How Sesame Street Changed Everything

It's almost impossible to imagine a trip down the toy aisle without spying Big Bird, Grover, or Oscar the Grouch peeking out from the shelves. Sesame Street has been providing its unique mixture of education and entertainment long before the days of Doc McStuffins or Dora the Explorer.

Although characters have come and gone over the years, the lovable Sesame Street gang comprised of Jim Henson's Muppets, as well as live actors and entertainers, has warmed children's hearts and homes for generations. Since the series premiere hit television airwaves in November 1969, the show has won more than 150 Emmy Awards and been broadcast in more than 140 countries.

From Conception to Reality

Sesame Street was conceived in 1966 during discussions between TV producer Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, the vice president of the Carnegie Foundation. Their goal? A show for kids that used the addictive qualities of TV while doing something good for children.

After two years of research and development, the then-new Children's Television Workshop received a grant to create and produce a new educational show for kids. Sesame Street first aired on public television channels on November 10, making it the first educational TV show specifically for preschoolers.

Educational Goals of Sesame Street

Television shows for kids were already on the air, but Sesame Street was the first show of its kind to use a comprehensive educational curriculum with specific educational goals. Those educational goals were created from in-house research teams as well as independent evaluations.

The show was originally intended to help prepare young children for school, particularly children from low-income, inner-city families who had historically not watched educational programs on TV. Co-viewing with parents was encouraged by the inclusion of humor, cultural references, and celebrities that would appeal to adults.

Some of Sesame Street's earliest affective goals included increasing self-esteem, feelings of competency, and diversity tolerance among children. The inclusion of both black and white actors and performers, which was new for children's television at the time of the show's inception, helped achieve this.

Significant Social Issues

In addition to the tolerance of different races and ethnicities, which continue to be addressed on the show, Sesame Street has included numerous social issues over the years in a way that children can understand:

  • The loss of a loved one. In 1982, Will Lee, the actor who played Mr. Hooper, passed away unexpectedly of a heart attack. Rather than re-cast the character or write him out of future storylines, the sensitive topic of death was carefully and tastefully covered on the show. The childlike Big Bird couldn't quite grasp where his friend had gone in the emotional episode, and it was sorrowfully explained why Mr. Hooper wasn't coming back.
  • Love, marriage, and childbirth. Also during the 1980s, the characters Maria and Luis met, fell in love, got married, and started a family. Until that time, relationships and pregnancy were not commonplace on children's television.
  • Natural disasters. A series of episodes aired after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, tastefully explaining that bad things sometimes happen to good people simply because things are not always under our control. The September 11 terrorist attacks were even addressed in a Sesame Street episode that aired in 2002.
  • Healthy habits. Childhood obesity is a current problem, and a series of segments and storylines for the show were developed to help kids and their families develop healthy eating and lifestyle habits. Cookie Monster's love of crunchy bakery treats was even covered; explaining that the beloved blue Muppet also eats healthier alternatives to help round out his diet.
  • Dealing with bullies. The topic of bullying is also a problem many kids face while growing up. "The Good Birds Club" aired as a means to help young children recognize and prevent bullying.

Evolving Over Time

Sesame Street remains an American institution to this day, but it has evolved significantly since its beginnings. When the federal government withdrew funding in the early 1980s, the Children's Television Workshop turned to other sources of revenue including product licensing and foreign broadcast royalties.

Toys and books, along with DVDs, a website, and interactive apps also help raise funds to keep the show on the air, giving parents and children the ability to learn together. Just because kids are little doesn't mean they are too small to understand things happening in the world around them. The cultural phenomenon known as Sesame Street continues to educate our youth as well as their caregivers in a fun and exciting manner.