My Favorite Classic Movies for Kids (and the Right Age to Watch Them)

published Dec 12, 2023
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Credit: Maxwell Ryan

As a former Waldorf class teacher, I’ve seen firsthand how unchecked screentime from films, TV, and computer games can adversely affect young children as they grow, but I also believe in doing what I can as a parent to educate and turn a potential problem into an opportunity – and to meet the modern world carefully and at our own speed. I started this project four years ago, it’s been going really well. Here’s the latest update.

While my eight-year-old daughter doesn’t play with computers or watch television at home, I’ve been introducing her to a curated collection of films very slowly and exposing her to the whole history of moving pictures in a way that mirrors her own growth and understanding a little more closely.

The concept here is that children should be educated in all things by starting at the very beginning as that is the place where their own development most closely mirrors what they’re looking at. If you introduce children to forms that are too sophisticated for them at too early of an age, they will digest it poorly and lose the ability or the appetite to understand and enjoy earlier, simpler forms. This creates a missed opportunity, and the “waking up” of children too early is a common problem in today’s education.

Note: Watching films are NOT a replacement for telling stories or reading books to children. Both of those are FAR better and require their own imaginations to create the story. This project is just in the service of a battle against poor films and videos which surround us and which they will see somewhere even if you don’t want them to. This project is meant to show some of the best, slowest and earliest bits of cinema, show them the potential and put some protein into the mix. Consider it homeopathic and a little bit goes a long way.

My goal was to watch one of my favorite films, The Sound of Music (1965), with her but not before she’d experienced far older and simpler films – all of which lead up to and inform the newer ones. The Sound of Music – nearly 50 years old – is a complex film in both story and effects, but certainly nothing like current films that use digital animation, fast editing and extremely mature dialogue to keep kids hooked to the screen. The amount of information and stimulation pushed through a film these days is, in my mind, not really suitable for young children. When we finally watched TSoM two Christmases ago, we broke it up into three evenings

She’s going to eventually see a lot of stuff on the screen (at friends’ houses usually) and I’d like to give her a really good background in where all these things come from so that she can navigate it in a really strong way. It’s also proving to be an amazing education for me.

So, three years ago we started to watch films together at the rate of about one every two months (we often don’t watch the whole thing in one sitting, and always on a weekend or vacation), we often watch them over again (kids are great about this), and we always watch them together. We started with the oldest films I could find, which are silent and then moved into the talkies of the 1930’s. As I’ve looked around, I’ve found some particularly good ones that I wanted to list, and which I’ll keep adding to. If you have any recommendations, please add them in the comments. These are our faves so far.

These early films are short and all silent (Modern Times has sound effects and the the first words Chaplin ever spoke on film). One AM is only 20 minutes long, which is perfect for a five-year-old. The longer films we often watched over two or three nights.

What has been amazing to watch in my daughter is her incredible patience and enjoyment of the very old films. We’ve watched old films with other children who have seen a lot more contemporary fare and not all of them can stick with it or enjoy it. I think it’s very special if you can give your child the opportunity to literally grow with and enjoy film as it developed over the past hundred years.

DISCLAIMER: If this whole notion seems very antiquated to you or impossible to effect OR too liberal, my apologies in advance. It’s certainly not easy to raise children and everyone has different home cultures, but I’ve just found that this works well for our home.

ADDITIONAL NOTE: You will notice that animated films are left out of the list so far. While they were certainly super popular and attractive to children, I believe that human based films are far better for young children. In other words, the more real, the better, allowing children to put themselves inside the films in a far more empowering way.

Seen at Age 5 – Silent films

Age 6 – Talkies from the 30s

  • 1933-6 The Little Rascals
  • 1933 Duck Soup – The Marx Brothers (I wasn’t so fond of this, but she was)
  • 1965 The Sound of Music – Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer (couldn’t resist and watched it at the end of the year before Xmas)

Age 7 – Films up to the 40s

  • 1940 The Great Dictator – Charlie Chaplin
  • 1958 Mon Oncle – Jacques Tati
  • 1953 Mr. Hulot’s Holiday – Jacques Tati
  • 1956 The Red Balloon – Albert Lamorisse
  • 1947 Miracle on 34th Street – George Seaton
  • 1952 Singing In The Rain – Gene Kelly
  • 1939 The Wizard of OZ – Judy Garland (this has scary moments, pause often and keep all the lights on)
  • 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood – Errol Flynn
  • 1937 Heidi – Shirley Temple

Age 8 – Films up to the 50s

  • 1933 Flying Down to Rio – Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers
  • 1934 The Gay Divorcee – Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers
  • 1935 Top Hat – Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers
  • 1935 Roberta – Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers
  • 1936 Swing Time – Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers
  • 1936 Follow The Fleet – Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers
  • 1937 Shall We Dance – Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers
  • 1939 The Little Princess – Shirley Temple
  • 1946 It’s a Wonderful Life – Frank Capra
  • 1944 National Velvet – Elizabeth Taylor
  • 1954 Brigadoon – Gene Kelly
  • 1946 It’s a Wonderful Life – Frank Capra

Age 9 – Films up to the 60s

  • 1960 Swiss Family Robinson
  • 1964 A Hard Day’s Night – The Beatles
  • Our Gang (The Little Rascals) – Many many short episodes here
  • 1945 Tarzan and the Amazons – Johnny Weissmuller
  • Kirikou and the Sorceress – Michel Ocelot (Wonderful French animated film by talented Ocelot dubbed into english)

Age 10 & Beyond – Films up to the 70s

  • 1963 The Pink Panther – David Niven, Peter Sellers
  • 1964 A Shot in the Dark – Peter Sellers, Herbert Lom (2nd Panther film)
  • 1975 The Return of the Pink Panther – Peter Sellers
  • 1976 The Pink Panther Strikes Again – Peter Sellers
  • 1978 The Revenge of the Pink Panther – Peter Sellers (this is the last Seller’s Panther film)
  • 1947 It’s a Wonderful Life – Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed
  • 1944 National Velvet – Elizabeth Taylor
  • 1963 Cleopatra – Cecille B. Demille: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton
  • 1949 Samson & Delilah – Cecille B. Demille: Heddy Lamar, Victor Mature
  • 1956 The Ten Commandments – Cecille B. Demille: Charlton Heston

This article originally published in 2019 on Apartment Therapy. See it there: My Favorite Films for Children