulla, with Little Old Man and Mr. Nilsson. She gets by with a suitcase full of gold and her friends Tommy (Pär Sundberg) and Annika (Maria Persson), her neighbors, who come from an ordinary household and whose parents often worry about Pippi living in the Villa Villekulla all on her own. But Pippi doesn’t need adults—she’s happy managing her life on her own. And besides: she’s the strongest girl in the world, she can take on anyone!
Astrid Lindgren first published Pippi Longstocking in 1945. Pippi became such a success, the books were translated into seventy languages, and the first movie aired in 1949, followed by the 1969 TV series consisting of thirteen episodes and an animated series in Canada’s Teletoon channel in 1997.
4. Art Attack, Britain (1990)
Originally a small segment on the British children’s show No. 73, Art Attack became so popular it got its very own series. This is the perfect show for all budding artists and painters—and parents who need to while away a rainy Sunday afternoon with a creative project. Whether your child has requested a funky tree house for dolls to play in or, you have a kid obsessed with the idea of building a race track for his toy cars, Art Attack will help you make it happen. With more than twenty seasons, various specials and even themed episodes to choose from, you can rest assured that you will find the perfect art project for every member of the family, from toddlers to pre-teen. Each project is explained step-by-step in a simple and entertaining manner, sometimes with a little help from The Head, a puppet stone who is famous for getting the projects all wrong, and Vincent Van Coconut, a talking palm tree. Some episodes are up to an hour long and feature several projects, but there are also “Mini Makes” episodes where one project is explained in just five minutes.
Art Attack is a true favorite for kids and adults alike; it’s educational and sparks a lot of creativity.
3. Janosch’s Traumstunde (Janosch’s Dreaming Hour), Germany (1985)
Horst “Janosch” Eckert is an illustrator and author who found fame with his illustrated children’s books The Trip to Panama and Post for the Tiger. In 1946 he studied pattern drawing with Gerhard Kadow, a Paul Klee student, before moving to Munich where he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts. In 1960 he published his first children’s book, The Story of Valek the Horse, but his most famous characters would soon become Schnuddel (a sweet and courageous little character who is smaller than a mouse, but a hundred times bigger than a mosquito), and the Tigerente (Tiger Duck), a wooden toy built on wheels, that joins Tiger, Günter Kastenfrosch (a frog) and Bear on all their adventures. Janosch has published more than 150 books, half of which have been translated into more than thirty languages. Janosch’s style is easily recognized, his characters are extremely gentle, colorful and lovable. The illustrations are soft and the stories are paced accordingly which has a calming effect on children, especially at bedtime, i.e. Traumstunde.
Janosch’s Traumstunde first aired in 1986 and the show reached a total of twenty-six episodes in which all of Janosch’s key-players make an appearance: Schnuddel, Bear, Tiger and Tigerente. The show invites its youngest (and oldest) fans to join their favorite characters on fantastical adventures, such as Tiger and Bear’s trip to Panama to find out what’s up with the bananas, or Hase Robinson (a rabbit) giving a pack of wild, unruly dogs a talking to. Each episode is announced by the “big, fat, forest bear,” and is narrated by a calming voice that works as the perfect preparation for lala land.
2. Löwenzahn (Dandelion), Germany (1981)
Löwenzahn is an edutainment show presented by Peter Lustig, a bearded fellow, fond of dungarees, who never lost his childlike curiosity. In the first episode, Peter decides to downsize and move from his house into a building container. Instead of buying new furniture, he uses furniture from his old house to fashion new pieces. He uses his old bed frame to create two single seats, and turns a row of chairs into stairs leading up to the building container’s roof. His closet is turned into a little outhouse, complete with an actual toilet and draining system and the obligatory tiny heart shaped windows, as you would see them in the outhouses of the Alps. He uses old vitrines to create windows and shelf space and he even has an urban garden on his rooftop.
Löwenzahn’s Peter Lustig teaches children and adults how to live self-sufficiently and turn old things into new inventions. Each episode is built on one specific topic Peter explores; he takes his viewers into museums, theatres and other places to show his fans what happens behind the scenes. In most episodes, a fun, short animation or cartoon story elaborates on the topics discussed. Although the target audience are pre-schoolers and elementary school students, some of the biggest Löwenzahn fans are well over thirty.
1. Die Sendung mit der Maus (The Program with the Mouse), Germany (1971)
Since 1971, Sunday mornings in Germany have been reserved for one thing and one thing only: Die Sendung mit der Maus! Similar to Löwenzahn, this is a show the entire family can enjoy. Die Sendung mit der Maus is built on “Lach-und-Sachgeschichten “ (Laughing and Learning Stories), which are separated with fun little “spots” of the mouse character, the little blue elephant or the yellow duck. The laughing stories usually come in the form of illustrated stories or cartoons that present children’s songs and poetry, and mini-series featuring characters such as Käpt’n Blaubär (Captain Bluebear). Käpt’n Blaubär is probably the most popular of all Die Sendung mit der Maus miniseries. He lives in his cutter boat “Elvira” with his grandchildren Lukas, Daniel and Vanessa and his dim-witted friend, the rat Hein Blöd (Hein Stupid). He is known to tell tall tales of his times at sea, which are usually presented in cartoon style, where Käpt’n Blaubär and his family are portrayed by puppets.
Each episode incorporates two learning stories, the topics of which are varied. The learning stories will teach you everything you need to know about how a toaster is made, how holes get into the cheese, who puts the stripes into your toothpaste and who makes chewing gum (and how it can later be removed from the pavement). The learning stories often take the viewers on a tour through production factories to teach them the entire process of making cheese, a coffee machine or an airbus. But they also focus on historical events, like the Roman times, the Chernobyl disaster or the aftermaths of World War II. Before the start of each episode, the subjects that will be discussed are first introduced in German, and then in a foreign language.
This is one of those rare series that’s entertaining, educational and incredibly interesting—if your children are only permitted a certain amount of TV time, make sure to use some of that up with Die Sendung mit der Maus.