From Papa Smurf to Punky Brewster to LeVar Burton, the ’80s and ’90s were rife with TV shows featuring captivating characters whose positive messages stayed with us long after their shows left the air. We’re taking a walk down memory lane to look back at some of our favorite sitcoms and cartoons that shaped our childhood. Read on for beloved television shows you’ll remember fondly, and discover seven great present-day shows your kids should be watching to recreate that same happy nostalgia.
THEN: Growing Pains
We loved watching the Seaver family navigate the dueling comedy and pitfalls of family life in Growing Pains. Teenager Mike Seaver was a total heartthrob (we even pinned his Teen Beat posters to our wall), honors student Carol tried to keep everyone in line and young Ben’s mischievous antics always entertained. They kept their parents Jason and Maggie on their toes and taught us a thing or two about growing up by delving into relevant topics from school crushes to body image.
photo: IMDB/Craig Sjodin
NOW: Liv and Maddie
Liv and Maddie are the personable, polar opposite twin sisters (both played by actress Dove Cameron) at the heart of the zany Rooney family. Our kids love watching this comedic sitcom because there’s never a dull moment in this quirky household. The plot vacillates between Liv’s career as a movie star, Maddie’s basketball games, little bro and mad scientist Parker digging secret tunnels throughout the house and older brother Joey’s aspirations to leave his nerd status behind. Top it off with their wacky, endearing parents and many deceptive instances of that age-old twin switcheroo trick and the laughs never end.
THEN: The Smurfs
We were delighted by The Smurfs theme song every Saturday morning as we gulped down a bowl of Lucky Charms while singing along “la, la, la, la, la, la!” These mighty yet tiny, mysterious blue forest dwellers lived in mushrooms, taught us about different personality types from ‘Grouchy’ to ‘Brainy’ Smurf and had us captivated by their plight to never get caught by their nemesis Gargamel and his cat Azrael. We thought there was no one wiser than Papa Smurf, who took every calamity in stride and always had a solution. It was the perfect way to start the weekend.
NOW: If You Give A Mouse A Cookie
Happy-go-lucky, mischievous Mouse has many an adventure with Pig, Moose, Dog and Cat and with his favorite human, Olive in If You Give A Mouse A Cookie. From being inspired to host a campout after realizing a sock makes a great sleeping bag, to starting an animal band once he realizes a stick makes a great drumming instrument, Mouse is always using his imagination and wit to discover new forms of entertainment. He no doubt inspires our kids to think outside the box each episode.
THEN: Fraggle Rock
Who could forget clamoring around the TV with friends or siblings to “dance your cares away” and escape into the world of Fraggle Rock? These beloved muppets, created by the incomparable Jim Henson, lived in magical underground caves, stole radishes from gardens, sang, danced, played music and kept us on the edge of our seat every episode. We’ll never forget Gobo, Mokey, Red, Wemble, Boober and Traveling Matt or their plight to avoid being caught by the giant Gorgs. And of course Marjory the Trash Heap who doled out wisdom and advice was an eccentric touch! Simply put, this show rocked.
NOW: Tumble Leaf
Kids can’t resist the charming, colorful and whimsical stop-motion animation of Tumble Leaf. Little ones are enchanted by this playful world where they follow a blue fox named Fig and his friends Maple, Rutabaga, Hedge, Pine and Ginkgo on adventures that will teach viewers about science and how things work. This fun, educational show encourages curiosity and problem-solving while promoting kindness and camaraderie.
THEN: Punky Brewster
Smart, sassy and quirky, Punky Brewster was a trailblazer for kids who marched to the beat of their own drum. Just as she taught her adoptive dad Henry to see the lighter side of life, she reminded us that it was our unique qualities that made us shine. She also empowered kids with the belief that their voices and opinions matter and to believe in themselves. A tall order for a little girl––but Punky did all this and more!
NOW: Just Add Magic
Following in the footsteps of inspiring young female protagonists like Punky Brewster, the curious trio: Kelly, Darbie and Hannah in Just Add Magic have cast a spell on our kids. They spend their time concocting magical recipes they found in a mysterious cookbook to crack codes, solve problems and unlock secrets. They use their wit and strength of character to deal with a variety of outcomes that don’t always go as planned. The show is fun, suspenseful and offers a heaping serving of imagination. The perfect recipe for a show the whole family will gobble up.
THEN: Tom & Jerry
Who could ever forget the looney antics of Tom chasing Jerry and Jerry outwitting Tom? These two iconic cartoon characters left an indelible mark on the psyche of all kids who watched their cat and mouse games. We didn’t even know it, but they were unwittingly teaching us about cleverness, survival, humor, intelligence, fairness and friendship, all without a word being spoken!
NOW: Pete the Cat
Based on the best-selling book series Pete the Cat, cool Pete is the polar opposite of high-strung Tom. Today our kids enjoy relaxing and watching Pete’s easygoing, hip vibe as he chills with his friends Callie Cat, Grumpy Toad, Sally Squirrel, Emma the Quebecoise Pug and Gustavo the Platypus. Pete is teaching our kids the power of a calm, capable, can-do attitude as he encounters familiar life issues like choosing an outfit for picture day, learning how to surf or performing music.
THEN: Barney and Friends
Giant, friendly, bright purple dinosaur Barney was a fixture in homes once he hit the scene in the early 90s. This loving, jovial T-Rex was joined by his dino pals Baby Bop, BJ and Riff. They sang and danced their way through episodes that taught us about topics ranging from the four seasons and farm animals to healthy eating and how to be a good friend. We especially loved singing the “I love you, you love me” song with Barney at the end of every show.
NOW: Dino Dana
If Barney had an extreme makeover, he’d likely be cast in Dino Dana. Dana is a 9 year-old girl who receives a Dino Field guide that not only teaches her about Jurassic creatures, it enables her to imagine real dinosaurs into existence. Kids today are in awe of the exciting, realistic appearances dinos make in everyday settings––like when a colossal T-Rex jaunts through a school library. Kids learn so many amazing facts about dinosaurs alongside Dana, who is endlessly inquisitive and thirsty for knowledge and facts about the extinct beasts. Dino Dana brings them back to life in a fun, engaging and educational way.
THEN: Reading Rainbow
“Take a look, it’s in a book, a reading rainbow!” LeVar Burton of Reading Rainbow encouraged us all to have a passion for reading and to get lost in great books. LeVar seamlessly tied books into real-world applications––and he took us all along for the ride. From learning about immigration at Ellis Island to how babies are born, LeVar helped shaped our lives by teaching us about riveting topics in a child-friendly manner. We also loved the relatable book reviews given by fellow kids. Reading Rainbow had a 26-year run and taught countless kids the priceless lesson that books are treasure troves of knowledge and exploration.
NOW: Word World
Word World ingeniously teaches kids today how to read and spell by using the letters of words to create adorable animated friends. T-R-U-C-K form a bright yellow truck and F-R-O-G results in a clever amphibian friend. Our kids are treated to fun storytelling while learning simultaneously. It’s almost unbelievable how brilliant the animators’ way with words is, creating an entire world comprised of letters. Our kids l-o-v-e it.
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