Sesame Street at 40: A Revolution in Early Learning Embraces the Digital Age

by Gary E. Knell
September 29, 2009
Gary Knell

Gary E. Knell, President and CEO, Sesame Workshop

An article ran in the New York Times the morning after the 61st Primetime Emmy awards titled “Television Thanks You for Watching.” The article punctuates a theme throughout the broadcast of comments alluding to the shift of notable programming to cable networks and other media platforms. The television community is clearly seeing a movement to where viewers are seeking quality programming, but not on standard broadcast television anymore.

When Sesame Street started out, public television was pretty much the only choice for us. It was one of the handful of stations in existence, accessible by anyone with a television and dedicated to quality educational programming. Today, the landscape is overflowing with a multitude of channels and series of every variety. And the choice extends beyond the television set – to multiple screens and a wide variety of formats, from webisodes to video blogs.

The shift in the television community echoes the slower transformation in the way we educate our children. Technology in the classroom is not a new concept but its integration has been limited. It seems ironic considering the kids are usually the ones first in line to adopt the newest media and technologies available. They are engaging with media more and starting earlier than ever before.

The creators of Sesame Street recognized this 40 years ago. Early research on the way children viewed television, showed that they could remember advertising jingles better than information in the programs they viewed. Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett set up an experiment to use television to help children, particularly at-risk inner city kids. The program aimed to prepare children to enter school, ready to learn, and to channel their natural attraction to TV in a positive and purposeful way.

The show continues to be an experiment, responding to the ever-changing educational needs of children and the media environment. The model it was built on enabled it with a unique flexibility to be adapted for other countries but also other platforms, allowing to reach audiences wherever they are and to deliver specific content in a direct way.

Today’s preschooler is just as likely to have their first encounter learning the alphabet with Elmo on a parent’s iPod or laptop, as on television. Following the path our founders set, we continue to seek out the power of new media platforms and use them to help children learn life skills – build literacy, develop healthy habits, appreciate nature and cope with the unexpected and difficult situations like economic insecurity or military deployment.

The success Sesame Street has had in making a difference in education and the results it continues to see is one of the reasons why we must begin to seek out how we can put new technologies to use in progressing education in and outside the classroom. We are only beginning to see how putting devices like an iPod Touch in the school environment can change the dynamic of lessons, how video games can get children exercising or social networking can build respect and understanding among cultures.

We have just scratched the surface of the role new media can play in advancing education. We need to further research the ways they are currently being used as well as seek out new educational models that incorporate these new media devices.

Sesame Street will celebrate its 40th birthday on November 10. To some that may signal that we’ve reached middle age. In television years, it’s well over a lifetime, but to us, it is yet another beginning. Just as the television community is in the midst of a revolution, we too are at a crucial point in this media evolution; where technology can set us on a better path or maintain the status quo.  Sesame Street was an answer to a call to change the media landscape into a productive medium. Now is the time to build out a neighborhood to benefit our children and keep the audience tuned in and watching.

This post originally appeared on the Breakthrough Learning in a Digital Age blog.