While there is no substitute for the real thing, nature documentaries can teach our kids about the fascinating world of nature, exposing them to natural history events and challenges that they might not have known about or could understand unless seeing it. Plus, they are pretty darn wonderful when done right.
Besides educating, entertaining and stirring a sense of awe in us, they relax us. So, if you doze off a half-hour into an Attenborough film, it’s not because you’re bored. In a study conducted by the BBC and the University of California Berkeley, researchers found that watching nature documentaries actually boosts our happiness. Turns out that nature documentaries trigger the neurochemicals of happiness, reducing the stress and anxieties of modern life. The effect was seen most in people between the ages of 16 to 24.
Between the BBC, National Geographic, PBS and independent studios, there always seems to be a new nature series to catch up on. You’ll notice quite a few BBC films on this list, which makes sense as the BBC Natural History Unit has been producing award-winning nature documentaries since 1957.
Here’s Childhood by Nature’s list of our top nature films that are almost guaranteed to fascinate your kids and hopefully inspire them to document the natural world for themselves!
This series from the BBC, funded by the Chinese state broadcasting network China Central Television, takes viewers on an unprecedented journey across the deserts, savannahs, and jungles of this geographically diverse continent. Filmmakers take us seamlessly from the wild terrain of extraordinary landscapes to intimate encounters with fascinating creatures. The series took four years to complete and is presented by David Attenborough.
The Blue Planet (2001)
More is known about the surface of the moon than the deep oceans on Earth, yet the sea constitutes two-thirds of our planet. This riveting eight-part BBC series narrated by David Attenborough shows viewers the mysteries of the deep, coastline populations, sea mammals, tidal and climatic influences and the complete biological system that revolves around the world’s oceans. This series will astound your budding marine biologists as it is “the definitive exploration of the marine world."
Blue Planet II (2017)
This sequel to “Blue Planet” takes viewers deep in the ocean for a second look at the high seas with new technology built especially for the series. Presenter David Attenborough guides viewers through the mating practices of ocean dwellers and warns against the dangers of global warming. Bonus: Like many more recent BBC nature productions, the series’ website is filled with extras for kids to learn even more and take a look behind the scenes.
Chasing Coral (2017)
This Netflix original chronicles a talented team racing to invent the first underwater time-lapse camera to capture the phenomenon of coral death, also known as “coral bleaching,” as it unfolds. The phenomenon has skyrocketed worldwide due to global warming, making this a timely and relevant film for kids to watch.
Frozen Planet (2011)
With a setting of the greatest wildernesses on Earth—who could resist this ultimate portrait of the polar regions and its wildlife from the BBC Natural History Unit and Discovery Channel? One of the first film series shot entirely in high-definition, episodes track the lives of polar bears, wolves, killer whales and penguins from the spring through the winter, and there is also a "making of" episode that details the challenges faced by the "Frozen Planet" team.
The Hunt (2015)
An excellent exploration of the relationship between predators and their prey, this high energy film will not put you to sleep. The BBC series focuses on strategy in the wild with hunters examined in detail— from their use of the environment to their sharp instincts and physical prowess. Each episode centers on a different habitat. Narrated by David Attenborough, “The Hunt” uses novel filming techniques to get the perfect shot.
The Last Lions (2011)
A poignant story about the struggle of a lioness and her cubs in one of the last remnants of wilderness available to Africa’s legendary big cats. Ma di Tau is a remarkable lioness committed to defending her family in Botswana’s treacherous Okavango Delta. When a rival pride attacks and kills her mate, the lioness faces an arduous battle to preserve the lives of herself and her three cubs. She knows the conquering lions will kill her offspring if they are found, so she leads them to Duba Island. There, she and her cubs face additional danger from the hungry crocodiles and the fierce water buffalo. Narrated by none other than actor Jeremy Irons, who voiced Scar in the Lion King.
Life is about living creatures, which can undoubtedly be difficult to film. That’s why it took seventy camera people in 50 countries to shoot this BBC/Discovery co-production/ “Life” focuses on Charles Darwin’s “struggle for existence” and the extraordinary ends to which animals and plants go in order to survive. Featuring epic spectacles, amazing TV firsts and examples of new wildlife behavior. Presenter David Attenborough narrated the original U.K. version of the film, but was replaced by Oprah Winfrey for the documentary’s U.S. release.
