The Tokyo Olympics may have wrapped up over the weekend, but the exploits of the athletes out in the field and in the stadiums will be remembered for a long time. Whether it was the Canadian women’s soccer team’s nail-biting penalty shootout win, young swimmer Penny Oleksiak becoming the most decorated Canadian Olympian or decathlon gold medalist Damian Warner beaming as the Canadian flag-bearer for the closing ceremonies, it was all such a thrill to watch and share with the kids.
To keep the sporting spirit going, here are some children’s programming options featuring sports – even if one of them features animated adventurers.
Age range: 3 to 6
Sunny Bunnies: Sports We Play
Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video, YouTube
Elevator pitch for parents: The creatures may be fantastical, but the sports they play are real.
Elevator pitch for the kids: Have fun watching some colourful characters play sports.
Preschoolers can’t really get into a game beyond understanding simple instructions – kicking a ball toward a goalpost, doing some basic tumbles or maybe figuring out hand-eye co-ordination while pitching a baseball. Nevertheless, this animated series – and in particular, its related full-length movie, Sports We Play – can introduce fun aspects of a sport to young viewers.
The titular characters, brightly coloured fuzzy orbs who live on the sun, don’t use words but seem to communicate with each other through non-verbal cues and giggles. Musical accompaniment and sound effects add a bit of drama. The series even has an Olympics-related playlist on their YouTube channel, called Go For Gold.
Age range: 7-9 upwards
According to Kids: CBC Olympics; The Short Game
Where to watch: CBC Kids/YouTube; Netflix
Elevator pitch for parents: These short vignettes and documentary film feature adorable kids.
Elevator pitch for the kids: Watch kids like you explain and play sports.
I love watching the According To Kids short videos on CBC Kids. They get elementary-school-aged children to explain a variety of things – from the role of a mayor to what a vet does – while actors enact the musings, often to quite hilarious effect. CBC Kids came up with a whole playlist of vignettes on various Olympic sports at the Tokyo Games. The short segments offer some interesting perspectives on how kids interpret adult sports.
Meanwhile, the 2013 documentary The Short Game has seven-year-old kids playing golf. I’ll admit that I’m not a golf fan, although many people in my family were once avid golfers. I didn’t understand the point of the game – is it even a sport?! Nevertheless, the documentary is fascinating for the glimpse it gives into the mindsets (and temper tantrums) of these young players on the green.
Age range: 10 upwards
Bella and the Bulldogs
Where to watch: Netflix
Elevator pitch for parents: This sitcom about a young female quarterback offers a fresh take on gender and sports.
Elevator pitch for kids: Girls can also play American football.
Bella is a cheerleader with a very strong arm. When her school loses a football match because of a player’s rookie mistake, Bella throws the ball back to the team in frustration – and earns a spot on the team. After some initial reservations, the boys’ team grudgingly accepts her. There are some corny jokes, and the series features a sitcom-style school where everyone looks good. But it does feature a female quarterback at a Texas school – which is pretty neat.
For older viewers, a related recommendation is Cheer, also on Netflix. This documentary series about a Texas college team preparing for an annual American cheerleading contest showcases the hard work and dedication it takes to build a squad whose main purpose is to cheer on another team of athletes. There are challenges and disagreements, but ultimately it’s an uplifting story.
Age range: 13 upwards
Where to watch: YouTube Originals
Elevator pitch for parents: This documentary series offers a behind-the-glamour look into the world of professional gymnastics.
Elevator pitch for the kids: Female gymnasts are awesome athletes – watch them soar.
Simone Biles’s decision to withdraw from much of the gymnastics competition at the Tokyo Olympics made news around the world, highlighting the issue of athletes’ mental health, especially that of gymnasts, who can be seriously injured if their headspace going into their tricky skills isn’t right (many following the news of Biles’s decision also learned about the phenomenon known as the “twisties,” where a gymnast can literally freeze in the air mid-twist, losing control of their body).
There are many gymnastics-related movies available on streaming platforms – some fictional, some inspired by real life. This docuseries on YouTube offers a glimpse into the world of women’s gymnastics, told by some of the greatest athletes in the arena. As they take us through finding their own style in the floor exercise, to flying through the air during competitions, the six-part series is a compelling watch.
Age range: PG-13/Family
McFarland, USA; The Grizzlies
Where to watch: Disney+/YouTube; CBC Gem
Elevator pitch for parents: These movies offer an uplifting story about sports helping kids out of adversity.
Elevator pitch for kids: Watch these young people do extraordinary things when someone believes in them.
Right off the bat, I’ll acknowledge that both these films have a very familiar narrative. Both are based on true stories, and both feature white coaches training a racialized team. In the 2015 movie McFarland, USA, a grizzled old coach (Kevin Costner) arrives at a predominantly Latino high school in California and eventually starts a running program. 2018 Canadian film The Grizzlies features a fresh-faced white teacher (Ben Schnetzer) who arrives at a Nunavut high school to discover a town with a high teen suicide rate. He tries to use the game of lacrosse as a way to reach out to the kids and their families.
While both films do start off with the tired trope of the coach coming to the rescue, by also centring the young people at the heart of each story, they offer a fresh take on a well-worn yarn.
If you have more suggestions of engaging children’s programming to recommend, send them along to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.