If you’re in the United States, you no doubt noticed that Nov. 10 marked the 40th anniversary of the first broadcast of “Sesame Street.”
Memories of watching this public broadcast program as children is something that almost all Americans have in common. We all watched. It’s how many of us learned to count, recognize the letters of the alphabet and speak some rudimentary Spanish. It was often funny, sometimes sad and always educational.
What you might not know about “Sesame Street” is that it was deliberately conceived as an educational intervention to help low-income, minority children. I read the history of “Sesame Street” recently and found it to have some very interesting characteristics:
- It was highly targeted. While “Sesame Street” was and continues to be widely viewed by Americans of all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds, the program was very specifically developed to teach minority preschoolers. In the era in which integration of the public schools was an ongoing process, many children whose parents and grandparents had been excluded from higher education (and, in many cases, full and adequate primary and secondary schooling), the show aimed to fill the gaps by specifically targeting low-income, minority children. Thus, the show’s creators set it not in an idyllic suburb, but on an urban street. Its characters did not live in mansions or fancy high-rises, but in basic apartments. “Sesame Street” was conceived as an intervention that would help poor and minority children, who might not have the opportunity to attend preschools, have the chance to be on par with their peers on the first day of elementary school.
- It challenged norms. “Sesame Street” was one of the first programs on television – and the first program aimed at children – to feature a multiracial cast. Its introduction was one of the first times that minority children got to see characters who looked like themselves on television, and it was definitely the first time that those children were interacting with white characters. The state of Mississippi initially tried to ban its broadcast because of this integration. There were also protests that the show featured strong, independent single women who found personal and career fulfillment outside of family and household management.
- It was data-driven. From the beginning, the lessons taught on “Sesame Street” and the way in which they were taught were overseen by a team of academic experts. They consistently looked at minority achievement gaps and targeted the lessons accordingly. The show was developed over the course of more than a year, and its methods were tested on children in laboratories.
- Effects of the program were monitored over the long-term. “Sesame Street’s” education experts knew when their program was effective and when it was not. Outside studies found empirical evidence that children who watched the program consistently learned more than those who did not.
- Adjustments were made over time and across cultures. The world has changed since 1969, and so has “Sesame Street.” The program responded to changes in technology and to new research that showed that younger viewers were watching, meaning a narrative approach to its story lines was necessary. The show is also broadcast in multiple languages all over the world, and its creators responded accordingly. “Sesame Street” did not take a “one size fits all” approach. The most famous example of this cultural sensitivity was the 2002 introduction of Kami, an HIV-positive Muppet on South Africa’s “Takalani Sesame.” Kami is relevant to South African culture and is a wonderful way to explain a difficult subject to young children, hundreds of thousands of whom have to deal with the effects of her disease on their families themselves. Even before Kami’s introduction, “Takalani Sesame” was an important part of the effort to make South Africa a truly multicultural society. Its episodes teach children to cooperate, to value diversity and to be kind to everyone.
- It worked. Are there still disparities in our education system, especially between low-income and minority children and high-income, white children? Yes. Of course. But how much worse would the situation be were so many young children not exposed to basic lessons about the world around them? “Sesame Street” has served a purpose by using proven research to target a specific problem in a specific population.
Hmmm. A highly targeted, norm-challenging, data-driven, culturally relevant intervention to help a specific population that worked? Dare I say that those of us who care about development and humanitarian assistance could learn something from “Sesame Street,” even as adults?
Laura Seay is an Assistant Professor of Government at Colby College. She studies African politics, conflict and development, with a focus on central Africa.