Free and family friendly: What to watch while you stay at home

As the push to stay at home continues, some streaming sites are dropping paywalls and offering free access. The CBC's Eli Glasner runs down the best options for families that don't require a monthly subscription.

A look at what libraries and streaming sites are offering as you practise social distancing

With families trapped inside to try to stop the spread of COVID-19, parents will need plenty of options to keep their kids entertained. (Luke MacGregor/Reuters)

As politicians and public health officials deploy different measures to try to contain the spread of COVID-19, the message is clear: Stay home. 

But with schools shut and many parents now working from home, finding accessible and affordable ways to keep kids entertained can be a challenge, especially with rising subscription fees. Fortunately, there are plenty of free and family-friendly options out there. 

Here's where to start. 


You can find Ben Stiller's turn as a good-hearted but empty-headed model in Zoolander on Tubi. (Paramount Pictures)

Tubi is an ad-supported streaming service with a broad catalogue of titles and shows. The curation has the feel of a bargain-basement Blockbuster, but there are a few gems if you go digging (hint: click on movie night link).

For GenX parents, Tubi is a virtual time machine of kids shows from the '80s and '90s. Pour out some of your favourite sugary cereal and recreate a Saturday morning playlist with Alf, Transformers, Sailor Moon and GI Joe. If you're looking for classics, there's the always dependable rubber-faced antics of Mr. Bean, plus a healthy selection of Laurel and Hardy titles. 

In terms of more modern comedies, you can't go wrong with Ben Stiller's 2001 fashion farce Zoolander or Will Ferrell's figure skating comedy Blades of Glory


James Rolleston plays a teen who meets his long-lost father in Boy, a film available on Kanopy. (Mongrel Media)

Kanopy partners with public libraries to offer enriching digital content including films, children's series and a wide selection of documentaries. Even if your local library is closed, you can use your library account number for access. For example, Toronto users can view eight titles a month. If your family has multiple library cards you can increase that number. 

Kanopy has some rewarding lesser-known titles including Boy, a personal coming-of-age story from Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi. For visual art fans, there's Loving Vincent, a gorgeous hand-painted film about the life of Vincent Van Gogh. If you're looking for something sillier, check out A Town Called Panic, a stop-motion animated movie created with a charming sense of absurdity. Imagine a film in the style of the Lego movies, but told with plastic model pieces. It has French subtitles, but the sense of humour is universal. 

Also for the younger ones, there's Kanopy Kids, which has unlimited streaming, including animated versions of much-loved children's books such as Mo Willems's Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! If you need more Mo Willems, the artist is now posting daily drawing lessons on the Kennedy Center YouTube channel.


The Oscar-nominated The Cat Came Back is one of many animated selections available at NFB.ca. (National Film Board of Canada)

For an organization established 81 years ago, the National Film Board of Canada embraced the internet early and has a vast catalogue of Canadiana. If you're looking for bite-size entertainment, there's the Oscar-nominated classic The Cat Came Back and many other cartoons. For a sense of tranquillity, how about a marathon of Hinterland Who's Who?


The new series Utopia Falls takes place in a future where a group of teens discover an ancient archive of hip-hop music. (Brooke Palmer)

On CBC's own streaming service, CBC Gem, the fourth season of Kim's Convenience has arrived. It finds Appa and family drawn into some lovingly ludicrous situations. Plus, there's Utopia Falls, a new young adult series that is Hunger Games meets hip hop. For a different type of teen experience, check out PEN15. Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine play their younger selves as they begin the seventh grade — an interesting choice that adds an uncomfortable sense of honesty to the comedy.   


Strictly Ballroom, an outrageously romantic dance film from Australia, is available on Hoopla. (Cinepix)

Similar to Kanopy, Hoopla uses your local library account to provide a rich range of content. The website also offers a "Kids Mode," where only children-friendly selections are displayed. With a variety of choices including the Berenstain Bears, The Magic School Bus and Max and Ruby, there's hours of kids shows and educational programs. 

As far as film, there are classics including Charlotte's Web and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (if Dick Van Dyke can't distract you, no one can). Dance fan? Time to introduce the family to the pleasures of the outrageously romantic Strictly Ballroom


The critically acclaimed animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is available on Crave. (Sony Pictures)

The Bell streaming service is currently offering a 30-day free-trial period for all Canadians. 

The kids collection is bursting with brand-name blockbusters. Why not check out The Lego Movie and then build your own stay-at-home survival kit? For fans of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, The Kid Who Would Be King is a spirited update aimed at young teens. For comic book fans, there's Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a Bang! Pow! masterpiece that brings new relevance to the web crawler. 

The rest

Once you've exhausted the big- and small-screen options, there are other ways to be entertained. Audible is currently offering a free collection of audiobooks for kids. Music fans can explore Medici.tv, which offers hours of classical concerts and ballets, and works with most libraries.

What are you watching? Share it in the comments below.


Eli Glasner

Senior entertainment reporter

Eli Glasner is the senior entertainment reporter and screentime columnist for CBC News. Covering culture has taken him from the northern tip of Moosonee, Ontario, to the Oscars red carpet and beyond.  

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