We spoke to a school psychologist, a Harvard Medical School professor, and the director of Sesame Workshop's education and research team to find out what impact the changes might have on young viewers.
Oscar the Grouch's new trash can. Photo courtesy of Sesame Workshop
Here's a question for the hive mind: Where does Cookie Monster live? 123 Sesame Street? Maybe, but it's never been clear. And that's one of the reasons the puppetmasters over at Sesame Workshop are creating an entirely remolded version of the iconic fictional street. According to their press release, almost everyone's getting new digs. Oscar's garbage can is moving to a centralized location. Cookie Monster's moving above Mr. Hooper's store. And Big Bird's nest is going to be in a tree.
Historically, big changes in shows for toddlers upset children and worry parents. And large changes to a child's life, like moving to a new town, can cause symptoms in toddlers ranging from sleep disruption to soiling. To avoid these kinds of issues, when Blue's Clues changed hosts in 2002, they did so carefully, slowly, and after rounds of testing with toddler audiences. However, it seems like Sesame Street is switching up the block more suddenly.
I wondered how these big remodeling changes might affect the children who regularly watch Sesame Street, so I reached out to Heather Lappi, a school psychologist working in Philadelphia, who said, "Giving children more opportunities to see and recognize sets can only foster their visual spatial intelligence and encourage a healthy imagination."
Lappi believes tying the characters to specific sets will help children understand their favorite muppets in a more "holistic" sense, that children will be able to "understand who the characters are, where they come from, and make inferences about how each character came to be who they are today."
And Sesame Street agrees with Lappi's point. As Autumn Zitani, director of content for Sesame Workshop's education and research team, explained to me, the changes were "in an effort to engage kids even more... The redesign itself is not particularly jarring for young children. They will notice changes, but it's really about making the set brighter, more fun, grounding the characters in specific locations on the street, making it more of a community feeling."
Zitani continued: "We now see where all the characters live, and you get a bit of the backstory and their personalities, what they like and what they do. [People] who work here kind of have this sense of the geography of the street, but viewers may not have known that, and now you will."
I also spoke to Dr. Eugene Beresin, executive director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, about his thoughts on all this change. "A lot of it depends on the age of the child," he explained. "There's a difference between the way a three- or four-year-old would react and a five- or six-year-old would react."
He continued, "Most younger children, most children in general, really like consistency. The reason you read Goodnight Moon over and over again, or the reason you watch the same episode of Sesame Street over and over again is because they really thrive on familiarity."
But even though the set renovation could upset some younger viewers, Dr. Beresin noted that "as children get a little older, they like novelty. They like twists and turns. The real challenge is to balance comfort and familiarity with novelty and curiosity, both of which are crucial to developing minds."
So what's a parent to do in this shifting sea of brownstones? Dr. Beresin recommended that parents keep close watching by monitoring a child's reaction. "If the child is getting freaked out," he cautioned, "turn the TV off."
To that end, Sesame Workshop's Zitani added, "It's nothing that children will be upset by, jarred by, but of course we would love to have the coengagement with the parents, have them watch with them, that's always our goal."
"Know your children," Dr. Beresin stressed. "There are some children that can take novelty and run with it. There are other children that have to be very slowly eased into it. And I think the rule with all young children is not to let them watch TV without the parents."
So if you're reading this and you've got little demons running around, try sitting down with them and suffering through the songs, the easy math, the never-ending games of hide-and-seek. After all, a gigantic yellow bird coming to roost can be a terrifying, beautiful thing to see, at any age.
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