EDITOR’S NOTE: Ann Bibby joined Care2 to be part of our upcoming Education Channel, but we couldn’t leave this birthday unacknowledged so you’re meeting her early.
We are about to celebrate the 40th birthday of Sesame Street, and with that celebration, the reality of how much it changed the world of children’s television.
When I was a preschooler back in the late 1960’s, educational television consisted of Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Rodgers’ Neighborhood and Romper Room. While I credit the Captain with his gently melodious way of reading a picture book to a camera that seemed directed at each child instead of hundreds of thousands for my love of books – no one can hold a candle to the man’s rendition of Make Way for Ducklings or Mike the Steam Shovel – I seriously doubt I learned anything my future teachers could build on. If I did learn anything, it wasn’t an intentional outcome. It was not a Baby Einstein era. Early education was only just in its own infancy with programs like Headstart, but parents weren’t putting their fetuses on preschool waiting lists and stay at home moms didn’t worry about quality time or whether or not their babies would learn to talk without direct instruction. In fact preschool was so suspect that in 1968 when my dad’s first cousin brought the program to my hometown, she had to actively recruit children for the program. My mom was all in favor of an hour away from me twice a week but my dad saw it as a waste of time and had it not been free, I wouldn’t have attended preschool at all.
But who shows like Romper Room and the Captain were really teaching were parents, as adults discovered that the under five set could be held captivated and babysat by the television as easily as their older siblings were on Saturday morning.
Since being deemed a “vast wasteland” in 1961, television had made no great strides toward correcting the sweeping dismissal, but it didn’t mean that no one was trying. After convincing a skeptical Department of Education that the preschoolers were worth an 8 million dollar experiment, Sesame Street debuted in 1969 with the modest aim of teaching the not ready for elementary school set to count to ten. It quickly became apparent that repetition set to music and taught by Muppets could do more than teach children, some as young as 2 years old, to count.
Sesame Street opened the doors to the reality that toddlers and preschoolers were more than easily mesmerized lumps and when batches of them began arriving at the kindergarten door already knowing much of what was standard curriculum, the PreK and kindergarten experience began its steady metamorphosis to the expectations – some would say too lofty – of today.
And it’s effect on educational television? Arguably there has been more exploitation of children via commercials aimed directly at their impressionable little minds than there has been a sincere effort to educate, but shows like Dora, the Explorer, The Little Einsteins and much of the current PBS Kids fare have an end goal that leans, if only a little, towards expanding young minds academically and socially.
The original Sesame Street was not aimed at me and my peers in our little Iowa river town. The inner city look and racial diversity was meant to attract disadvantaged city kids and give them a look beyond their city existences. But the little girl I was, familiar with farms and where milk and eggs really came from, was drawn in by the idea of communal front stoops and people who didn’t all look, sound and think as my parents and their friends did.
Today my own seven year old has been introduced to bilingualism, and the fact that not everyone lives or believes as we do, by tv shows produced just for her age group. She is fascinated by other languages and cannot wait for next year when she will begin studying French, our other official language here in Canada. She is curious, rather than suspicious, of other cultures.
Despite the fact that television aimed at the youngest viewers has been abused for purely capitalistic reasons and that some of what passes for educational television is really no different in terms of engagement and purpose than the Saturday morning cartoons of my youth, the fact remains that television is only a wasteland for children if we allow it to be and for that, we owe a humble thanks to Sesame Street.