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The 'Sesame Street' Effect: 47 Years of Smarter, Stronger and Kinder

We spoke to Sesame Street Workshop VP and creative director Brown Johnson about Cookie Monster's cookie obsession.

by Catherine Chapman
Nov 23 2016, 3:55pm

Gentrification has yet to kick out everyone’s favorite Muppets, as Elmo, Cookie Monster, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch continue to thrive on Sesame Street. Now a new series of kids programing comes from the makers of Sesame Street to UK audiences on the preschool channel Cartoonito.     

Since the show’s 1969 beginnings, Sesame Street has put education first, taking on universal values to help kids be "smarter, stronger and kinder" using a team of child psychologists and development educators in order to get children ready for schooling and prepared to act as positive members of their communities.

While some have disapproved of the show’s teaching methods, particularly in Britain due to its original intention for US audiences, Sesame Street’s 47 years on air must are a testament to doing something right, whilst championing inclusivity, respect, and your basic maths.   

In line with the show’s UK release, The Creators Project spoke to Sesame Street Workshop’s vice president and creative director Brown Johnson about how the muppet's stop obsessing over cookies and learn share kindness in their community. 

The Creators Project: What goes into creating a children’s show, as opposed to one for adults?

Brown Johnson: Children can be very discriminating viewers. If they don’t understand the story or like the characters, they simply walk away. So, when creating for kids, it’s important to be informed about the age and comprehension level of your audience. Think about what’s funny to them. And, because very young kids, two-to-five-year-olds, are so curious, fill your content with interesting, educational material.

What’s the Sesame Street audience?

Sesame Street’s audience sweet spot is two-to-five-year-olds and their parents. Our overall focus is on “a whole child curriculum.” All of the curricular content is developed by our team of educators, in conjunction with outside early childhood development experts in a variety of fields—from STEM learning to executive function. Kids today consume media on a variety of platforms, and Sesame Street is everywhere they are.

What sort of research goes into each episode?

Since our inception, we’ve used a production model that relies heavily on research to make sure the audience is engaged in our storytelling. Most scripts get made into a story book or animatic, which we show to kids. We conduct impact evaluation on the show because our mission is to have an educational impact through the content we create. We make sure that our show has the positive effect on the audience that we intended.

Can you give an example of how research makes its way into a scene?

When our content was on executive functions, we created numerous stories about Cookie Monster’s inability to control himself when it comes to cookies. Scripts featured Cookie learning multiple ways to delay gratification—singing, playing with a toy to shift his attention from the desired cookie, and using his imagination and pretend that the cookie is really a stinky fish. Formal research has shown that kids who watched those shows increased their ability to wait by a significant amount.

Tell us more about Sesame Street’s ‘smarter, stronger and kinder’ curriculum.

Helping young children develop self-regulation and executive function skills and strategies, as well as pro-social behavior, can help them prepare for school and life. These skills have important consequences across a child’s lifespan. Children can learn that kindness means responding to the needs of others and that being kind not only makes others feel good, it can make you feel good too. It means thinking about how others feel and engaging in helpful, caring behaviors: making simple gestures like giving someone who is crying a tissue, giving a hug to someone who is sad, and simply asking, “How are you?” It is also about being reflective­­—recognizing kindness in others and showing them gratitude.

And what’s it like doing all that, but with puppets?

Shooting with puppets presents its own set of interesting issues in terms of framing shots and building props that puppets can hold. If you have an eight-foot-tall bird and a three-foot-tall red monster, there are bound to be challenges!

Who are your favorite characters?  

I’m personally partial to Oscar, Rosita, and Snuffy. Sesame Street also changes annually, adding new segments and characters, and inviting celebrity guests. This year, Gwen Stefani and Pharrell stopped by to join all the furry fun.

Sesame Street now broadcasts daily on Cartoonito at 4PM. See more here

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