Sesame Street and Play School

Sesame Street is about as different from Watch with Mother as it would be possible for a preschool programme to be. First broadcast in 1969, it is produced by an independent non-profit company, Sesame Workshop, formerly known as Children’s Television Workshop. For decades, it was screened in the US on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), but in 2016 it moved across to the commercial cable channel Home Box Office (HBO). Sesame Street has won countless awards and accolades, and is still in production: it will be celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in 2019, which is extraordinary even in a sector that is notable for long-running programmes.

Sesame Street needs to be understood, firstly, in the historical context in which it was initially created. Towards the end of the 1960s, in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, educational policy-makers in the US began to turn their attention to disadvantaged African-American children. It was found that these ‘ghetto children’ were arriving in school with reading ages often two years below those of their white, middle-class counterparts. Sesame Street was part of a wider set of initiatives that sought to compensate for this: it was initially funded by the government, and by a range of charitable foundations. In the words of its originator, Joan Ganz Cooney, the programme was designed ‘to help children whose intellectual and cultural preparation might otherwise be less than adequate’. As this implies, Sesame Street’s founding aims were based on what educators call a ‘deficit view’ of black, working-class children and their families, as in some ways inadequate: its aim was to accommodate them to the imperatives of the formal school system, rather than address any wider causes of educational disadvantage.

However, the programme could not survive on government and charitable funding for long. Although its main ‘home’ location remains a multicultural urban street rather than a more upscale suburban neighbourhood, it has inevitably had to address a more general audience; and its ability to narrow the gaps in educational achievement was therefore bound to be limited. Its subsequent survival has been largely dependent upon additional commercial activities, in the form of licensed merchandising (toys, media, theme parks) and international sales. It has generated several highly lucrative commercial spin-offs, most notably of course in the form of Jim Henson’s Muppet characters. The programme is aggressively marketed overseas, and is reportedly screened in over 150 countries: in many cases it is ‘localised’ by inserting new original content made by national broadcasters, although this has not prevented it being accused by some of a kind of cultural imperialism. Since the 1970s, the programme has used a range of corporate sponsors, who are featured in short announcements; and it runs on numerous commercial networks overseas (in the UK, for example, it was shown on the main terrestrial commercial channel, ITV). In all these respects, as Helle Jensen and Katalin Lustyik have argued, the market strategies of Sesame Workshop have become increasingly difficult to distinguish from those of its commercial rivals such as Disney and Nickelodeon. While some critics regarded Sesame Street’s recent move to HBO as a final sell-out of its public remit (HBO is only available to subscribers), it can be seen as a logical extension of this struggle for survival.

Nevertheless, Sesame Street has worked hard to retain its image as an educational, non-profit brand. From the outset, the programme was produced according to a detailed curriculum, complete with batteries of pre-defined behavioural objectives. While this curriculum has evolved over time, it contains a variety of ‘hard’ and ‘softer’ outcomes. In its early years, much of the focus was on basic letter and number recognition – a form of ‘drilling and skilling’, or rote learning, that was seen by some as highly mechanical. Children were also expected to learn about geometric shapes, the functions of parts of the body, matching, classifying and sorting objects, and so on. In many instances, these things were taught in very ‘hard’ and repetitive ways, in isolation from the social contexts in which they might occur, or indeed have meaning. In addition, however, the programme has always set out to teach about social differences, mainly through providing ‘positive images’ and modelling tolerant behaviour. The cast is consistently diverse, in all sorts of ways: most recently, for example, the producers have introduced a new Muppet character who has autism.

As Heather Hendershot has argued, Sesame Street’s ability to legitimate itself as an educational programme – rather than merely as commercial entertainment – has also depended on research. It is without doubt the most extensively evaluated programme in the history of children’s television, although this research relies almost exclusively on narrow forms of psychometric testing – and as Hendershot suggests, its findings do not always reinforce the company’s claims about its effectiveness. Yet while the programme has attracted criticism, it enjoys a remarkable reputation as a safe, educational brand: its guests have included Barack and Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Barbara and Laura Bush, although the current occupants of the White House have yet to schedule an appearance.

The pedagogic style of Sesame Street has obviously evolved over time, but early episodes and extracts are still available online. Each one-hour programme typically contains up to forty disparate items. From the point of view of broadcasters, this means that they can be easily re-edited and adapted to local markets, and frequently repeated; while from the perspective of viewers, it means that their attention can wander, and they can be distracted by other things going on in the room, without losing their engagement. Items may include short sketches involving the Muppets, sometimes interacting with regular human characters or with visiting celebrities; animated sequences, in a variety of styles (drawn, stop-frame, pixellated); documentary montages, typically featuring children in outdoor settings; and musical performances. Some of these items, such as the animations, are no more than fragments or ‘stings’, lasting as little as half a minute.

Sesame Street is intensely ‘multi-modal’: it is visually rich and diverse, but it also uses sounds and music in sometimes unexpected ways. There is no ‘master narrator’ to interpret for us, as there is in Watch with Mother. Each episode is ‘brought to you by’ a particular letter and number, which tend to recur though several of the items; but otherwise these early episodes have little thematic unity, and there is no running narrative. (More recent programmes seem to have a more linear storyline in this respect, although this is still ‘interrupted’ by a diverse range of other material.)

