Beginning research in the tumultuous 1960s, Sesame Street, “strived to exemplify and create an egalitarian and more tolerant community” (Mandel 3). As an American icon, Sesame Street’s goal was to foster generations that would create a new world through diversity, Television education and the whole child curriculum.
First and foremost, Sesame Street was created to “educate disadvantaged urban preschool children” (3 Mandel). In 1966 Joan Ganz Cooney began researching the value of educational programming for disadvantaged pre-schoolers (Mandel 4). In her research, Cooney highlighted the limited availability of pre-school and the widening gap between the middle and low class as reasons for “the creation of supplementary educational opportunities through the untapped medium of television” (Mandel 4). Through her research Sesame Street was born.
Originally, non-profit organizations and the federal government funded Sesame Street. In the first year The Elementary and Secondary Education Act under President Johnson’s Great Society funded Sesame Street with eight million dollars. Sesame Street was apart of the growing concern for the poor in the economic boom of post war America. John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society, “condemn[ing] the limited agenda and investments of US public policy in schools and other public services,” and Michael Harrington’s The Other America, revealing the hidden poor among the affluent nation were contemporary projects focused on helping the poor.Sesame Street’s development was only possible due to America’s interest in helping the poor through Johnson’s Great Society programs.
Emerging from the Civil Rights Movement, one of Sesame Street’s main goals was to exemplify and encourage diversity. The decision to create a set that represented an urban neighborhood was to give disadvantaged urban youth a place to admire and relate to, “unlike the images of civil rights workers drenched in fire-hose water or looters sabotaging city areas, which occupied the news stories in the 1960s” (Mandel 6). Sesame Street’s set was also a way to “present the realities of the ghettos as they are or as they might be” (Mandel 6). Puppeteer, Fran Brill stated, “Every race every ethnicity is on this set. I remember thinking this is what the world should be like everybody’s somebody…this is a microcosm of what the world should be” (celebration 137).
Diversity in ethnicity took hold in the human characters on the show. The show’s central location was in front “an African American married couple named ‘Gordan’ and ‘Susan[‘s]’ house, which ‘served as the nucleus of the show’” (Mandel 7). Other characters included a white male, Mr. Hooper, Hispanic males, Luis and Rafael, Hispanic female Maria and an African American youth named David. The strong presence of male characters, especially African American males, combatted the 1965 Moynihan report that stated, “The Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is so out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the process of the group as a whole” (Mandel 9). These male characters gave African American children strong male role models.
As the second wave of feminism took hold of the country, Sesame Street adjusted the show not only introducing more female characters but also increasing female importance on the show and in terms of the character’s occupations. For example in Gordan and Susan’s relationship, Gordan was the breadwinner and Susan was the housewife. As the feminist movement grew Gordan and Susan’s relationship became more equal in occupations (Maria became a public health nurse) and in house work (Mandel 10).
Diversity in the muppet characters represented diversity in personality. Big Bird became a six year old child, “who would get the answered wrong so obviously the kids watching would feel empowered by their own knowledge of the right ones” (celebration 51). Carol Spinney, who plays Big Bird stated, “I try to make big birds reactions those of a youngster who often feels that everyone else seems to know more than he does” (Celebration 51). Kermit the frog brought “gentleness and naivete” as well as “taught children to see the beauty of any skin color, even a green outerlayer” (Mandel 11). Bert and Ernie represented two friends that continued to get alone despite different personalities. Oscar the Grouch gave children permission to feel grouchy and “helped children better understand and accept certain emotions” (Mandel 11). Oscar’s interaction with other characters also “model[ed] the ways people adapt to the quirks of others” (celebration 157). Later characters, Zoe, Rosita and Abby stood opposite the male muppets and Elmo represented the youngest Sesame Street watcher through his “very primitive language” (Celebration 100). Every character provided a representation of every child in America.