The Life of Birds (1998)
Your budding bird lover will be flying high with this series written and presented by David Attenborough. This is the ultimate study of the evolution and habits of birds with each of the ten 50-minute episodes showing us how the huge variety of birds in the world deal with a different aspect of their day-to-day existence. The series was produced in conjunction with BBC Worldwide Americas Inc. and PBS. The series was part of Attenborough's 'Life' series of programs, it was preceded by The Private Life of Plants (1995), and followed by The Life of Mammals (2002)
The Life of Mammals (2002)
Sure to be a favorite with most kids, this follow-up to “The Life of Birds” explores the origins and habits of arguably the planet’s most engaging and improvising inhabitants. In the series, David Attenborough looks at why mammals are the most successful creatures on the planet. Each of the ten episodes looks at one (or several closely related) mammal groups and discusses the different facets of their day-to-day existence and their evolutionary origins.
March of the Penguins (2005)
Some films are absolutely unforgettable. This is one of those films. This astounding documentary follows a year in the life of Antarctica’s Emperor penguins that survives in the world’s harshest habitat. The work of the cinematographers is a study of creative filmmaking and includes everything from extreme close-ups of the world of feathers withing the penguins’ dense fluff, to the interior of a hatchling’s mouth, and a seal hunting a penguin under a layer of thick, winter ice. The production team was "all in" for this film and lived in Antarctica near the birds for a year. As they filmed, the colony became completely comfortable with their presence.
Planet Earth (2006)
This BBC/Discovery Channel co-production was the most expensive nature documentary series ever commissioned by the BBC, and the first shot in full HD. Four years of hard filming resulted in spectacular photography and compelling narratives, making every one of its eleven episodes memorable. The series features spectacular footage of some of the world's most awe-inspiring natural wonders— from the oceans to the deserts to the polar ice caps.
The Salt of the Earth (2014)
“The Salt of the Earth” follows acclaimed photographer Sebastião Salgado in his quest to document the planet’s most arresting landscapes and their inhabitants. This is one of those films that will take your breath away and give you back hope for humanity. Share it with your children so they can experience the passion and inspiration of a true artist in a world of superficial youtube memes. Nominated for the 2015 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature
The Tigers of Scotland
Scottish Wildcats are native to Britain and were once found throughout England and Wales as well as Scotland but they are now confined to the upper Highlands of Scotland. These animals are elusive and to see one in the wild is an incredibly special event. This film introduces viewers to Scotland’s native wild cats and the huge number of threats — mostly stemming from humans — they face. Bonus: cute cats!
We included Virunga on this list but it's not suitable for most kids. It’s violent and intense. And it's also inspiring, moving and unforgettable. This excellent film puts the viewer directly in the middle of a rebel uprising in an extremely dangerous region due to corrupt forces. Virunga National Park, located in the East Congo, is home to some of the world’s most diverse flora and fauna—including the last remaining community of mountain gorillas. A dedicated group of park rangers is entrusted with protecting this UNESCO World Heritage site from both poachers and armed militia. Produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, “Virunga” tells the story of the most dangerous place to be a park ranger. You should watch this film yourself, screening it before you show it to your child or teen. But if you want our children to see true heroism, this is the film.
Wild China (2008)
This six-part nature documentary series spectacularly captured never-before-seen images of one of the world's most enigmatic countries. Using high-definition cameras, the series was filmed for 16 months and involved a half-million miles of travel, with footage being shot in 26 of China's 30 provinces. From the Himalayas to the tropical islands, the series looks at the climate and terrain of South China, which is ideal for rice cultivation, and the Tibetan Plateau.
Wild Japan (2015)
With a surprisingly vast range of landscapes, from the far north, where sea eagles walk on frozen waters, to subtropical southern islands, with coral reefs, Japan makes an alluring subject in this series. The natural activity of the country's wildlife, animals and people are filmed over various seasons through extreme climates and powerful forces. Each episode explores how life survives across a land dominated by volcanoes, earthquakes, savage winters and typhoon summers.
Wonders of the Universe (2011)
Why are we here? Where do we come from? These are such questions that University of Manchester physicist Brian Cox considers in this thought provoking film on the origins of the universe and the history of man. For the curious and cerebral child, this series brings in science for answers to existential questions that have plagued humanity since the dawn of time.