“There was a lot of emotion around 9/11, but of course there was no clear path on what to do with this. But we had this show, this incredible entryway into homes that had credibility amongst parents and children. How could we best use it?”
-Dr. Lewis Bernstein, Executive Vice President of Education and Research at Sesame Workshop
With the 10th anniversary of September 11th this past weekend, many of us have been reflecting on what we were doing that fateful day. On the morning of the attacks, producers of Sesame Street were driving into the Queens-based studios to shoot episodes for the 33rd season, and like many others, they saw the plumes of smoke billowing over lower Manhattan. I recently had the opportunity to talk to one of the long-standing guiding forces behind Sesame Street — as well as a personal mentor of mine — Dr. Lewis Bernstein, about how the iconic children’s show responded to the attacks of September 11.
Sesame Workshop has a tradition of addressing emotionally difficult topics, but 9/11 was clearly unprecedented and shocking. One may think it would have been a difficult decision, deciding whether or not to address the attacks with their young audience, but for the Sesame Street team the question was not if, but how: “We were in production at the time of the 9/11 attacks, and most of us were driving to the studios over either the Triborough or 59th Street Bridge,” Dr. Bernstein said. “We saw the cloud of grey smoke. I think it was immediately pretty clear to all of us that we would try to deal with it in some way, knowing full well that whatever we would tape would take time to get on the air.”
At the time of the attacks, most of the shows for the upcoming season were already written, but four were not. Dr. Bernstein and his colleagues decided that they would devote the four remaining episodes to addressing 9/11, because “children were not oblivious to what had happened. We needed to find a legitimate way to deal with it.” The question then became the daunting task of how to address the horrors of 9/11 with a 3-year-old. The team called a meeting with outside advisors to establish how to proceed. The varied group of experts, including child psychologists and specialists in emergency response, decided that they would split the four remaining shows between two major issues associated with 9/11: fear and intolerance.
The first episode of the new season following 9/11 confronted fear directly through a fire in Mr. Hooper’s store (see a clip here). It was a powerful episode, because Elmo was in the store when the fire broke out. The firefighters saved the store, but Elmo was still frightened. He was shaken by the fire, and scared of the firefighters themselves. Seeing this, the firefighters invited Elmo to visit their station — a real New York firehouse that lost firefighters on 9/11. Elmo learned all about firefighters and the brave purpose they serve. “We wanted to teach kids that it is ok to be scared, but that there are adults who are trying to protect you and take care of you. We also wanted to tip our hats to the firefighters of New York.”
We are so used to the characters on Sesame Street living together with tolerance and respect. This expectation was tested in one of the episodes addressing intolerance, when Big Bird was visited by his pen pal — a seagull named Gulliver who lived afar. When Gulliver arrived on Sesame Street, Snuffy wanted to play with him. But Gulliver tells Big Bird and Snuffy that he only plays with birds. Snuffy, of course, is not a bird. “This whole segment drove towards one key line from Big Bird, which was: ‘If you can’t play with Snuffy, I won’t play with you,'” Dr. Bernstein said. “It was a line that we really wanted to drive home, because it addressed the idea of standing up to intolerance. Even as a preschooler you can take a stand about what’s fair.”
The Workshop didn’t stop at the television episodes. As Dr. Bernstein explained, “We noticed that the children who lived proximate to the disaster were having a great deal of fear – and not all of these children spoke English. It was Chinese Americans, it was Hispanic Americans, so we decided to take these shows and create an outreach kit.” The Workshop therefore put together an outreach kit called ‘You Can Ask,‘ which focused on fear and grief in children under five. The kits, available in English, Spanish and Chinese, were distributed via the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to childcare facilities and mental health care programs nationwide.
As with all media that The Workshop creates, the episodes and outreach materials were rigorously tested with children and parents. “When we tested the materials, we found that children who reviewed them were more willing to talk about it, they were less afraid of going to bed at night. This whole process from design to formative research was enough to give us a sense that this was a powerful thing”.
Obviously, the world continued to be affected by 9/11, and that included Sesame Street. “The next season, in addition to literacy and numeracy, we wanted to talk about being socially aware. So we created Global Grover and included footage of children from around the world, showing kids that we are all interconnected.”
So here we are, 10 years later. When it comes to children’s media, the landscape has shifted dramatically, presenting both challenges and opportunities. On one hand, it has become substantially more difficult to shield children from scary and inappropriate images. On the other hand, new technologies present novel ways to disseminate helpful tools and information. The Workshop has been able to capitalize on new and emerging technologies to deal with difficult topics. “With technological evolution, we are able to reach many more children than we could before. For instance, we were able to take our ‘You Can Ask’ outreach kits and create podcasts out of them that could be downloaded anywhere, anytime by kids in need.”
As a final question, I asked Dr. Bernstein if he had any words of inspiration, motivation, or advice for developers of children’s media in terms of addressing difficult topics: “One of the things that we’ve learned over the years here at Sesame Street is that simple is powerful. Things don’t have to be complicated. So think about those educational issues that the nation needs — and there are so many of them — and try to address them with integrity and with the guidance of people who know something about them. Once you do that you’re on your way. If you properly integrate education and entertainment, you will find both a market, and hopefully if you do it well, have successful impact.”