Forty Years After Its First Episode, Sesame Street Is Still Saving the World
In the four decades since its premiere on Nov. 10, 1969, Sesame Street has been the subject of enough scholarly studies to give Big Bird a lifetime of nest-making material. Leafing through the literature is like letting the Cookie Monster loose in a Mrs. Fields franchise: You delve in excitedly before realizing there's more here than any single creature can digest.
The nexus between Sesame Street and academic research predates the debut of the classic children's show. In 1967, Joan Ganz Cooney, a producer at New York City's "educational" (soon to be "public") television station, Channel 13, wrote a seminal paper titled "The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education." Submitted to a receptive Carnegie Foundation in February 1968, the report summarizes the scant research that had been done on young children and television up to that time and described Cooney's interviews with educators and child psychologists, who shared their varied visions of an educational program for 3- to 5-year-olds.
"Nearly everyone I met liked the idea of a daily, hour-long program," she wrote. "Almost all of them wanted the letters of the alphabet and their sounds, as well as numbers, included." One month later, the Children's Television Workshop (later renamed the Sesame Workshop) was founded, with Cooney as executive director. The University of Michigan's Edward Palmer was hired as vice president for research (a position, one can safely assume, that was never created for the Howdy Doody show).
According to his 1999 New York Times obituary, "Palmer's findings indicated that children took delight in watching other children and animals, that they liked music and slapstick, wanted characters to be kind to one another, and were bored by talking adults." Incorporating his results and the insights of child development experts, producers of the nascent program — with the invaluable help of Jim Henson and his Muppets — created its remarkably durable structure.
Given its research base, it's not surprising that academics began studying Sesame Street's impact virtually as soon as it went on the air. In 1972, a summary of this early research was published in the Journal of Special Education. The consensus, according to the University of Pennsylvania's Janet Rogers, was that the show was "highly successful" in meeting its goal of preparing children for school. "Children who have watched Sesame Street are more interested in what teachers are trying to teach and have superior concentration to that of their peers," she wrote. An early study of nearly 1,000 3- to 5-year-olds conducted by Educational Television Service found that those who had watched the show outperformed their peers in terms of both specific skills and vocabulary, adding that "children who watched the most learned the most."
But more than a few academics played the role of Oscar the Grouch, complaining that the show "was too far removed from structured teaching" or "borrowed too heavily from high-pressure patterns of commercial TV." John Holt, author of How Children Learn, wrote a detailed critique of the program for the May 1971 issue of The Atlantic. In it, he complained that it "has aimed too low," especially in terms of introducing kids to the concept of writing. Children, he asserted, should be taught that writing is an extension of speech — something that could be done by showing words on the screen as they are being spoken. Cooney conceded this was sound criticism and tweaked the program accordingly, thus establishing the pattern of letting the show evolve as new research produces fresh ideas.
In the 1980s and 1990s, scholars looked at how members of the Sesame Street generation were doing in high school. Two teams of researchers collaborated to interview 570 adolescents, all of whom had been studied as preschoolers. "The most striking finding was that frequent viewers of Sesame Street and other child-informative programs at age 5 had higher high school grades in English, math and science than infrequent viewers, even with controls for early language ability and the educational level achieved by parents," Althea Huston of the University of Texas at Austin reported in the May 1998 Annals of the American Society of Political and Social Science. The head start provided by Bert, Ernie and the gang was still paying off more than a decade later.
In that same paper, Huston and co-author John C. Wright addressed a series of criticisms made of Sesame Street and the other educational programs that it spawned. They examined specific elements that discomforted critics — including the notion that the fast pace of such shows produce kids with a reduced attention span — and concluded such fears were not supported by evidence. "On the contrary," they wrote, "heavy viewers of Sesame Street are rated as being slightly better prepared for school and as having a more positive attitude toward school than infrequent viewers."
Okay, so Sesame Street helps teach kids how to read. But will it bring about world peace? The program is currently seen in 120 countries, 30 of which boast specially created versions co-produced by the New York-based company and a local broadcaster. Some of these are in regions with severe ethnic tensions, including the Middle East and Kosovo; appropriately, those series have focused heavily on promoting respect and understanding.
So how are they doing? A 2003 study in the International Journal of Behavioral Development examined the initial impact of Rechov Sumsum and Shara'a Simsim, Hebrew- and Arabic-language versions of Sesame Street aimed at Israeli and Palestinian children, respectively. The programs simultaneously premiered in April 1998; researchers interviewed children from both Israel and the Palestinian territories before it went on the air, and again after four months of broadcasts.
Not surprisingly, they found that children from both regions "had negative stereotypes about the other culture" as early as age 4. After 16 weeks of Sesame Street, "only the Israeli-Jewish children displayed a change in response pattern regarding knowledge of cultural similarities," the researchers reported. In contrast, the Arabic version of the show "did not seem to affect Palestinian children's use of negative stereotyping."
In a 2008 follow-up in that same journal, Charlotte Cole, the Sesame Workshop's in-house academic researcher, conceded those results were disappointing. She noted that because the Palestinian programs were shorter (15 minutes rather than 30), and fewer were produced, children in the West Bank and Gaza "saw primarily Palestinian material with only a minimal amount of Israeli content," whereas the Israeli children saw a significant amount of footage created by Palestinians. "Had the producers been able to include more Israeli material in the Arabic program, the outcome might have been very different," she concluded.
Cole added that "even though many children had previously expressed intense negative stereotypes about an adult member of the other culture, the majority of children (who were regular Sesame Street viewers) applied concepts of fairness, and in some instances friendship, to peer conflict situations involving Israeli and Palestinian children." She argued that this finding "lends credibility to the worth of programs that are oriented to the child-to-child level," adding that such shows can make an impact "when they are child-relevant, age-appropriate and provide direct and explicit messages." After all, who couldn't love the Falafel Monster?