12 Documentaries That Will Inspire Kids to Change the World

From the plight of captive killer whales to child hunger, documentaries give kids a glimpse into worlds they may not normally encounter -- and could inspire a new passion.
Caroline Knorr Parenting Editor | Mom of one Categories: We Recommend
Parenting Editor | Mom of one

The words "let's watch a documentary" might not roll off the tongue of the average tween or teen. But, during the long days of summer when kids crave a change of pace, have time to explore subjects more deeply, or could use a little motivation, documentaries can provide a welcome diversion. They can also be a great pick for families to watch together. And you can find them for kids as young as 6.

Documentaries can be opinionated, controversial, and raw, and filmmakers often use graphic scenes to illustrate points of view. Choose movies that are appropriate for your kids' ages, and be on the lookout for extreme images (especially if your kids are sensitive). You may not agree with everything in the movie, but that's part of what makes viewing documentaries interesting: The conversations afterward can lead kids (and parents) to new insights about themselves and the world. And who knows? Watching a documentary might just inspire your kids to discover a new passion or cause. Here are some excellent documentaries for kids, tweens, and teens.


Wings of Life, ages 6+
Little kids are fascinated by the natural world, and this Disney movie taps into their curiosity by celebrating the earth's unsung heroes. Vibrant footage shows how interconnected the earth's greatest pollinators -- bees, bats, birds, and butterflies -- really are.
What to talk about: Discuss flowers and how your family can help pollinators in your own backyard or a community garden. What can you do to keep the cycle of pollination going strong?

A Place at the Table, ages 9+
In the urban streets of Philadelphia, the rural towns of Colorado, and the hamlets of Mississippi, kids are going hungry. Both experts and real families discuss the pervasive problem of food insecurity in this affecting documentary that'll make your kids grateful for what they have -- and possibly inspire them to help.
What to talk about: Discuss what your family can do. Can you join a local food bank through your community or house of worship? Can you write a letter as a family to your elected officials?

Walking with Dinosaurs, ages 9+
Got a budding paleontologist on your hands? This ambitious production unfolds like a documentary but with a twist: digital technology that recreates the 155-million-year reign of the dinosaurs. Paleontological discoveries from fossil remains and preserved footprint groupings provide the framework; the rest is best-guess speculation and a lot of imagination.
What to talk about: What sorts of things did the filmmakers have to guess about to create this film? Do we really know what color dinosaurs were? Do you think this was exactly the way they walked? Sounded? Cared for their young? Fought one another?

The Dream Is Now, ages 12+
If you want to get kids interested in world affairs, movies featuring real kids discussing their daily challenges are guaranteed to get their attention. The issue in this movie is immigration reform -- and, although it has a definite point of view, it illustrates how political hot potatoes affect all kinds of lives.
What to talk about: Some media, such as news stories and documentaries, often are expected to be objective in the way they present issues. Do you think it's OK for a documentary to take a position? Why, or why not?

Blackfish, ages 13+
Is it OK to hold killer whales -- known to be emotional and intelligent -- in captivity and train them to perform? That's the question this heartbreaking documentary explores in sometimes shocking footage. The movie unfolds like a psychological thriller, making its point with beautiful -- and brutal -- imagery. 
What to talk about: Does this movie make a good argument for closing sea parks for good? What could be an argument for keeping them open?
 

Bully, ages 13+
Though it's not easy to watch -- and in fact originally received an R rating -- Bully provides an intimate portrayal of the daily lives of bullying victims. The movie's producers launched a national campaign to end bullying called The Bully Project, in which kids can get involved.
What to talk about: What is an individual's responsibility to stand up, not stand by? Is that easy to do? How do you think people can really make a difference against bullies?

Chasing Ice, ages 13+
Global warming is a hot topic, and it's hard to argue with this movie's time-lapse evidence of glacial retreat by National Geographic photographer James Balog. Whatever your opinion, Chasing Ice provides many opportunities for discussion.
What to talk about: What small changes can your family make to be more environmentally conscious? What kind of an impact would your community have if it got on board? Is ecological responsibility something the government should mandate?

Food Inc., ages 13+
For an exposé on the so-called "industrial food complex," this documentary offers a surprisingly simple and hopeful message: Putting your money where your mouth is -- on informed food purchases -- really matters. The movie's website TakePart offers several ways families can get involved.
What to talk about: Does this movie make you think twice about asking for chicken fingers? What about junk food in general?

 

Hoop Dreams, ages 13+
Mad skills on the basketball court aren't a guarantee of the good life -- you have to be lucky, too. Problems, pitfalls, and poverty lurk around every corner in this documentary about two young basketball stars competing for college scholarships.
What to talk about: Discuss the experiences of William Gates and Arthur Agee both on and off the high school basketball court. How do their family environments help and hurt them? Why do other young people -- particularly young black men -- find themselves in similar situations? What do you think about the boys' long-term goals? What would you have done differently? How are their predicaments similar to and different from those of other children in inner cities across the United States?

Miss Representation, ages 13+
For girls -- and boys -- interested in gender equality, Miss Representation isn't only a movie -- it's a movement. Using advertising images, interviews, and movie clips, this documentary invites viewers to challenge how women are portrayed in the media -- and to actually do something about it.
What to talk about: Discuss how the media shapes our views of women. What messages do you see on TV, in movies, and on the Web? How would you get other people to recognize when women and girls are portrayed negatively and as stereotypes?

Waste Land, ages 14+
"Trash talk" takes on an entirely new meaning in this documentary about the people who work in a landfill outside Rio de Janeiro. Incredibly poor -- but incredibly resilient -- these folks get viewers to see the dignity of people living in poverty.
What to talk about: What is the ability of one man -- in this case, Vik Muniz -- to make a difference in the world? What elements were included in the movie to make Muniz appear like a hero? What do you think was left out? Are there opportunities in your community to "give something back"?

The Square, ages 15+
This Oscar-nominated movie about the Arab Spring prominently features the modern communication tools teens love so much: YouTube, camera-phone videos, and social-media posts. It's raw, but it authentically chronicles events in real time, showing the power of people to affect change.
What to talk about: How were social-networking sites and camera phones used in both the documentation of this movie and the revolution itself? How would this revolt have been different -- in Egypt and on the international stage -- without access to this technology?

About Caroline Knorr

As Common Sense Media's parenting editor, Caroline helps parents make sense of what’s going on in their kids' media lives. From games to cell phones to movies and more, if you're wondering "what’s the right age for…?"... Read more
Have you ever watched a documentary with your kids?

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Comments (2)

Educator and Parent written by KevinWWJV

My wife, Joy, just saw a documentarywhich you may want to add to your list. It has already received several great reviews and awards. The title is "Drop Box" and the main organizations involved go a long way to prove that every human life has value.