The best educational YouTube channels for kids

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I’ve long had a complicated relationship with screen time for my young sons, but have come to see its benefits, especially if the focus is on quality over quantity. This has inspired me to publish lists of my favorite TV shows for young kids and for families; a compilation of educational videos; and a list of recommended apps. Now for the next frontier: YouTube. My ten-year-old LOVES “Geography Now!” and “Extra History,” from which he’s learned at least ten times more social studies than he has from Montgomery County Public Schools. It feels like a miracle that there’s such good content being produced, and makes me wonder what else we should be sampling.

To that end, I had our Fordham Institute research interns take a spin around the yonders of YouTube, and I asked for help from our readers. Many thanks to those of you who responded.

Please note that I’m leaving off the list the channels for the major PBS shows—not because they aren’t worthwhile, but because there’s plenty of ways to access them beyond YouTube. Still, to be sure, if you’ve got young kids, check out Sesame Street, Word World, Word Girl, Dinosaur Train, Liberty's Kids, and all the rest. National Geographic Kids and TedEd are great, too.

Now, after checking out these offerings myself, and without further ado, here are the best YouTube channels for learning for tweens and teens, circa the summer of 2018.

History and geography

  • Crash Course (8,010,109 subscribers). This is the granddaddy of educational YouTube, created by Hank and John Green, aka the Vlogbrothers, the latter of whom is already familiar to young readers as the New York Times best-selling author of The Fault in Our Stars. They have built a huge library of videos across most major disciplines, including playlists of forty-eight videos on U.S. history, seventy-two on world history, and fifty on U.S. government and politics. Each episode is generally ten to fifteen minutes long and features John Green talking about the subject, mixed in with some humor and animations.  
  • Extra Credits Extra History (1,486,295 subscribers). Extra Credits started as a channel for gamers, especially those interested in historical war games, like Empire Total War (yes this is a thing). And it still has a lot of content about gaming, but its creators also now make videos about history itself. They are up to over two hundred at last count, ranging all across the world and various epochs. Many are focused on military history (understandable given the channel’s genesis), with occasional diversions. Their vast offerings allow them to deeply explore topics. They dedicate four episodes, for a total of more than forty minutes, to the Punic Wars, for example. Compelling narration and cute animations combine for addictive viewing for budding history buffs.
  • The Great War (875,694 subscribers). The prize for in-depth coverage goes to this channel, which follows the history of World War I, one week at a time. Do the math and you get over two hundred videos, at about ten minutes a pop, looking at the war from every angle. Historical video footage, endless maps, and an informed narrator add up to a great experience, though the endless trench warfare can be a slog. (I know, I know, not as much as living through the real thing.)
  • Geography Now! (1,016,565 subscribers). Affable host Paul Barbado takes viewers on a trip around the world, with fifteen- to twenty-minute episodes on a given country. He’s working his way alphabetically through all two hundred-plus nations; at last count he made it to the M’s. It’s a bit like a video version of an encyclopedia entry, but with dashes of humor and silly graphics to boot.

Science and nature

  • Vsauce (13,375,579 subscribers). Founder and star Michael Stevens didn’t start out making educational videos, but his background in comedy and video editing makes his science-oriented channel hugely engaging, as his massive following demonstrates. He enjoys taking viewers “on a journey,” starting with big questions, like “How much does a shadow weigh?” and “What color is a mirror?” He’s Bill Nye the Science Guy for the YouTube generation.
  • The Brain Scoop (468,108 subscribers). Host Emily Graslie got her start with Hank and John Green, and was recruited by Chicago’s Field Museum to be its “chief curiosity correspondent.” Yes, it’s a dream job. If Michael Stevens is the new Bill Nye, she’s the new Ms. Frizzle. And not surprisingly given her employer, expect a lot of videos on the living world—both today and in the ancient past.

Literature

  • Crash Course Literature (8,010,109 subscribers). As noted above, this is the granddaddy of educational YouTube, created by Hank and John Green. Their video library includes a playlist of forty-five videos on literature. The classics covered include Romeo & Juliet, Catcher in the Rye, The Handmaids Tale, and many more.

Math

  • Khan Academy (4,069,528 subscribers). Surely the best-known educational outpost on the interwebs, Khan Academy’s YouTube channel is a gateway to the more extensive offerings on its own platform. But for quick refreshers and explainers, these videos are hard to beat.
  • Vihart (1,255,570 subscribers). Created by Victoria Hart, a self-described “full-time recreational mathemusician,” this channel strives to make math cool. If Khan Academy is Microsoft, Vihart is Apple. It may not help you cram for your calculus test, but it will surely expand your mind. Her mesmerizing, almost poetic video “How I feel about logarithms” has over 1.2 million views at last count; “Doodling in Math Class: DRAGONS” has over 5 million. Not bad for videos of a hand scribbling numbers—and dragons—with thoughtful insights about math.

Did we leave a great channel off the list? Let us know at mpetrilli[at]edexcellence.net.

 
 
Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.