One of the main arguments against globalization is the vague idea that reveling in our shared experience somehow robs us of our identity. This faulty notion is only gaining more and more steam, as countries buckle to fear and misinformation and attempt to build literal and figurative walls around its precious borders. So, just as preschoolers have done since 1969, we’ll have to turn over the explanation of hard truths and the nurturing of emotional growth to the Muppets.
There has always been a certain inescapable New York-ness about Sesame Street. The brownstone-lined streets with their easily-accessible stoops. The diverse neighbors gathering around the local Bodega. Even the unabashedly Brooklyn birds occasionally in need of super assistance. And yet, the show exists in multiple forms in multiple countries—it’s Takalani Sesame in South Africa, Jalan Sesama in Indonesia, and Zhima Jie in China—without losing its essential Sesame heart. It stands in staunch opposition to those who would shut the world out, showing that being open to new ideas, new cultures, and new people does not strip you of your identity at all. How Sesame Workshop is able to accomplish this is a testament to the show’s experimental nature—baked into its DNA since the start—and the understanding that children need more than just ABCs to navigate the world.
“One of the reasons we could be here after almost 50 years is because each new season is an experiment,” Sherrie Westin, Sesame Workshop’s vice president for global impact and philanthropy, explains during a conversation with Clio. “We remain relevant by constantly looking at the needs of children today. When we started out, it was the 1960s, so the war on poverty and the Civil Rights movement were reflected. Fast forward and there were new issues—the obesity crisis, which wasn’t a part of 1969, but had become prevalent in the U.S. and then around the world. We had Cookie Monster start to teach kids that cookies were a ‘sometime’ food, and that fruits and vegetables were ‘anytime’ foods. Plus there’s the pop culture side. We’re always bringing in celebrities and humor, which appeals to the adults too. It’s all part of our uniqueness and, I think, our effectiveness.”
What started out as an insane idea for using puppets and television to prepare kids for school has blossomed into a global phenomenon impacting real, tangible change for children dealing with upheaval, loss, uncertainty, and even violence all over the world. This is the story of how that happened, and why it continues to happen.
Although it would take it some time to find its footing and its confidence beyond academic basics, Sesame Street was destined to change the academic landscape because from the very beginning it sought to do things differently from what had been done on children’s television before. “Let me tell you why the Sesame Street model is important,” says Dr. Rosemarie Truglio, vice president of education and research at Sesame Workshop and a 20-year veteran of the show. “If we were going to create a television show with the purpose of educating young children, we need to start thinking about producing it in a whole different way. Producers alone can’t make educational television.” Following the wishes of founders Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrissett, the original Sesame Street team built each show around an educational think tank that included developmental psychologists and educators, as well as show writers and producers. The idea, says Dr. Truglio, was to have the psychologists focus on how kids learn, educators focus on the best way to communicate ideas to young children, and producers to figure out how to make it all entertaining for television. In the end, though, no matter how much academic fieldwork went into each idea, the end result had to pass the toughest hurdle of all. “As Joan would say, ‘the real experts are the children themselves’,” says Dr. Truglio. “If what we do fails with a child, it’s not that the child is wrong or broken. It’s that we failed to meet their needs.”
It seems unfathomable now, with 40-plus seasons under its belt and a stable of characters for which the term “iconic” is sadly insufficient, but there was a time when even Sesame Street had to prove itself. According to Dr. Truglio, the goal was always to build to what they dubbed the “Whole Child Curriculum”…but first they had to get there. The first two seasons of the show focused on the basics, content designed to prep preschool age kids for kindergarten and to provide children who may not normally have access to early education a free and effective tool to lay down a foundation in literacy, mathematics, science, and health. “And that was unique before most shows at that time focused in on specific content areas – ‘We’re a literacy show,’ ‘We’re a math show’,” says Dr. Truglio. After a two year assessment period, Sesame Street, which had slowly been working in more pro-social messaging, was allowed to fully begin the Whole Child initiative in earnest.
“Around season three, they began to expand the curriculum to bring in more pro-social messages to work on social and emotional development,” explains Dr. Truglio. “That’s when we really started to develop the more comprehensive ‘Whole Child’ curriculum.” And in order to stay relevant and effective, the show revises its curriculum each and every season, which is why both Dr. Truglio and Westin lovingly refer to Sesame Street as an ongoing experiment. The show’s willingness to adapt to change and take creative risks was put to the test early on when actor Will Lee, who portrayed the show’s beloved Mr. Hooper, passed away during Sesame Street’s 15th season in 1982. “I think it was one of the first children’s shows to address death,” says Westin. “When Mr. Hooper died, I imagine most shows would have simply recast him. But, no, they decided to tackle it. So there was a whole episode explaining to Big Bird that Mr. Hooper wasn’t coming back anymore. It was Sesame Street addressing a very real world issue in a way a child could understand and relate to. We always look at issues through the lens of a child, so as those issues and trends change, we ask, ‘What can Sesame do to help?’”