Bert and Ernie Sleep
Grover Annoys Oscar:
Kermit the Frog It’s not Easy Being Green
Zoe, Rosita & Abby:
Sesame Street was the first children’s television show supported by research and testing. (celebration 152). The original education goals of the show were symbolic representation (letters and numbers), cognitive processes (things like size relationships and orders), physical environment (city and country, plants and animals), and social environment (interactions like cooperation and appreciating differing perspectives) (celebration 155). Worried children would not be able to distinguish fantasy from reality in concerns to the Muppets, Sesame Street conducted research that concluded “children were most attentive when Muppets were on the screen” (celebration 48).
The following sketches illustrate Sesame streets broad educational goals.
“C is for Cookie” teaches recognition of letters but also that cookies are as a sometimes food, which teaches the importance of nutrition.
Count Von Count helps children learn to count
Cookie Monster in library – This segment is important because it shows Sesame Street’s desire to produce characters like their audience so the audience has a change to answer questions before the characters. There is a sense that children will understand the purpose of a library before Cookie Monster.
Big Bird & Triangles
Sesame Street’s ultimate goal was to teach children “how to think for themselves” (Celebrations 155). With Sesame Street’s original educational goal being to help disadvantaged children get on a level playing field with middle class children before entering school, Sesame Street exemplifies the American idea of equal opportunity. Without Sesame Street, children unable to go to preschool would not be unable to start learning. Even though Sesame Street now reaches all different income levels and ethnicities, this original goal to provide pre-school to all children has not disappeared. To this day, interactivity where, the characters spoke directly to the television audience, posing questions and waiting several second to give the viewer an opportunity to respond before providing the answer,” drives the education on Sesame Street (Mandel 8).
Whole Child Curriculum
Oh all the good things provided by Sesame Street, the whole child curriculum is the most important. Instead of just focusing on education basics for school, Sesame Street creators made a conscious effort to improve emotional and social education. Blah blah said, “this is a medium for children but we don’t talk down to them” (celebration 100). Sesame Street has never been afraid to address serious topics in an appropriate way for their audience. The whole child curriculum is the most important way Sesame Street strives to create a new and better world. In American culture it can be seen as moral superiority John Winthrop describe in his City Upon a Hill. Whole childhood education can produce a generation and country that is the epitome of morality in the world.
The following are videos that focus on children’s health – taking care of one’s body is just as important as the alphabet.
Grover’s workout video
Rubber ducky – importance of bath time
A Cookie is a Sometimes Food
Healthy Teeth Healthy Me: Brushy Brush
The following videos are only three examples of the heavy topics Sesame Street has tackled in its 40 years. The episode about divorce is the second attempt at addressing the issue. Originally the segment was with Snuffleupagus, but was never air. Through testing, the producers figured out it would not be appropriate to show their young audience. Years later, Sesame Street successfully addresses the topic through one of their new characters, Abby the fairy.
Goodbye Mr. Hooper:
Big Bird at Jim Henson’s Memorial:
The following three videos are examples of the different topics Sesame Street addresses in their whole child curriculum.
Zac Efron & Patience
Sonia Soytomayor & Career
I am special – Grover
Robin Williams & Conflict
James Gandolfini & Fear
In the 40 years that Sesame Street has been on air many things have change, such as the elimination of government funding, new characters, and even the expansion of the show internationally. Sesame Street’s success across the world shows just how important the show is to the development of children. The most important thing that has remained the same on Sesame Street is the shows commitment to diversity, educating children of all ages and incomes and developing generations of children ready for the complex world that they live in. Ask any adult and most likely he or she grew up watching Sesame Street, or one of the many shows that followed in the image of the show.
Gikow, Louise A. Sesame Street: A Celebration of 40 years of Life on the Street. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2009.
Mandel, Jennifer. “The Production of a Beloved Community: Sesame Street’s answer to American Inequalities.” The Journal of American Culture 29:1 (2006): 3-13.