Sesame Street’s daring TV experiment defied the odds, reshaped early education & changed the world

Vintage Sesame Street TV show for kids

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Sesame Street. Just uttering those two words likely stirs a blend of nostalgia, early learning memories, and unforgettable theme music in your mind (“Sunnnny day… 🎶”). Since its debut on November 10, 1969, the show has not only been an enduring fixture of children’s television, but also a positive powerful cultural force.

Sesame Street characters (1982)

Sesame Street had a huge influence on early education

Conceived by Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, the goal of Sesame Street was simple yet revolutionary: to harness the power of TV and use it as a tool for educating underprivileged children.

Leveraging the addictive nature of television, Sesame Street hoped to teach kids their ABCs and 123s. The gamble paid off, as today, the show is broadcast in more than 150 countries and has won over 170 Emmy Awards.

Scene from Sesame Street in 1970

But it’s not just the awards or reach that underscore Sesame Street’s impact. The true value lies in the generations of children who have learned critical educational and life lessons while having fun. Many of us can trace our earliest literacy and numeracy skills back to the show’s unique blend of puppetry, live-action, and animation.

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Beyond academics, Sesame Street has been instrumental in teaching children about complex social issues, such as race, diversity, and inclusivity. The introduction of Julia, a Muppet with autism, was a pioneering move, as was the debut of Kami, an HIV-positive Muppet, on Takalani Sesame, the South African version of the show.

How Sesame Street impacted the world

Moreover, it’s hard to overstate Sesame Street’s influence on pop culture. From timeless phrases like “C is for Cookie” to unforgettable characters like Big Bird and Elmo, the show has left an indelible mark. Its impact has echoed through numerous TV shows, movies, and music, as seen with references in The Simpsons, The West Wing, and even chart-topping songs.

Time magazine with Sesame Street's Big Bird on the cover (1970)

Sesame Street’s endurance for over half a century is a testament to its timeless approach to education, inclusivity, and entertainment. The show has created a shared language that spans generations and continents. It’s a remarkable testament to the power of television to not only entertain but also to enlighten, educate, and create a more inclusive world.

In the end, it’s not just a street. For millions around the globe, Sesame Street is a vital intersection of education and entertainment, a place where children are taught to cherish learning and embrace the diverse tapestry of humanity. Read on to see how this revolutionary program was received in its earliest days (when many of us reading this article may have been its target audience!).

Vintage Earnie and Bert characters from Sesame Street

Swinging “Sesame Street” debuts (1969)

From the Charleston Daily Mail (Charleston, SC) November 8, 1969

An impromptu street dance swings on the set of the newest television program for preschoolers. “Sesame Street” premieres Nov 24.

The daily, hour-long show is designed to reach and teach the nation’s 12 million preschool youngsters with cartoons, films and happenings along the mythical street that is inhabited by puppets, cartoon characters and human beings who tell stories, sing and dance. The show also includes trips to places away from Sesame Street.

MORE: Captain Kangaroo’s Bob Keeshan on the beloved kids’ show, plus see the opening credits again

Sesame Street – Episode 1 (November 1969)

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Sesame Street: How to make an exciting TV show? Ask the kids

By George Jaye – The Daily Times (Salisbury, Maryland) Nov 9, 1969

If you were an Emmy-winning television producer, would you let some four-year-old kid tell you how to put together your new show? Mrs. Joan Ganz Cooney, head of the Children’s Television Workshop, would.

Well, partly. She is eager to have the guidance and counsel of the preschool set for her group’s new series, “Sesame Street.”

Sesame Street cast muppets

In fact, Workshop educators and child researchers have been visiting hundreds of three-, four-, and five-year-old kids for months at day-care centers and in private homes to find out what they think of test segments of the show, whether the shows hold their interest, and what the youngsters are able to learn from them.

“Sesame Street,” you see, is an experimental series aimed at preparing preschool children for formal education by teaching them such useful things as numbers and letters, geometric shapes, and concepts of none-some and under-around.

1969 Muppets Sesame Street PBS

Says Mrs. Cooney, who won her Emmy in 1966 for a three-hour documentary on the Federal poverty program, “To a large degree, the very audience at which ‘Sesame Street’ is aimed will have shaped and fashioned the program before it ever gets on the air.

“I really know of no other program that has undergone the degree of testing and evaluation that this show has. You could never find critics more candid.”

In their efforts to instruct the children in a light, entertaining way, the Workshop producers are using various elements of commercial children’s television that they know are appealing to the small fry — puppets, animated cartoons, congenial hosts, live-action films. other children on stage.

ALSO SEE: The Muppet Show theme song, famous guest stars, and how the hit TV show started (1976-1981)

“Education is a hidden ingredient,” says Mrs. Cooney. To make sure the lessons are getting through is the task of Dr. Edward L. Palmer, the Workshop’s director of research. He is one of the country’s few specialists on the impact of television on young children.

