My kids love animals and enjoy watching nature documentaries– especially when they feature animals! I started making a list of favorites, and gathering suggested titles of nature documentaries from my friends. Although these titles have all been recommended for kids, remember that with nature documentaries, it’s real life: children (or their parents) may be disturbed by some images of predators hunting, catching, and eating their prey, the occasional mating scene, or birth scene. It’s best for parents to view with their children (or preview beforehand) so we can either fast forward through the scary scenes or be available to answer their questions.
Here are 29 nature documentaries for kids that are educational and inspiring, and will teach you about life on Earth with phenomenal cinematography and fascinating storytelling.
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1. Planet Earth
Planet Earth is our #1, absolute favorite of the nature documentaries perhaps because it came out in 2007 when my daughter was 2 and I was pregnant. I had to rest a lot and we would snuggle and watch the box set (we had the David Attenborough version). We were overjoyed when the polar bear mama and her cubs emerged from their icy bed, imitated the baboons crossing the water without getting their paws wet and the silly birds of paradise dancing, closed our eyes when the wolves chased the baby caribou or the great white shark caught its dinner, cried when the polar bear couldn’t get its food… but my daughter’s favorite moment, that had her in belly laughs every time, was the ducks jumping from their nests onto the forest floor:
Documentaries about Animals / Critters
2. African Cats
This is a Disneynature documentary that is narrated by Samuel L Jackson. What makes the Disney nature documentaries different is that they tell a story about the animals- in this case a family of lions and a family of cheetahs. Kids are enraptured by the incredible footage, and literally can’t look away from the screen. You can buy it on amazon, or watch it instantly.
3. Animals are Beautiful People
We picked up this oldie-but-goodie at our library, but you can also watch it instantly on amazon, or get the DVD. This 1974 classic hilariously talks about creatures of the Namib Desert, and your kids will want to watch it over and over.
4. Ants: Nature’s Secret Power
After watching this in-depth report on ants, you will never look at these tiny insects the same! You can watch instantly on amazon or– we were lucky to find the full film on youtube:
Another of the Disneynature documentaries, this time all about brown bears! We love the baby cubs “Amber” and “Scout” and the fast-paced and exciting story in the Alaskan wilderness. The films from Disneynature are great introductions to nature documentaries if you have kids who aren’t used to the genre. There’s a DVD, and you can stream it on-line. If your kids really like bears, and are at least elementary aged, PBS Nature: Fortress of the Bears was streaming on netflix when I last check, and they also have a DVD available.
6. Big Cat Diary
Big Cat Diary is a popular BBC TV series (that began back in 1997) on families of lions, cheetahs, and leopards that live in Kenya’s Maasai Mara. The babies steal the show for my family; the roly-poly balls of fur are adorable! The episodes are available on youtube and you can watch them all in order (to help you follow the storyline!).
7. IMAX Born to Be Wild
Morgan Freeman narrates this fabulous nature doc that features orangutans and elephants. Originally a 3D IMAX film, you can now stream it at home or buy the DVD and enjoy the cuteness overload at home. We first got it when my kids were learning about endangered species earlier this year, and they ended up re-watching it again and again!
Whether you are an adoptive family (like we are!), have a budding Jane Goodall (like my daughter!), or you just enjoy the silly antics of chimps, Chimpanzee is yet another of the entertaining Disneynature documentaries- this time taking you deep into the habitat intelligent and social chimpanzees. This is available on DVD and instant streaming. Watch the adorable trailer:
9. The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos
Another cute Disneynature doc, this time featuring the lesser flamingos of Tanzania. I honestly knew nothing about flamingos before seeing this film, but we learned so much, and cheered on the little birds as they survived attempts from hyenas and marabous! Crimson Wing captures an egg hatching, and then the little chick growing up, being fed by its parent, and learning to walk, then run, and then fly- really great cinematography in a stunning setting.
10. Dogs Decoded
If you have a pet dog, or a dog-lover in your family, this might be the perfect introduction to nature documentaries. The PBS NOVA special, “Dogs Decoded” looks at how the remarkable bond between man and his best friend came to be through science, genetics, and history. We found it on DVD and also instant streaming on netflix.
Earth was the first film in the Disneynature series, and narrated by James Earl Jones. If you are intimidated by the length of Planet Earth, try Earth first (it has a lot of the same footage since it is a joint project from BBC and Disney). This documentary focuses on three animal families (polar bears, elephants, humpback whales) and explores their journeys. Stream it or get the DVD to watch it again and again.
12. The Greatest Animal Migration
Set in the Serengeti, The Greatest Animal Migration follows million of wildebeests as they migrate from Tanzania to Kenya, encountering all of your favorite animals from the African savannah. You can watch it all on-line here:
13. Life in the Undergrowth
David Attenborough is the master of nature documentaries- you will probably recognize his rough voice first as his masterfully describes the scenes. In this series, viewers get an up close view of insects (like a spider, spinning its web!)- which are truly fascinating when you see them magnified onto a big screen. There’s a DVD available, and lots of clips available on youtube.
14. Life of Birds
We liked the Life of Birds a little more than Winged Migration (listed down below), but I can’t really say why? It might have been because we love David Attenborough, and his way of teaching us new things in not so many words. This film gave us a new appreciation for birds and their peculiar displays of feathers and behaviors.
15. Life of Mammals
We LOVE, love, love David Attenborough’s Life of Mammals series. Once when my son was around 5, he walked in on my sister-in-law nursing her baby. He looked at her and said “Oh, like the baby kangaroo” and walked out, referencing this amazing birth scene:). The box set is available, and there are also 20+ favorite clips from BBC Earth on youtube.
