The Study of Sesame Street


sesame_main_1109_articleSesame Street is the ne plus ultra of kid’s shows, the one show most of us don’t feel guilty flipping on for awhile so we can do something crazy like eat a meal or go to the bathroom. While it’s not the totally wacky and hilarious show I remember from my own childhood, there’s still that wonderful sense of gentleness, for lack of a better word. Monsters, kids, and grownups all peacefully coexist, life’s challenging moments (economic woes, the death of a neighborhood friend, the arrival of a sibling) are all gently explained, and the mysterious world of letters and numbers and colors is unlocked in the most fun and subtle way.

The show’s changed a lot since my childhood and feels more commercial to me. But those changes — and  indeed the show itself –have been rigorously, carefully researched from the very beginnings.

According to this interesting Miller-McCune article, show founder Joan Ganz cooney, who was then working at public-TV precursor Channel 13 in New York, wrote a paper on the uses on television in preschool education. It summed up what until then had been scant research on the topic. She also interviewed various experts about what would make a good children’s TV show. According to the article: “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.”

As thinking on how best to reach kids has evolved, so has the show. Even Elmo, who parents tend to either love or want to tickle right into oblivion, was a reaction to the fact that the age of kids who watch the show was skewing younger, so they created a character that would appeal to them. And he is like crack to toddlers, as any of us who have watched our child shout “MELMO!!” at the very sight of his likeness can attest.

Tons of research has been aimed at the show since its inception 40 years ago, certainly more than any other children’s show. It actually does help prepare children for school , it turns out, and even a  study of high school kids in the 1980s and 1990s who grew up with the Sesame crew found that the positive effects of the show still lingered.

I’m still not sure who was responsible for the current hip-hop opening, though.

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