Q+A: Using television for early childhood education was highly innovative when Sesame Street debuted in 1969. Nearly 50 years later, the show continues to innovate thanks, in part, to making its mission more measurable and adapting its curriculum to meet the critical educational needs of children around the world. Access connected with Rosemarie Truglio, Ph.D., senior vice president of curriculum and content, to learn more about their iterative process and mission.
Sesame Street took a fresh look at its mission. What’s the thinking behind it?
We’re driven by what we call a “whole-child curriculum,” with a mission to help kids grow smarter, stronger and kinder. Smarter represents academic skills and content knowledge, as well as cognitive processing skills. Stronger represents our health curriculum to make sure our bodies are physically healthy, but it also represents resilience and regulating one’s emotions. And kinder is about our social relationships. It’s building friendships; it’s about understanding each other and appreciating cultural and racial differences while also seeing that we’re the same — and it’s the sameness that’s at the core of relationships.
Sesame Street, from the very beginning, has been a very kind show. But we never had kindness in our mission and never had a kindness curriculum, so we thought maybe we should come up with one. We engaged in research with parents, teachers and children, and lessons learned helped us figure out how to approach our curriculum development and what key messages and lessons to include in the show and across our media platforms.
Why did you decide to go with kindness?
Every year, we identify an educational, societal, health, social or emotional need going on in the lives of today’s children. Most recently, we knew from research studies that there is a concern about a lack of empathy and compassion among children today. So we thought, “What are the essential foundational skills we could address in an age-appropriate way through stories and our characters — so that we could plant these seeds not only for children but for the adults in their lives, as well?”
Adults are an important part of your audience, too?
Sesame Street has always been created with a dual audience in mind. Through humor, our characters really resonate with parents. And now we have parents who grew up on the show, so they’re sharing a piece of their childhood with their children. We want parents to co-engage with our content because, in the case of kindness and empathy, we’re modeling what kind behaviors look like so that parents can reinforce these behaviors once the show is over. And I think that’s an important component of who we are. Our show is not only diverse, but we model inclusion. So it just felt right that we would take on kindness as a curriculum focus because, in many ways, it’s been part of who we are from the very beginning. Sesame Street was designed as an inner-city neighborhood with a multiracial human cast interacting with a range of species — monsters and grouches and birds — and everyone learning to live, work and play together. That’s what this curriculum is all about. It goes back to season one. It’s us. It’s who we are.
What does diversity look like on Sesame Street now?
The beauty of television is that we can expose kids to all of these cultures and countries, and we’re doing it through our characters. We currently have Alan, who is from Japan, and he talks about his Japanese culture. We have a new cast member, Nina, who is from Cuba, and she is a dancer. She brings in all kinds of Latin styles of music and dance, and we’re learning about the culture behind the dance. We even have Abby, who is a fairy, and she brings the fairy world to Sesame Street.
What kinds of messages do those characters share?
I’ll use an example from our new special, called “The Magical Wand Chase.” The characters are reading a story that reminds you of Around the World in 80 Days, with the hot air balloon. And they get this idea: Wouldn’t it be great if they could fly in a hot air balloon? And through Abby’s magic, they get their balloon. And they tell Nina, “We’re not going far — we’re just going around the corner. See that building over there? That’s where we’re going to go.” And what happens is the wind blows and they get further and further away. Then Abby drops her magical wand and a bird picks it up, so now they have to land and find the wand in order to get back to Sesame Street. And when they land, in the first neighborhood, Chinatown, they make new friends — real kids. They ask if they’re in China, and the kids say, “No, you’re in a neighborhood with a lot of people who come from China. It’s called Chinatown, and we’re going to help you find your wand.” And then they’re connected to another neighborhood that’s a Mexican-American neighborhood, where they meet two new kids in their search for the wand. Then they go into a West African neighborhood, and they meet two more kids. Through it all, we’re learning about the children. But we’re also realizing that just around the corner, there are all of these wonderful, rich cultural experiences and new friends to meet.
What do viewers think when you make content and curriculum updates?
Sesame Street is always evolving. When we make changes to the show, people will say, “You changed my Sesame Street.” Well, that was the Sesame Street for you when you were a child. It’s no longer your Sesame Street. It’s for today’s children — your children. So, we want to make sure we’re creating content to help children get ready for today’s kindergarten, for today’s world.
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