Messages depicted in a good film sometimes resonate more deeply and have a greater impact than those in a book. Stories told through documentaries are powerful because they’re about real people and happenings. In 2002, I became so captivated by the “Shackleton” miniseries that I passed up a night on the town in New York City to watch the final thrilling episode in my hotel room. I’ve noticed that Imax and planetarium programs, such as “Dinosaurs Alive!” and “Planet Nine”, have had the same effect on my kids — exciting them about the vastness and diversity of our universe and encouraging trips to the library to learn more. Watching movies together can open a dialogue about my kids’ viewpoints on various topics.
Below are 10 documentaries I want to share with my 9- and 7-year-old boys this summer. All are about an hour long, ideal for short attention spans. My plan is to put their 3-year-old sister to bed early, spread out a blanket in our family room, pop some popcorn and enjoy.
After the film, we’ll talk about it. For anyone interested in doing something similar, Common Sense Media offers good discussion guides on many of these titles. Check the ratings and watch the previews before viewing these with your kids. Some topics may be sensitive.
“Planet Earth,” 2006 (550 minutes). Narrated by David Attenborough (British version) and Sigourney Weaver (U.S. version), each 50-minute episode in this 11-part, Emmy-winning series features a dazzling portrait of a geographical region or wildlife habitat. The far-flung locations and impossible moments with some of the world’s most astonishing creatures can help inspire respect for our planet, and with it the desire to preserve our fragile ecosystem.
“Wings of Life,” 2013 (80 minutes). Meryl Streep narrates this Disney documentary, which has the power to kindle children’s curiosity about the natural world. The cinematography captures the interconnectedness of butterflies, birds, bats and bees, and the film describes how one-third of the world’s food supply depends on these increasingly vulnerable pollinators.
“National Geographic — Lewis and Clark: Great Journey West,” 2002 (42 minutes). This condensed narrative on a great story of perseverance and exploration features stunning photography and a stirring musical score. Grown-ups and kids will be swept up in this dramatic tale. At the end, you might be inspired to dream up your own adventure.
“Biography: Susan B. Anthony,” 2005 (50 minutes). Absorbing reenactments and interesting details help viewers understand what life was like for American women before Anthony’s half-century crusade, which advanced women’s suffrage. This documentary profiles a remarkable woman who exhibited strength through adversity and can help introduce a conversation with your kids on where gender issues stand today.
“Brooklyn Bridge,” 1981 (58 minutes). This early Ken Burns film brings to life the human factor behind the construction of the gorgeous architectural masterpiece beloved by New Yorkers and others, and still in use. The movie also dramatizes the enormous engineering and social obstacles that were overcome in the process.
“The Statue of Liberty,” 1985 (60 minutes). Also on the architecture front, Burns chronicles the construction history of this iconic landmark and discusses what liberty and freedom have meant to Americans over the past century. The film’s details, musical score and interviews with immigrants and well-known Americans illuminate timely themes.
“What’s on Your Plate?” 2010 (76 minutes). Filmmaker Catherine Gund follows Sadie and Safiyah, two curious, intelligent 11-year-olds, for a year as they pose questions to food activists, growers and distributors, and educate themselves on nutrition and food politics. This thought-provoking, family-friendly documentary might cause your kids to look more closely at the food on their plates and their own eating habits.
“Spellbound,” 2002 (96 minutes). Eight dedicated young Americans vie for the title of National Spelling Bee champion in this film, which brings the realities of academic competition into focus. You’ll find it impossible not to root for your favorites as the field is narrowed from 250 contestants to one winner. This story offers messages about hard work, sportsmanship and the sacrifice and rewards involved in pursuing dreams.
“Paper Clips,” 2004 (83 minutes). To better comprehend the horrors of the Holocaust, the students of Whitwell, Tenn., a small, largely homogenous town, take on an extraordinary project — collecting 6 million paper clips representing the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis. This documentary chronicles how the experience transformed not only the students, but the community, too, as it underscores the importance of learning about history and other cultures.
“Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” 2014 (557 minutes). Neil deGrasse Tyson hosts this updated version of Carl Sagan’s award-winning TV series “Cosmos” (1980), which explores the history of the universe and our place in it. Each of the 13 episodes features brilliant visual effects and a perfectly paired musical score. With unflagging enthusiasm, Tyson makes difficult concepts easy to understand and stresses that anyone with imagination can become the next scientific superstar.
Kate Lemery is a freelance writer and mother of three based in Rockville, Md. Find her online at katelemery.com.
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