If it's inconvenient to get to the jungles of Borneo to see wild orangutans for yourself, documentaries are a great way to introduce kids to the wonders of the natural world beyond your local woods. Here are some of my favorites.
Recommended for ages 5 and up; rated G; released 2011
Originally shot in IMAX 3D, this documentary switches back and forth between orangutans in Borneo and elephants in Kenya.
The story centers on the efforts of scientists to protect, nurture and release into the wild young animals who have been orphaned by poachers.
There is no violence shown but it provides an opportunity for families to discuss the plight of these endangered animals.
Recommended for ages 5 and up; rated G; released 2013
This documentary covers the birds and the bees — literally — as well as bats, butterflies and flowers. It focuses on the complex relationships between plants and the flying creatures that aid in the process of pollination.
While a film like Earth takes the long view in its sweeping vista of a continent, Wings of Life gets close up and in slow motion to provide a detailed view of the delicate processes and structures involved in the relationships between plants and animals.
Caveats: Very mild violence: A spider traps prey, some birds fight over a flower.
Recommended for ages 7 and up; rated G; released 2009
This is the 90-minute version of the epic 11-hour BBC/Discovery Channel series Planet Earth. This gorgeously filmed documentary follows animals on each of the seven continents over the course of a year.
Like all nature documentaries life for these animals can be hard and death is always present.
Caveats: While there's nothing particularly gruesome in this one you do see predators catching their prey so sensitive viewers should be aware.
Recommended for ages 7 and up; rated G; released 2012
Nature documentaries often push the line of anthropomorphizing their subjects. And never more so when dealing with the most human of animals, apes.
The first time I saw the trailer for Chimpanzee I thought there was no way I was going to show this to my kids. I imagined they would be reduced to weeping puddles of sorrow as we watched adorable baby chimpanzee Oscar orphaned by a rival troupe and then adopted by the alpha male in his group, Freddie.
As it happens, Tim Allen's jokey and sometimes inappropriate narration distracted (enough) from the pathos of Oscar's story.
Recommended for ages 8 and up; rated G; released 2011
I considered recommending this for older kids because this documentary, due to the predatory nature of its protagonists, is more consistently violent than the others. It's not particularly gory but death is present in African Cats in a way it isn't in the other films. It doesn't help that the narration plays up the human characteristics of the main cats.
That said, there is also plenty of footage of adorable cubs frolicking through gorgeous cinematography, so if big cats are your thing this is definitely worthwhile.
Kids will learn about the savanna and the differences between the family groups and hunting styles of cheetahs and lions. If big cats are your thing this is definitely worthwhile.
Caveats: Scenes of animals hunting and dying; the implied death of some cubs; and the death of a central character.