Happy Birthday, Sesame Street!

Sesame Street is 40 years old this week. It was a surprise to me that Sesame Street was “born” in the same week as the internet. While I would not try to make the case that Sesame Street was as much of a world-changing force as the internet (please comment if you think it is), it certainly had impact on learning and teaching thought and practice.

What were the principles of Sesame Street? Noting that television commercials were very good at catching and holding children’s attention, producers of the programme decided to apply some of the same techniques for educational purpose: good music, easy-to-remember phrases, attractive images, and short film segments. While the programme was consequently blamed for contributing to children’s short attention spans, one can hardly fault the eminently practical approach. After all, little songs and rhymes have been a learning and teaching technique ever since anyone can remember. I still say to myself “I before E, except after C, or as sounded like AY as in neighbour or weigh” when spelling tricky words.

Another principle was the promotion of social values such as getting along with people different from yourself. Sesame Street was set in a multi-ethnic, friendly neighbourhood which did not look as affluent as did the settings of many American television shows. While much has been said and written about the political correctness of Sesame Street for good or ill, it was a refreshing challenge to television stereotypes and was therefore, if nothing else, a worthwhile experiment in encouraging children to think about such issues. I recently came across “The educational impact of Rechov Sumsum/Shara’a Simsim: A Sesame Street television series to promote respect and understanding among children living in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza” in the International Journal of Behavioral Development. To quote the abstract, “Exposure to the programme was linked to an increase in children’s use of both prosocial justifications to resolve conflicts and positive attributes to describe members of the other group.”  So the Middle East’s version of Sesame Street, which started airing in 1998, is seen as a positive influence, and while it has undergone various format changes, it is still on television.

But the most important principle of Sesame Street was FUN! Jim Henson’s Muppets were funny and clever and quickly became cultural icons. The little cartoons featuring the letter M were fun, as were the songs about “Chickens in the Trees.” I was already in primary school when Sesame Street made it to the airwaves in my hometown, and did not need it to teach me the alphabet or numbers. But I still remember rushing home after school to see it, and all my classmates seemed to be doing the same. We hadn’t seen anything like it before — it was educational and fun. What a shocking combination!

Happy Birthday, Sesame Street!

Terese Bird

Beyond Distance Learning Technologist and Assistant ZooKeeper

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1 Comment

  1. Edutainment – making it work « Beyond Distance Research Alliance Blog

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