The assessment period for those early episodes not only gave the series confidence to take on something like the passing of Mr. Hooper (and, yes, Dr. Truglio confirms that the idea of recasting was floated, but ultimately they chose to face it head on) also laid important groundwork for tackling bigger issues.
“We are research-based,” says Westin. “When we launched the initiative about autism and created Julia, the first ever Muppet with autism, it took three years of research—working with advisors, testing, making sure we were getting it right and that we were being sensitive to issues. We’re relying on those who know more than we do.”
At each stage in its growth and development, Sesame Workshop was faced with a choice: Do things the way they had always been done, or forge a new path. Whether it was refusing to be hemmed in by a narrowly-focused curriculum designed to be the TV version of “teaching to the test,” refusing to simply recast a deceased actor’s part when facing the truth was far more impactful, and, of course, refusing to simply export the U.S. edition of Sesame Street overseas and calling it “expansion.” No, even here, Sesame Workshop saw opportunity to do more than just teach. They could inspire change and do real, tangible good for children in need all over the world in a way that spoke directly to them and reflected their own lives.
“When I joined, I would say one of the first big global initiatives I worked on was South Africa,” says Westin. “We had just created Takalani Sesame, and I remember going to Johannesberg for the launch. It was a great example of something most people don’t understand—this was not exporting the U.S. version of the show to South Africa. This was a completely local, indigenous production designed to meet the needs of children in South Africa with local Muppets. It’s completely South African, the same way Sesamstrasse is German or Plaza Sésamo is Mexican. And that’s the beauty of what we do. Children learn best when they see themselves.”
While in Johannesberg, Westin and the Sesame Workshop team were presented another challenge, one that would again have them facing the question: Do we keep doing what we’re doing, or do we do more? “The ministry of education approached us while we were in South Africa and asked us if we could address HIV and AIDs. They told us that one in four children were affected—either infected themselves or had lost a parent. So that was my first real involvement with an initiative where we were asking how can we tackle this in an age-appropriate way that really addresses the needs of these young children?” The result was a new Muppet named Kami, who had lost her mother to HIV/AIDs. “We were breaking down the culture of silence and reducing the stigma surrounding HIV. It was about understanding. Understanding that you couldn’t catch AIDs from playing with someone, for example—the first step to education is communication, right? And you can’t have prevention without education.”
The success of characters like Kami and Julia opened the doors for Sesame Workshop to have the kind of global impact that has made it such a force for good in an increasingly polarized, politicized, and isolated world. “There will always be a certain segment that believes Sesame Street is too liberal,” opines Westin. “But I feel like we are very confident that our agenda is what’s in the best interests of children.”
Just as the shock of the HIV/AIDs statistics in South Africa spurred them to action, conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria bring a troubling new set of facts to their doorstep. “Refugee children wouldn’t have been something that was necessarily on our radar ten years ago, but 65 million people are displaced today, half of whom are children. And an estimated 12 million are under the age of eight. That’s why we started looking at the issues and thinking, what can we do to help?” The issues also extended back home—in 2006, the U.S. military came to Westin and her team for help with the 700,000 military families with preschool age kids dealing with deployment and other upheavals brought about by prolonged war. “We worked with the Pentagon, creating DVDs and kits focused around Elmo’s dad being deployed,” says Westin. “I was told by the highest ranks in the military that there had never been content for young children around these issues. It was so successful, we did a second phase around a parent returning home injured or changed. This led to a third phase about a parent not coming home at all. As deployment became less of an issue, we shifted focus to, sadly, some of the other issues affecting military families, such as incarceration and divorce and the transition back to civilian life. It has had a tremendous impact.”
Despite its immeasurable global impact and the countless lives it has changed for the better, Sesame Workshop still faces hurdles (“Funding is one of our biggest challenges,” says Westin. “People assume we’re commercial, but we’re non-profit and always have been. You can’t have an impact in Afghanistan or Bangladesh unless we’re raising enough money”) as it crosses borders and opens up conversations about difficult and potentially disturbing issues. But not to try is as out of character for them as The Count deciding to use a calculator.
“What we do is point out the similarities, while celebrating the uniqueness of each culture,” says Dr. Truglio. “Have respect, and celebrate differences. And for that, you have to have understanding.”
Sesame Workshop will be honored with the inaugural Global Impact Award at the 58th annual Clio Awards on September 27th.