Screen Saver: Educational Films at Home

By NYPL Staff
May 13, 2020
Unidentified man and child watching Arturo Toscanini conduct on television

Unidentified man and child watching Arturo Toscanini conduct on television, 1952. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 56910285

Screen time, the fierce opponent of any adult having to parent a child. But are all screens created equal? There is a long history of film librarians being really clear about what constitutes good films for our patrons and, well, junk. I'm proud that NYPL was a vocal advocate for embracing a wide variety of filmmaking styles as educational and I can argue all day for the educational merit of a feature film when used in the right context. And yet I just found myself having to lay down the law in my own home with my second-grader: Rocky and Bullwinkle is what you watch in the morning with a bowl of cereal (R.I.P., network morning cartoons). And then you have to transition to educational stuff.

So what is "educational stuff" in the stay-and-stream-at-home era? I normally dislike how this phrase is used to keep marginalized voices marginalized but I think it works here: I'm going to "stay in my lane" and consider "educational stuff" as we think of it at the public library (and not in a larger social, academic or curricular context): a motion picture which challenges the viewer to broaden their view and understanding of the world and consider their role therein. Traditionally, this has meant the documentary genre. And documentary is great, especially if the film allows those who have been rendered mute and invisible to be seen and heard. But there are other options! Silent, Abstract and Avant-Garde films require a different kind of viewer engagement and promote emotional intelligence and visual literacy. If you are thinking this means trying to decipher the meaning of a bunch of squiggly lines on the screen, read on (but also watch the 1963 Mel Brooks hilarious short film The Critic).

National Film Board of Canada

I have loved NFB films since grade school and even then they were a bit "old school." That being said, when my daughter's class had to read up on lakes and lake formation for school last week, I sat her down in front of The Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes. And it killed. She watched it three times in a row. If this folk-song telling of how lakes are formed makes you cringe, just wait until the protagonist and his canoe start falling out of the sky or freezing atop a glacier because he's been magically transported throughout earth's natural history (a great use of stop motion, a filmmaking trick perfected in the late 19th century by Georges Melies).

NFB has an easy-to-navigate website with tons of free material: home-school activities; new productions and classics, like the film version of Paddle to the Sea; and curated playlists that group titles together thematically or stylistically. The takeaway: no matter what you choose to watch from NFB, this historic producer/distributor delivers quality educational material to get viewers thinking about what they saw and what it means. Hint for adults: literally ask your kids what they saw and what it means to them and voila! visual literacy. Need a place to start? A Chairy Tale. Don’t worry about the synopsis, year of production or academic review. Just push play and encourage viewers to talk about what they are seeing and what it means.


A primary goal of The New York Public Library in building its Reserve Film and Video Collection has been to make available to all those voices, perspectives and experiences that would otherwise be hidden. An online source that shares this mission is Folkstreams. Here you will find Clotheslines, Roberta Cantow’s incomparable meditation on laundry and the women who do it, which NYPL preserved on 16mm film and then helped to digitally remaster. And there are many more works held in the library’s Collection which you can stream here for free: From Mambo to Hip Hop, The High Lonesome Sound, It’s Grits... (Tom Davenport has also digitized his Appalachian fairy tale films, favorites of children’s librarians.)

Silent Clowns

This outstanding silent film comedy series, produced by film historians Bruce Lawton, Steve Massa and Ben Model, normally takes place once a month in the Bruno Walter Auditorium at the Library for the Performing Arts. Nothing will replace the sound of two hundred New Yorkers laughing together, but Ben’s YouTube channel and the Silent Comedy Watch Party can at least bring some guffaws into your living room. So what’s so educational about slapstick comedy? First of all, you have to read visual cues and body language to understand what’s going on. That takes some serious brain activity. Need to work in a social studies lesson? Depending on the age of your viewers, you can talk about what was considered “funny” in the early 20th century, to whom and how that might not apply in 2020. Or think about how Ben’s music—he’s a professional silent film accompanist and a master of creating emotional mood—influences the scene. Pair it with this Reading Rainbow episode on how music can help interpret a situation and you’re done adulting for the day. Where to begin? Try the comedy shorts "Hey There" and "Cheer Up."


PBS has a learning media site filled with free resources and from now until June 30th, they are making available for streaming Ken Burns’ documentary films including Jazz, The Civil War, Lewis & Clarke and more.


In the past, Netflix has allowed teachers to screen some of its documentaries in classrooms. To adjust to the current moment, they've now made many of these available for free via an Educational Documentaries YouTube Channel. Offerings include the 8-episode series Our Planet.

Streaming Documentaries with Your Library Card

Did you know you can "check out" documentaries (and other video titles) with your NYPL library card? You can browse the documentaries we have available—which include titles like The Trials of Muhammed Ali, Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Dinotasiaand enjoy them from home.