16. Madagascar: Island of the Lemurs
My daughter’s FAVORITE animal in the world is the lemur, and so of course we saw the new film “Madagascar: Island of the Lemurs.” (we hope the DVD comes out by Christmas!). She says “every kid should see this movie, so we can all save the habitat of the lemurs in Madagascar before they are all destroyed!” It is still being shown in select theaters and IMAXs.
Microcosmos- like Life in the Undergrowth- uses microphotography to show the world of insects as never seen before. Watching the insects struggle and work, and then getting blown away by the wind or knocked over by a raindrop- it really made me more empathetic towards bugs! Most of the youtube video clips are in French (great way to practice another language), but the DVD does have an English audio option as well.
18. Nature: Animal Odd Couples
We just saw this last weekend and LOVED it! We’ve read several books on animal odd couples, but this PBS nature documentary was really fun to see the playfulness and personalities come through.
19. Pandas: The Journey Home
Who doesn’t love cuddly, black and white pandas!? We can’t wait to see this one, released by NatGeo and in select theatres. I love nature documentaries who also highlight the scientists and conservationists working in the field, and this film give us a tour with the researchers at China’s Wolong Panda Center (where my son hope to visit one day!).
20. Turtle, The Incredible Journey
Last winter we paired this endearing documentary with a sea turtle craft last year (see it all here). Follow a female loggerhead turtle on an extraordinary 2 year, 9000 mile journey from a beach in Florida, up to the frozen north, across the ocean to Africa, and then back to the beach where she was born.
21. Winged Migration
Another artistically stunning piece of work, Winged Migration features birds of all kinds. The entire time you are watching, you will be asking “how did they capture this on film!?” and the answer is: “with teams totaling more than 450 people, 17 pilots and 14 cinematographers, using planes, gliders, helicopters and balloons to fly alongside, above, below and in front of their subjects.” It is available on DVD and also instant streaming, but we got it from our library.
22. Wings of Life (birds, bees, bats, butterflies)
Disneynature does it again with Wings of Life, which covers exactly as the title suggests: all creatures with wings from birds, to bees, to bats, to butterflies. Our favorite section of the documentary is the part on the monarchs in Mexico- breathtaking! The baby bats were surprisingly cute too. Wings of Life is on netflix instant streaming, and also available on DVD.
23. Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom
Though not marketed to kids, this wolverine show by PBS Nature is phenomenal! Legend paints the wolverine to have an evil reputation, when actually they are sociable, bright, and take good care of their families. It’s impressive that with so few numbers in the wild, they were able to get such great footage of the mysterious wolverine. You can watch the whole show on-line here!
Documentaries about the Polar Regions
24. Arctic Tale
Arctic Tale tells the story of cuddly Nanu, the polar bear cub, and slippery Seela, the walrus pup, and the challenges they face in the frigid Arctic. This fun documentary is great for kids and adults, and the stunning NatGeo cinematography shows audiences what will happen in global warming (instead of just lecturing). Watch several clips here to get hooked, and then you can get the instant streaming or DVD here.
25. Knut & Friends
There are 3 true stories woven together in this nature documentary that is a favorite of kids. Knut is an adorable polar bear cub in a Berlin Zoo who is lovingly taken care of by his zookeeper (beware, now my kids all want to have a polar bear as a pet, which is not the point of the movie:), then there are triplet polar bears in the Arctic being taken care of by their mother, and then two orphaned brown bears in Belarus in the wild. The baby cubs are all so mischievous and silly, but the film also builds awareness about the plight of bears and our changing environment. The DVD is available, as is instant streaming.
26. March of the Penguins
Lots of people say March of the Penguins was their first nature documentary, perhaps because of its popularity after it won a 2005 Academy Award. We loved it and have rented it several times- the scenes of the penguins huddling from the cold, the fathers holding the eggs, and then reuniting with the moms, and the babies- it’s all wonderful. You can see it on DVD, or stream instantly.
Documentaries about our Oceans
27. Blue Planet
Blue Planet is a BBC & David Attenborough masterpiece. There really is nothing like it, and if you haven’t seen it yet I highly recommend. What was created as a series, is now sold in a box DVD set with different chapters/episodes- our favorite is the coral reef, perhaps because it reminds my kids of Finding Nemo or our snorkeling in Mexico? There is one scene on the last DVD where an orca kills a baby seal that upset my daughter (it truly is an incredible shot of the killer whale flipping it up in the air). You can stream the episodes on-line, and find a lot of clips on youtube.
The last Disneynature documentary I will list, Oceans does not disappoint. This DVD has all new, breathtaking underwater cinematography that will astound the viewers. Yes, there are prey and predator scenes, and some kids might close their eyes during those short parts, but the awesomeness of the marine life rarely captured on film teaches us why we should be protecting some of the most endangered species on our planet. This film can be streamed on-line as well.
29. Under the Sea
We were lucky enough to watch this documentary in an IMAX theatre- in 3D- and several times as a fish would swim towards us I saw my youngest daughter taking off her glasses because she said “it’s too real!” Really cool scenes that looked amazing on an IMAX screen, and narrated by Jim Carrey. You can rent this for on-line streaming or get the DVD if you’ll watch it over and over- it would be great for a science class (or budding marine biologist) to own!
OK- now tell me what I’m missing! Are there favorite nature documentaries that I’ve missed? Leave them in the comments to share with other readers!