Kids need Sesame Street, and Sesame Street needs HBO

Sesame Street is a unique educational tool worth saving with a move to premium cable, says childhood development expert.

MLM (4)Sesame Street is nearing the end of its first month on HBO. Marie-Louise Mares, an expert in childhood development and media, has studied the program’s educational impact around the world. She tells us what children learn from Sesame Street, how it stacks up against other educational programs, and what the move from PBS to HBO means for a young audience.

ResearchGate: Is Sesame Street an effective tool for teaching?

Marie-Louise Mares: Yes, it is an effective educational tool. My colleague and I looked at all the research we could find on the educational outcomes of Sesame Street: proprietary research commissioned by Sesame Street and conducted by independent research agencies, as well as academic research conducted by independent scholars. Overall, both in experimental settings and survey-based assessments of how much kids watch at home and whether that predicts what they know, it looks like more exposure to Sesame Street means more knowledge.

RG: What do children learn from Sesame Street?

Mares: Our study looked at three areas in which children gain knowledge from the show. First, Sesame Street has a core curriculum that’s taught regardless of what country it’s broadcast in—like numbers, letters, shapes, and colors—and studies show significant positive effects in that area. Then there’s also very specific content tailored to individual countries. In some countries maybe the importance of wearing a bike helmet, in others it’s mosquito nets or washing your hands. We also saw significant positive effects in this area, which also included content like the environment and local cultures. The final educational category we looked at are socioemotional lessons, where Sesame Street, in addition to teaching kids basic knowledge, also tries to convey messages about having an inclusive attitude: being friends with people who are different than you are, having a more inclusive understanding of gender roles. There too there were positive effects. Overall, Sesame Street was equally effective over all three of these outcome areas. It does seem to be harder to shift kids’ attitudes on things like gender and race, and that doesn’t surprise me. It’s easier to teach that the number three comes after the number two than it is to teach inclusive attitudes.

RG: With content varying by country, did you also notice a difference in the impact that Sesame Street has on children across cultures or countries?

Mares: The way Sesame Street works internationally is that Sesame Workshop partners with a particular region or country, reaching out to local education officials there, as well as teachers and local media producers. They come up with a version of the show that is co-produced according to local educational needs rather than simply exported. There aren’t enough studies to be able to compare learning outcomes between two specific countries, say France and Germany side-by-side. What we did do was look at countries that are classified as low- and middle-income by the World Bank, and compare Sesame Street’s effect there to that in high-income countries. The really crucial finding there was that the show was just as effective in low- and middle-income countries, where kids often have much less exposure to resources like daycare, preschool, books in the home, and so on. So again, there were significant positive effects, even places where children had very few other sources of educational information.

“Sesame Street is unique in having always included formative and evaluative research as part of the process.”

RG: And how does Sesame Street compare to other children’s television programing as an educational tool?

Mares: The short answer is: we don’t know, because there isn’t a comparable body of research on other shows. That actually speaks to the way in which Sesame Street differs from other children’s programming. Sesame Street is unique in having always included formative and evaluative research as part of the process. Other shows do some, but tend to do so less consistently and don’t have the same international scope. Dora the Explorer and other shows have a massive reach as well, but my sense is that they don’t have equivalent research and they don’t tailor that show in the same way to local curriculums.

RG: Sesame Street has just moved from PBS to HBO in the United States. Overall the new set is much tidier and less urban. Oscar the Grouch is getting a recycling bin. Do children care, and should we as adults?

Mares: I don’t know for sure whether children will care. I think it’s a fascinating question. As an adult, I feel kind of sad about the change, because it makes intuitive sense to me that kids would love to see representations that speak to them. I think having visual images that essentially look like your own neighborhood and aren’t completely out of touch could be very appealing for kids who come from lower income families or who don’t live in the incredibly gorgeous neighborhoods like Park Slope. I feel a little sad that they might be losing that, and I would love to see research done on whether kids know the difference, how they interpret it, the extent to which it feels like this is a show for them or not. We just don’t know at this point.

RG: Might the new changes affect the show’s educational impact?

Mares: I think it’s possible. I do suspect the show is going to continue to be effective at drawing kids’ attention. Sesame Street has always been good at pre-testing whether a particular segment is educationally effective, so it’s hard for me to imagine that they wouldn’t catch it if kids aren’t learning from specific approaches. The way I could imagine the move denting educational impact would be if certain clusters of kids are no longer motivated to watch. On the other hand, I think beloved characters like Elmo and Rosita are probably going to continue to have enduring major appeal across social classes.

“It would be a major loss if this very effective, very positive educational show was discontinued.”

RG: Will the show moving from a public network to a premium cable channel have social implications in terms of children’s access to its educational benefits?

Mares: I think they cut what seems like a reasonable deal, which is that it will still be on the public access, just with a 9-month delay. Truthfully, I don’t think it makes any difference to the kids that they’re getting a 9-month-old episode. My understanding is that the show was losing a lot of money, and that this was a deal that allowed it to continue. So, faced with the alternative of not having Sesame Street, this is vastly better. It would be a major loss if this very effective, very positive educational show was discontinued. In the absence of other sources of money, I think HBO moving in and making it available to a select audience first, and then to all kids afterwards, is actually a beautiful compromise.

I don’t think it’ll be an issue that some kids will have seen the latest episode and some kids won’t, because it hasn’t aired yet on PBS, in part because there’s such fragmentation of viewing already. That is, so many kids aren’t really following the typical broadcast model where you come home and watch the day it airs. Parents are TiVo-ing episodes to watch later, downloading them from iTunes, streaming them online. The social component of everyone rushing to preschool or talking about what Rosita did on yesterday’s episode wasn’t really there to begin with.

Overall, the move to HBO and the changes that come with it leaves us with a lot of interesting questions, and a lot to do in terms of research. It could be a busy year!

Featured image by Richard Termine, courtesy of Sesame Workshop.