Sesame Street also provides models of teaching and learning through its human and puppet characters. Adult characters are occasionally shown teaching or demonstrating, either to live children or (more frequently) to the Muppet characters; but the style here is typically gentle rather than authoritarian. In these sequences, the programme shares the benevolent tone of Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood, a much more low-key, studio-based preschool programme that slightly preceded it. Early critics of the programme, such as the radical educationalist John Holt, argued that Sesame Street showed teaching as a one-way process of transmission from adults to children: ‘learning on Sesame Street, as in school, means learning Right Answers, and as in school, Right Answers come from grown-ups’. By contrast, the sociologist Stuart Hall argued that, despite its didactic approach, Sesame Street showed children to be fairly active, and adults were regarded more as friends and helpers than as parent figures. In my view, both observations have some validity, albeit in relation to different aspects of the programme.

Early research on Sesame Street suggested that the programme’s educational effectiveness was likely to be increased if parents and older siblings could be encouraged to watch together with their children. Partly as a result, there is much here that is designed to appeal to an adult viewer – and indeed a certain amount that is likely to pass over the heads of young children. The programme only occasionally depends upon irony, but there are frequent jokes and cultural references that would only be accessible to adults. The appeal of the visiting celebrities – who are trailed in programme listings and on screen – also seems designed for older viewers who would know them from other contexts. Here again, Sesame Street assumes that it is addressing an audience that watches TV, and is able to interpret a wide range of genres. Its target viewer is easily distracted, but also highly media literate.


Sesame Street versus Play School

Even from this brief account, the differences between Sesame Street and Watch with Mother are obvious. In terms of pedagogy, the approach is significantly more didactic, although it is not necessarily more dominated by adults or teachers. The programme assumes or requires a much more developed form of media literacy; and its references to other media forms, and to specific media texts, are much more diverse. It also makes a much more direct attempt to entertain adult viewers, rather than merely appealing to their desire to be ‘good parents’.

For the BBC itself, however, the more significant comparison was with its subsequent ‘flagship’ preschool series Play School, which had begun in 1964. The BBC refused to buy Sesame Street when it was offered to them in 1969, prompting (inaccurate) headlines that it had been ‘banned’. There were several overlapping reasons for this decision, which were detailed at the time by Monica Sims, the head of the Children’s Department, and later by one of her successors, Anna Home. It was partly that Sesame Street was seen as ‘too American’, especially in its language. There were also financial issues: according to Sims, buying Sesame Street would have eaten up the bulk of her department’s budget. Perhaps more significantly, the BBC was keen to sell its own competing show (or at least the format) in similar markets – something it gradually achieved in at least a dozen countries, although without ever approaching the phenomenal success of its rival.

However, the bulk of the criticism was to do with the programme’s pedagogy. Sims professed to admire Sesame Street, but she saw it as more suitable for older children (five- and six-year-olds). She was more directly critical of what she saw as its use of ‘advertising methods’: she argued that this approach was ‘by implication authoritarian’, however entertaining it might be. As Anna Home later wrote, there were seen to be ‘educational dangers in the constant use of repetition and fast pace’. According to Sims, the BBC’s pedagogical aims were much more child-centred: she wanted children to ‘think for themselves’, and to ask their own questions. Recognising letters and numbers was less important than arousing ‘the desire to learn and find out, wonder, think, imagine, build, watch, listen, feel and help, and to experiment with water, textures, shapes, colours, movements and sounds’.

This controversy reveals much about the competing educational aims, not just of these two programmes, but of pre-school television much more broadly. Sims’s aims are not to prepare children for school learning, but to cultivate much more general human attributes: these are not just cognitive, but also to do with emotion and imagination, and with sensory experience. Her arguments clearly echo ‘progressivist’ ideas about education, influenced by thinkers such as Piaget, Froebel and Montessori, which were becoming popular at the time; and they directly oppose the behaviourist approach that is implicit in Sesame Street. Interestingly, media (including television) seem strangely absent from her characterisation of the world of young children.

I won’t spend much time on Play School here, but it’s worth asking how far it actually delivered on these values. Like Sesame Street, the programme had its origins in a concern about the poor provision of nursery education, and it also employed educational advisers, although it rarely set out to teach in the direct manner of its rival. (Its successor, Playdays, which appeared in 1988, and its ITV competitor Rainbow were both more didactic in this respect.) It used a studio-based magazine format, with two presenters who would model various forms of play, music and movement, and craft activities. The presenters also read stories, and would occasionally teach specific skills such as telling the time or good hygiene habits (washing your hands, blowing your nose).

As Su Holmes describes, many of the concerns that were evident in the early days of Watch with Mother were still apparent in the development of Play School: the programme should be educational, but not too educational (as its title seemed to imply); it could not assume that children were necessarily watching with their parents; and children should be gently encouraged to participate using everyday domestic materials (for example in ‘make and do’ activities). There were some differences: the programme famously took the viewer out ‘through the window’ to documentary sequences in real locations; and the presenters were less gratingly middle-class than the narrators of Watch with Mother.

However, the programme can hardly be called child-centred. While the documentary sequences occasionally feature children, there are no children in the studio. Even the stuffed toys are used merely as props: they are not animated or given voices. The presenters speak intimately, as though engaging the child in a one-to-one conversation, but they are also decidedly parental. The setting is implicitly middle-class and semi-rural or suburban, quite unlike that of Sesame Street. Despite Monica Sims’s emphasis on the senses, the programme is dominated by the verbal language of the adult presenters; and unlike its rival, Play School makes very limited assumptions about its viewers’ media literacy. Several of these contrasts and comparisons will be further developed in the examples that follow.

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