5 facts about 'Sesame Street' backed by science
How academic research has made the iconic children's show the gold standard for 50 years.
Three major events happened on Nov. 10, 1969. The International Boxing League – featuring teams like the Kentucky Pacers and the New York Jolts – held its first match. "Grey's Anatomy" actress Ellen Pompeo was born. And "Sesame Street" debuted its very first episode. Life would never be the same.
Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch would become icons in American culture. In its early years, "Sesame Street" was watched by one third of all toddlers in America. Five decades and nearly 5,000 episodes later, the show is celebrating its 50th anniversary season this November.
Since its inception, the show has stood apart from other children's television programming because of its steadfast devotion to educational content. Sure, kids watch "Sesame Street" to learn about letters and numbers. But that's just the beginning. The show's creators have employed academics and educational psychologists to figure out the most sound scientific methods for teaching children through entertainment. Jennifer Kotler Clarke is Sesame Workshop's VP of Content Research and Evaluation. "We're always really spending time reading research reports and understanding from experts how children learn," she said in a recent interview. "We're particularly interested in things that help foster curiosity and excitement and motivation towards learning so it really is very much a part of everything we do."
Added author Michael Davis: "'Sesame Street' is perhaps the most vigorously researched, vetted, and fretted-over program on the planet. It would take a fork-lift now to haul away the load of scholarly paper devoted to the series."
With that in mind, we take a look at five times scientific research has helped the show:
1. It's just as good as a preschool education
It turns out that Bert and Ernie may be terrific substitute teachers. A landmark 2015 study from researchers at the University of Maryland and Wellesley College found that watching "Sesame Street" delivers educational benefits as effective as preschool. By watching the program, children are 14 percent more likely to be in the appropriate grade level for their age – especially for those in disadvantaged areas. That's likely due to the high volume of academic content on the show, which particularly focuses on reading and math. The study also indicated that "Sesame Street" improved school performance, particularly for boys.
2. Coviewing is the secret to learning from Sesame Street
One of the early academics to study "Sesame Street" was Israeli psychologist Gavirel Salomon from the University of Haifa. He discovered something interesting that happened when parents watched the show with their children, a concept known in the TV industry as coviewing. His research found that having a parent in the room served as an “energizer for learning.” The company of a parent was all it took to make the viewing experience more pleasurable for the child, and increased their appetite to learn. Decades later, studies continue to uncover the benefits of parent-child coviewing, and parental involvement remains a key ingredient of the show's educational strategy. In fact, "Sesame Street" is reported to facilitate the highest number of adult-child coviewing experiences of any kids show, with nearly 50% of its viewers being over the age of 18. To that end, the producers made it a point to insert both adult humor and celebrities into the show, to entice parents to stay in the room while it aired.
3. There's one topic with which 'Sesame Street' struggles
The series is known for teaching children about life events like pregnancy and death and has also addressed events such as the 9/11 attacks, hurricanes and even the opioid crisis. But one topic in particular has proven difficult: divorce. The producers actually filmed an episode in 1992 called "Snuffy's Parents Get a Divorce" which showed the couple arguing and eventually divorcing. They tested the episode and, according to one report, "it bombed." Children could not grasp how arguing led to divorce. Moreover, the lesson they took away was that Snuffleupagus' parents no longer loved him. Not surprisingly, the episode never aired. The show has since tackled divorce, by showing it after the fact – as in introducing a character whose parents are already divorced, but not actually showing what instigated the breakup. "We test different things to make sure that children are actually learning what we hope they're learning," said Kotler Clarke. "We modify things that don't work and we start again if we have to."
4. Not all superheroes wear capes
You would think that figuring out a way to teach kids about kindness would be an easy task. But even with that Good Samaritan concept, the Sesame Workshop did research first. "When we test shows before we air them, we often look to see where children's attention is strong and where it starts to wane. And we also try to understand what children take away from a particular episode," explained Kotler Clarke. They tested an episode which had a "kindness hero" that wore a cape. "Afterwards, children focused so much on the cape and the superhero aspect of it and started talking about all sorts of different superheroes that they missed the main message about kindness," she said. A quick rewrite and reshoot led to the final version that aired in that episode: a "kindness kid" without a cape. "It was really more focused on everyday kindness instead of any superhero kind of focus. And children really did pick up the message much better that time."
5. The series invented the 'James Earl Jones Effect'
When you think of the singularly stentorian voice of American actor James Earl Jones, usually Darth Vader and cable news come to mind. (His is the iconic voice behind the slogan "This is CNN.") But in the 1970s, the American actor's unique cadence was known for something else. As the second celebrity to appear on "Sesame Street," he brought his classically trained gravitas to none other than the 26 letters of the English alphabet. He made long, concerted pauses before each letter, which were shown in a corner of the screen moments before he said it. The producers found that children who had seen the segment a few times said the letter before Jones did. "There is a real sense of empowerment that comes from knowing what the next letter is and that’s a thrill for kids," wrote Jason Tammemägi, an expert in entertainment education. "It is one of the reasons young children love a favorite story or will happily watch a favorite episode over and over. They adore knowing what comes next. They love the repetition. And it really engages them in communication. They aren’t just watching – they are taking part." The producers viewed this as a way to make television more interactive, and dubbed it the "James Earl Jones Effect."
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