I’m sure you know the alphabet song. Go, ahead, sing it in your head. Now, what about the melody for counting from one to twelve? If you grew up in the 70s like me, you know the Ladybug’s Picnic or this other Sesame Street classic. (Apologies if either tune sticks in your head all day!)
I have fond memories of sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV in our family room watching Sesame Street. Of course, now that I have a toddler of my own, I can appreciate that my mom probably loved the show more than me. After all, each episode meant a guaranteed hour of quiet time.
The only issue she ever had with the show was a character named Don Music. As a tortured composer, he would sit at the piano playing a well-known children’s song and struggle to complete a verse. Whenever that happened, he’d bang his head against the keys in frustration. (See what I mean at 00:53.) One day, my younger sister started banging her head against our piano. That’s when my mom wrote a letter to the show’s producers. Apparently, she wasn’t alone. A slew of parents wrote to the Children’s Television Workshop to complain that their children were mimicking the Muppet. That’s when Don Music’s days came to an abrupt end.
The show turned 50 in 2019. Which means a team furry creatures, including Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Kermit, Grover and Mr. Snuffleupagus have been teaching preschoolers literacy and numeracy for generations – the impact of which has been truly significant, as proven by thousands of studies. As it turns out, Sesame Street is the most heavily researched education intervention in the United States of all time.
A few years ago, while doing my PhD in Education at McGill, I learned the show was developed in partnership with the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In a conversation published by The Harvard Gazette with Joe Blatt, Faculty Director of Harvard’s Master’s Program in Technology, Innovation and Education, I learned more recently about the show’s fascinating backstory and tumultuous start:
“When Sesame Street was being planned in the late 1960s, the country was in turmoil; the Vietnam War was really at its height, but these were the Lyndon Johnson years, and there was also the idea of the Great Society, trying to make society more equitable and the country more inclusive. The launching of Head Start was a signal that the government wanted to intervene in education to give more kids a fair start in their learning. That seemed like a natural place for Sesame Street to emerge. But in fact, there was a lot of opposition. People thought, “We shouldn’t have people from outside telling us what our kids should learn” because the tradition of education in the United States is that it’s a local matter.
Secondly, many countries have a national education curriculum, but the United States has always resisted that. Third, there were many people who thought that preschoolers were just too young to be focused on learning, and they should just have fun. And then finally, when Sesame emerged, as well as Head Start, they were racially integrated in a way that was really progressive and very unusual for the time. That sparked a lot of opposition, especially in the South, and in many parts of the country. In that social context, the fact that within the first year Sesame Street was a national sensation is really a wonderful story of the possibilities of something good happening in a turbulent time.”
Keeping in the spirit of ‘something good happening in a turbulent time,’ in May of last year, Sesame Workshop, the non-profit educational organization behind Sesame Street, launched the Caring for Each Other initiative in response to the coronavirus pandemic. See Elmo’s World News describing the effort. Resources include animated videos featuring some of their Muppets, printable activity sheets focused on healthy habits, virtual playdates, playful learning activities, articles, and learning at home bundles.
Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, Senior Vice President of US Social Impact, Sesame Workshop says: “Sesame Streetis there for children and families whether it’s a sunny day or a stormy one, and unfortunately many families are facing unprecedented challenges right now.” According to their website, Caring for Each Other “will be updated to meet the needs of families as the situation evolves on an ongoing basis, with resources designed to help parents provide comfort and manage anxiety, as well as help with creating routines, fostering playful learning at home, and staying physically and mentally healthy.”
Through the years, Sesame Street has been both pioneering in its pedagogy and progressive in its values. Watch how they explain Black Lives Matter and demonstrate belly breathing to decrease anxiety. Today, it is present in more than 150 countries as “an innovative force for change, with a mission to help kids everywhere grow smarter, stronger, and kinder.”
Thank you, Sesame Street, for always promoting empathy.
Thanks also, for classics like Manamanah. (I dare you to watch without singing along!)
PS Join the Purposeful Empathy community. Together, let’s spread more empathy in the world.
For more than a decade, I have been singularly focused on leveraging empathy for personal and social transformation. I teach Leadership and Social Entrepreneurship & Innovation at McGill University and co-founder of PVM-Studio, a global advisory firm that supports purpose-driven people and organizations. Learn more about my work here.