Entertainment and Arts

‘Sesame Street’ Doco Reveals the Power to Educate Children via TV

By: Laura Bennett

It’s incredible how nostalgic we can feel about the TV shows we watched as children. Just the mere mention of Big Ted, Mr. Squiggle or The Magic School Bus can send you back to a time where your imagination was coming alive and these characters (best friends) were taking you on adventures beyond your lounge room and teaching you about the big wide world.

There are far more shows on offer now, from Bluey to Peppa Pig and literally thousands of things in between, but back in the 1960s children’s television was truly revolutionised.

In Australia, Playschool was a cornerstone of educational television, and three years after its first broadcast in 1966, Sesame Street became an international phenomenon that redefined – especially in the US – how children were viewed through the screen, and what good “the tube” could do in the their lives.

Street Gang: How we Got to Sesame Street is a new documentary that offers a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the show, what a tremendous feat it was for the producers and puppeteers to bring it to life, and just how culturally relevant it became.

Street Gang: How we Got to Sesame Street is a new documentary, offering a behind-the-scenes look at what a tremendous feat it was for the producers and puppeteers to bring it to life.

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When Sesame Street first aired, TV was mostly a vehicle for advertising and shows for adults.

Creator of Sesame Street Joan Cooney noted that “every kid in America was singing beer commercials”, and realised TV was “where had they learned it from”. Her theory was that if “kids adored the medium, why not see if it’s an educator?”

It wasn’t just a nice idea, but something that had the power to change the future of the children who watched the show, teaching them the fundamentals of reading, writing and emotional intelligence.

It had the power to change the future of the children who watched the show, teaching them the fundamentals of reading, writing and emotional intelligence.

Joan said, “reading is what those in the system, and those who create the system, can do”, so if the inner-city children – who were the prime audience of Sesame Street – were ever going to engage fully in society, reading was a skill they needed.

It might be a surprise to kids who watched the show to discover how intentional our counting along with The Count was, or the way characters like Oscar the Grouch were used to teach us how to deal with the “not nice” people we might confront as kids.

oscar the grouch
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Big Bird was as a kind of “kid on set” the producers reveal, helping children process big emotions like sadness and fear, allowing them to see themselves in him as he moved through the world.

One particularly touching scene explains how the producers used Big Bird to approach the subject of death on screen after a cast member died, and how they chose what a kid needed to know about the event.

Sesame Street was also a pioneer in its “integrated casting” and the way it talked about race.

Sesame Street was also a pioneer in its “integrated casting” and the way it talked about race.

Again, it might not have been noticed by children at the time, but the “neighbourhood” that Sesame Street created was one where diverse cultural backgrounds were seen and expressed. The documentary notes how the actors and writers constantly wrestled with what they showed “blackness” to look like, or how in Maria’s (Sonia Manzano’s) case, they depicted Puerto Rican behaviour.

It’s interesting to think even now, some 40 years since the show debuted, we still debate about representation on screen as if for the first time, forgetting the shoulders we stand on.

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Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street is a great moment of honour for all of those who were involved in such a ground-breaking show, and insightful for those who simply consumed it for entertainment. It proves that concern about screen time and its effect on children isn’t new, and that a whole lot of respect needs to be given to those who call a career in kids entertainment work.

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street is in select cinemas and on digital.

street gang official trailer

Article supplied with thanks to Hope Media.

About the Author: Laura is a media professional, broadcaster and writer from Sydney, Australia.

All images supplied by Universal

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