Loved by families for more than 40 years, Sesame Street’s characters and engaging everyday lessons will be featured as part of a new station-based program to bring educational resources to early-learning providers and parents.
With funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and other partners, Sesame Workshop is collaborating with three public television stations as part of its new Sesame Street in Communities initiative. Organizers hope the curriculum will spread to 35 communities and reach 4.5 million children under age 6 over the next five years.
Bilingual online educational resources such as stories, videos and printable activities are being used in combination with in-person workshops and other community events to support teachers, caregivers and others in using the materials.
In Kansas City, Mo., for example, pilot site KCPT will host a Kids & Sesame Street Block Party in October that will include activities for children, sessions for parents and an appearance by a Sesame Street character. Then, in November, the station will target early-education providers and community-based agencies through a free, four-hour Kids Early Childhood Summit, which will include training on how to organize parent workshops. The event will also count toward childcare providers’ professional development credit requirements.
“When I look at the goals for our education program, it allows us to further advance not just [Sesame Street in Communities] but any curriculum,” Angee Simmons, VP for TV production and creative services at KCPT, said about the summit. “It really does give us a place that every year we can come and engage with early-childhood teachers and help them better use the content from PBS Kids.”
With both the block party and the summit, she said, KCPT is trying to reach out beyond their existing partners and involve more providers who serve high-needs children.
In North Carolina, staff from UNC-TV will introduce the initiative to attendees at the annual conference of the North Carolina Association for the Education of Young Children. More than 100 early educators are expected to join the session. Materials from the initiative also will be presented at the North Carolina State Fair in October and at a PBS Regional Teacher Summit in December.
A yet-to-be-named station in Los Angeles is also participating in the pilot, according to Sesame Workshop.
And in early September, WNET and the Queens Central Library (Jamaica) in New York City will incorporate the materials into its annual Discovery Day Street Fair. The event will include crafts, science activities, music and — naturally — photo opportunities with “walk-around” Cookie Monster. WNET isn’t a pilot station, but it got an early start in planning its event.
SSIC resources, which all public television stations can begin sharing with early-childhood professionals and parents, cover topics familiar to long-time viewers, including healthy habits, social-emotional development and language, and math skills. Segments give teachers and parents ways to communicate with children about uncomfortable issues such as divorce or having an incarcerated parent. On the website, users can search for age-specific content and choose how long the activity should last.
Reconnecting with public TV stations
The new initiative follows Sesame Workshop’s 2015 deal to premiere new seasons of Sesame Street on HBO instead of PBS. To many public TV leaders, the move undercut PBS’s position as the leading provider of free educational media for children. This pilot aims to reinforce the community-based work that local stations do to support early learning in today’s context. The materials have been designed to reflect children’s growing use of tablet computers to interact with media.
Jade Packer, UNC-TV project manager for Children’s Media and Education Services, called the initiative “an excellent way for Sesame Workshop to reconnect with public television stations. It also acts as a nice reminder to the general public that they still have access to the wonderful content that Sesame Workshop creates.”
KCPT’s Simmons said it’s smart for Sesame Workshop to send the message that it is still engaged in the community. “We want to be able to put them in the list of all the things we offer,” she says. “[Sesame Street] is a part of who we are, and it always will be.”
But Sesame Workshop leaders say the effort is an addition to its long-running partnership with public television stations.
“PBS stations across the country have long been ambassadors of Sesame Street in the communities they serve through local events and sharing resources with families,” Jeanette Betancourt, senior VP of U.S. social impact, said in a statement. “Sesame Workshop is partnering with certain PBS stations in our pilot phase and will work hand in hand with stations across the country to reach children, families and local providers in their communities to build the circle of care that every child needs to thrive.”
SSIC also demonstrates how today’s apps, websites and interactive tools can support young children’s literacy development and knowledge about the world, instead of being viewed as a distraction from learning.
“Learning to read is no longer relegated to the world of print and paper. Digital media can help, too, as long as it is designed well,” says Lisa Guernsey, director of New America’s Learning Technologies Project. Guernsey is co-author of Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens, a 2015 book she co-wrote with Michael Levine, founder and director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center. Named for one of Sesame Street’s creators, the Cooney Center conducts independent research on using media and technology to support childhood learning.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recognized the value of digital learning among young children last year when it updated its recommendations about screen time. A statement on the academy’s website said, “Some media can have educational value for children starting at around 18 months of age, but it’s critically important that this be high-quality programming, such as the content offered by Sesame Workshop and PBS. Parents of young children should watch media with their child, to help children understand what they are seeing.”
In recent years, Guernsey and other experts have also drawn attention to what they call a “media mentor,” someone such as a teacher, caregiver or local librarian who helps parents and children navigate the ever-expanding world of digital content.
“Every parent and caregiver in every town and city has the power to help their little ones to learn new words and build early reading skills, but sometimes adults just need a little extra inspiration,” Guernsey says. “The new minicourses and other digital media from Sesame Street could spark that inspiration.”