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How does a three-year-old child, wrestling with his first phrases, give a critique of a tv show? “The answers we’re looking for don’t come only from the way the children respond to systematic teaching, but from what they indicate by their behavior while watching a segment,” Doctor Palmer explains. “We watch the children as they watch.

“For example, we can learn what they find most amusing, the ability of the children to understand certain transitions or plot lines, to anticipate upcoming events, and to detect the hidden motivations underlying the actions of the performers.”

Sesame Street - Children's Television Workshop 1969

In determining intensity of interest, Doctor Palmer relies on a device he calls the distractor. It is, in fact, a small screen set up next to a television set on which color slides are projected from time to time.

If the child watching “Sesame Street” is easily distracted, it is a tip-off that the material being shown isn’t sufficiently absorbing. After the “Sesame Street” material is shown, they question the children to determine whether or not the educational message got through.

“Sometimes we find the children having a delightful time watching a segment, but when it is over, they still don’t recognize the letter or number we were trying to teach them,” says Doctor Palmer. “Fortunately, through this sort of pretesting, we are able to make the necessary changes before the material is exposed to an audience.”

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From such frequent contacts with the preschooler, Doctor Palmer has developed a good idea of what turns him on or off.

“Primarily they want action; they want things to move. Nothing bores them so quickly as the sight of an adult facing them on the screen and just talking.

ALSO SEE: Hey you guys! See how ‘The Electric Company’ TV show powered kids’ minds back in the ’70s

Early Sesame Street TV show cast

“They like animals, and they adore seeing other children on the screen. They love the commercials and, in fact, are already programmed to commercial interruption… Unlike adults, the more frequently they see a particular commercial and the more familiar the jingle or slogan becomes, the more they enjoy it.”

(Taking advantage of this interest in commercial messages, “Sesame Street” producers have built several one-minute breaks into each hour show and, although similar to other commercials in format, the products advertised are letters of the alphabet rather than toothpaste or beer.)

Vintage Sesame Street cast - 1969 1970

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The young child’s reaction to the appearance of well-known performers on the show is an unfailing source of amusement for the Workshop testers observing them.

Broadway actor James Earl Jones’ unadorned pate sets the kids giggling and exclaiming, “Look how bald he is.” But by the time Jones gets halfway through his deadpan recitation of the ABCs, the sub-first graders can’t contain their laughter.

“Sesame Street,” an hour-long, full-color show, will be shown each weekday on some 170 educational (public) ) TV stations beginning Nov. 10. Many stations will be showing it twice a day.

To bring it to as many of the nation’s 12 million preschoolers as possible, the Workshop has been encouraging parents and teachers to form small viewing groups of children that can watch the program together on a regular basis.

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The Workshop is also publishing a Parent’s Guide that previews the main educational elements of each show and provides suggestions for follow-up activity.

MORE: Remember Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood? Find out about it, plus the theme song & lyrics

The project, which is sponsored by the U.S. Office of Education, the Ford Foundation, and Carnegie Corporation, is the outgrowth of a four-month study the 39-year-old Mrs Cooney made for Carnegie Corporation on effective ways of communicating with preschool children to enable them to get off to a more even start in elementary school.

“Two statistics have convinced me that there is no more practical and economical way of preparing these children than through television,” says Mrs Cooney. “Even in homes where the average income is less than $5,000, more than 90 percent of the families own television sets. And in homes where there are preschool children, the television set is turned on constantly.

“The audience is there, watching. What we’ve had to do is develop the kind of program that would hold the children’s interest and make them enjoy learning. And they’ve given us a good idea of their demands.”

Sesame Street TV show in 1975

Sesame Street TV theme song lyrics from the opening credits

Sunny day
Sweeping the clouds away
On my way to where the air is sweet
Can you tell me how to get
How to get to Sesame Street?

Come and play
Everything’s a-okay
Friendly neighbors there
That’s where we meet
Can you tell me how to get
How to get to Sesame Street?
How to get to Sesame Street?
How to get to Sesame Street?
How to get to Sesame Street?

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MORE PBS FOR KIDS: Taking off with Zoom, a TV show for kids (1972-1978)

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Comments on this story

2 Responses

  1. I was 7 years old. Still remember my teacher telling us about the show, so I ran home as fast as I could to watch.

  2. I remember watching the very first episode of “Sesame Street” when I was five, so I was just the right age for it; my mother made a big deal about a “new show for kids” that she wanted me to watch. Those early episodes had a lot less emphasis on the Muppets and more on humans. I recall Buddy and Jim, who I thought were hilarious (they didn’t last long). And from the YouTube clip included here, I remember the cartoon about Wanda’s “W” wig, which freaked me out a bit. At the time, when even major media markets had only a handful of TV channels, “Sesame Street” was pretty much the only show on for kids on weekday mornings other than “Captain Kangaroo.” I’d watch it in the summer, and after it was over, my mom would make me go outside for the rest of the day.

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