Favourite educational videos

22 December 2009 by Jennifer

There’s loads of wonderful free educational videos available on the net these days. Here are some of the best I know.

BrainPop, Sixty Symbols, The Happy Scientist, Planet SciCast, Junior Rangers, The BBC, The Periodic Table of Videos. Also, a note on Age ranges; And one more…


Short animations on loads of different subjects. BrainPop (ordinary) features Tim and Moby. BrainPop Junior features Annie and Moby. Moby is a robot. In each case, the young human explains the subject, and Moby asks questions by going “Beep”.

There’s an English site, brainpop.co.uk, and an American one which on the whole I prefer. (I don’t like the tone of voice of the English “Tim”. He often sounds like he’s telling Moby off for being stupid.) The American site includes BrainPop Junior.

BrainPop seems pretty good to me for its factual content – though not infallible – and as for the subtexts and politics, it could be a lot worse. On the Columbus Day video they do point out that people were already living in the Americas before Columbus got there. We see women in non-stereotypical roles, and numerous people of colour. I don’t recall any allusion to queer people anywhere yet.

The main downside: a full subscription costs money. But there’s a pretty good selection of free videos too.

BrainPop Free Stuff page. If you go poking around under the category headings, you’ll find a few more individual movies tagged “Free” as well.

BrainPop Junior home page. This includes a free “Movie of the Week”, which changes every week. The new one seems to appear on a Saturday.

At the time of writing, there are also ten free movies on a winter theme.

BrainPop UK doesn’t seem to have a page with free stuff, but again, you can find some tagged “free” by poking around.

In each case, you can also get a free time-limited trial, enabling you to view all the movies: currently 30 days for the UK site and 7 days for the US one.

There’s even BrainPop Español, in Spanish, and a completely separate set of “English as a second language” movies. (I think the ESL ones are free.)

The “ordinary” BrainPop movies are maybe 2 to 3 minutes long, the “Junior” ones more like 10. This might seem odd, but I think perhaps the premise is that younger children would need an adult to set the movies going, whereas older children would be doing it themselves. So the movies for the younger ones are long enough for an adult to nip off and do something else for a few minutes.

Sixty Symbols

This is the latest project from Brady Haran, the same film-maker who did the Periodic Table videos (see below). Here, he interviews a load of Physics people from Nottingham University, occasionally intercut with related footage or photos from history. Most of the films are around 8 to 10 minutes long. Quite a few are about astronomy, but by no means all.

Back in the day when I used to watch TV more than once in a blue moon, I remember seeing coverage of some special astronomical event – I think it was an experimental space probe flying past a planet – and finding it incredibly frustrating, because the interviewers would insist on leaving out all the real explanations in case they got too difficult for the average viewer.

Out of that frustration was born in my mind the plan for a whole imaginary TV programme where it wouldn’t be like that, and each episode would revolve around an enthusiastic scientist explaining their interests and their research. If anyone had offered me the chance to make a TV series, this would have been it! though as it happened, no-one did :-)

Well, these films rather remind me of my idea from back then: just various interesting stuff from physics, explained by people who are very good at explaining it, including demos and memorable analogies and the state of current knowledge and so on.

In my opinion they are some of the best films about science I’ve ever seen. Very very watchable! and all absolutely free!

Sixty Symbols home page.

The Happy Scientist

The Happy Scientist is Robert Krampf. He does all kinds of science stuff that you can try at home, explaining as he goes. It’s proper science, and his enthusiasm shines through – it’s a pleasure to hang out with him.

For example, one of the free videos is about water boiling in a pan, and he explains all the stages and what’s really happening as the bubbles form. And in another one, he turns cream into butter, and at the end he spreads it on some bread and says something like “I love experiments that finish up with something you can eat!”

As with Brainpop, some of the videos are free, and to get access to the full set you have to pay money. But in this case it’s only 20 dollars. Highly recommended.

The Happy Scientist home page.

Planet SciCast

Unlike the above sites, Planet SciCast is a compilation – loads of videos made by people in general – including a lot of teams from schools.

SciCast is trying to build the world’s most entertaining science resource, by collecting contributions that are exciting, dynamic, repeatable, and plain fun.

It’s a mixed bag, as some of the contributors are only beginner video-makers, so e.g. the audio can be a bit dodgy at times. But there are some gems.

Top favourite in this household is The Geiger-Müller Groove.

Alpha beta gamma
Tappa tappa tappa
We’re counting on our Geiger-Müller tube
Alpha beta gamma
Tappa tappa tappa
When we shake it all together we get the Geiger-Müller groove


We also like

We haven’t watched them all yet, so there might be some more good ones.

Junior Rangers

Annie and Joe, the two young presenters, roam around learning about animals, history and the practical running of Longleat (stately home, zoo etc).

For example, they investigate the reputation of wolves, chat to Lord Bath about painting, feed some lions and discover “Spiders aren’t scary, they’re just a bit wriggly tiggly!”

From an adult’s eye, it’s clear that this series must have been made to promote Longleat as a visitors’ destination. I think it’s smart marketing and well carried out – in part because it doesn’t cram the commercial motive down your throat; these are genuinely entertaining programmes in their own right. There’s just the odd “When you visit Longleat, you too can see the [whatever]”. (There’s a BBC TV programme called Animal Park which is also about Longleat, and must also have done the place a world of commercial good.)

Junior Rangers home page.


What’s on the BBC website in terms of videos is always changing. Things stay up there for maybe a week or a month after they’ve been broadcast.

Among favourites in this household have been Life and The Natural World. In lieu of possibly-soon-to-expire links to those, here’s David Attenborough’s favourite moments.

Another fave from the BBC is Tronji, a mix of animation and film. (Link may or may not lead to current programmes, depending on how recently any have been broadcast.) On what I’ve seen so far, I’m rather a fan of Tronjiworld and its subtexts. The premise is that the Tronjis need help from Peopleworld and call on children to help them. (“Welcome, children of Peopleworld. Wobbly-i-o!”) The children get to use their “special skills” to help the Tronjis, and I love the way that even the most seemingly ordinary skills (“telling the time”, “playing the euphonium”) turn out to be exactly what’s required to save the day! Other assets include a mixed-race cast and a great vocabulary of made-up terminology. (“Approaching optimal happiness potential!”)

The Periodic Table of Videos

Earlier project similar to Sixty Symbols, reviewed above. It’s one film per element in the Periodic Table.

I find it not as consistently entertaining as Sixty Symbols, and I’m not sure why. It might be in part because of the inherent limitations of the periodic table as an organising concept for film: some of the heavier elements pretty much don’t exist on Earth, and a lot of the gases are invisible. It might be in part a function of the film-maker’s learning curve – getting gradually better at eliciting interesting comments or demos from the interviewees.

But bear in mind that’s a hard standard to meet, as I think Sixty Symbols is ace! So this is nevertheless good stuff if you like that kind of thing – and the films are still being updated and improved from time to time.

The Periodic Table of Videos.

Age ranges

I’ve not talked about age ranges here, and that’s basically because most of these things aren’t age-specific; they’re potentially enjoyable for anyone, from probably about 3 upwards, or maybe 2 upwards in the case of BrainPop Junior. BrainPop, Tronji and Junior Rangers are explicitly aimed at children, but even then, I’ve learnt things from BrainPop movies and got some mild enjoyment from watching them. So I’d recommend any age child or adult to try out any of the above resources and find out for yourself what you like.

And one more…

Must just mention that old classic, the pinball number count animation from Sesame Street.

Happy watching!

Appreciation, criticism & new ideas all welcome...

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