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Sesame Street: so much more than learning our ABCs

“This is Sesame Street. A place where people, birds and monsters all live in perfect harmony.”

Phil Donahue, guest star

Some things in our childhood stay with us forever. For those of us born in the 60’s or later, Sesame Street is likely to be one of them. Debuting back in 1969, it was the US’s first ever educational children’s program and became an immediate hit in the country. Within a few years, almost one-third of all American toddlers were watching the show, with Australia equally enthralled.

The show’s research experts believed that it is the program’s ability to mix humour with educational information that appeals so much to children. It has certainly held their attention for decades, and many of us will remember with fondness the classic Sesame Street songs, games and humour too.

We all loved Sesame Street, which is one of the most famous shows on public television. But now academic research proves that Sesame Street’s educational impact was profound, bringing huge benefits to millions of children around the world. In fact, some even consider the educational benefits to be similar to a child attending preschool.

The University of Maryland’s Melissa Kearney and Wellesley College’s Philip Levine presented a research paper that revealed that children who have grown up with the Sesame Street cast were more likely to stay at the appropriate school year for their age, an effect that was most noticeable amongst boys, African-Americans and children from disadvantaged areas.

“Bad days happen to everyone, but when one happens to you, just keep doing your best and never let a bad day make you feel bad about yourself.” – Big Bird, Sesame Street

To complete the study, Kearney and Levine assessed US cities and categorised them into those that had high and low levels of access to the show. Then, through census data they tracked children from the cities throughout their primary school years, to see if they maintained their grade levels. What they found was “a statistically meaningful effect on the educational progress of children who, because of where they lived, were much more likely to be able to watch (Sesame Street).”

Sesame Street enabled many minority groups and the disadvantaged to be delivered an effective preschool education system, just as long as they had access to a black-and-white TV. In fact, it was found that children living in areas with access to the show had a 14% decrease in the likelihood of being left behind at school.

Why such a profound benefit? The children’s show delivers a fun-filled curriculum laced with numbers, maths and reading, as well as learning about cooperation, social skills and general skills needed to pay attention and learn, all of which are believed to help children prepare for their school years.

This recent study may confirm these findings, but it isn’t the first to delve into the program. There have been years of focus group studies led by academic researchers and writers of the show, along with external researchers reviewing their papers, all with positive findings.

The study also highlights another exceedingly important issue: cost-effective education for children. If Sesame Street is so fabulous, do we need preschool at all? The short answer is yes, according to researchers and academics. Preschool has other benefits such as family support and the development of emotional and social skills for children. Sesame Street can therefore be viewed as a meaningful ‘booster’ to the preschool experience.

The reasonable argument, though, for those in remote or disadvantaged areas, is that Sesame Street makes a pretty good substitute where preschool is not available. Levine and Kearney were also keen to point out that the success of the show gives positive signs for the success of other types of electronic communication, including affordable, scalable online education for older students.

The Sesame Street cast

Of course, Sesame Street wouldn’t have been Sesame Street wasn’t for the Muppets. To prove how ingrained they are in our culture today, close your eyes and see how many Sesame Street characters (a.k.a. Muppets) you can name.

How many did you get?

Here’s some of Sesame Street’s most famous characters, just for a reminder:

  • Bert and Ernie
  • Oscar the Grouch
  • Grover
  • Mr Snuffleupagus
  • Big Bird
  • Kermit the Frog
  • Miss Piggy
  • Cookie Monster (of course)
  • Count Von Count
  • Roosevelt Franklin
  • Rosita
  • Elmo

Sage Institute of Child Care – it’s more than a job, it’s a rewarding career.

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan is the Academic Director at Sage Institute of Education. She oversees learning processes, teaching outcomes, resources and course development. A passionate advocate for bettering standards of training in Australia, she is currently writing her PhD thesis on defining quality training in the Australian vocational education sector.
Vicki Tuchtan

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