The View From Sesame Street
When the groundbreaking show "Sesame Street" was created in 1968 to help children prepare for school, it was not without its critics. To some, the attempt to use television to teach children seemed unlikely to succeed. To others, the show was radical, even revolutionary. "Sesame Street" was diverse, multicultural, "street smart." It remains to this day one of the most successful endeavors in children's programming, having won more Emmys and been the subject of more postgraduate theses than any program in television history.
Nearly 38 years later, our newest initiative has also come in for criticism. Upon launching "Sesame Beginnings," a series of videos for parents and children under the age of 2, the nonprofit educational organization Sesame Workshop was immediately accused by some "experts" of "betraying children and families." Somehow, by merely entering the market, we are promoting television as babysitter when caregivers should be engaging in hands-on parenting, free of TV.
But the reality is that with the explosion of media, more families are allowing their youngest children to watch television, whether we like it or not. (And in families with older siblings, younger kids are being exposed, whether intended or not). This conflicts with the American Academy of Pediatrics' nearly decade-old recommendation that no children under 2 should ever watch television.
Despite that directive, a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study found that millions of young children are watching TV and videos -- that 68 percent of all children under 2 use some form of screen media on a typical day. Much of what they view is aimed at older kids -- some even at adults. "Sesame Street" videos are among those frequently viewed by the under-2 set, even though the content and curriculum are for older children.
In dealing with this reality, we decided to take a pragmatic approach. First, we embarked on extensive evaluation and research. As with all Sesame Workshop projects, we worked with an advisory board of child development and media experts, and we joined with ZERO TO THREE, another nonprofit organization of pediatricians, child development experts and researchers dedicated to the healthy development of infants and toddlers. Together, we decided to provide quality content for parents who choose to use media with their children.
The materials we provide are designed to promote parenting skills in the hope that songs and activities will help create special teachable moments between parent and child. They encourage child/caregiver interaction when the TV is turned off, in contrast to other products on the market.
We live in a world where media are ubiquitous. Today's parents were raised around television and are comfortable using media in the home. More must and should be done to fully examine how media developed for the under-2 set affect a child's learning.
Television is a powerful teacher. Research to date has looked more at total viewing time than content. What we've learned, with our own decades of research on the impact of "Sesame Street," is that content does matter -- programs designed to be age-appropriate educational viewing experiences do have beneficial educational effects.
That is why we support a closer look at media for children based on content rather than screen time. We need to examine whether marketing guidelines are required for products and whether parents have the information they need to make informed decisions. Most important, we have to make sure we take an honest look at the reality of media today and base our decisions on the real-world needs of parents and children.
We believe "Sesame Beginnings" has done precisely that. Nearly four decades ago, Sesame Workshop tackled the challenge of using television to promoting literacy, numeracy and social and emotional skills -- with long-lasting positive effects.
"Sesame Beginnings" provides a research-based, developmentally appropriate precursor to "Sesame Street," one that will promote positive engagement with media for our youngest children and those who are raising them. I suggest our critics view these videos first, before firing the salvos they are so ready to set off at a moment's notice.
The writer is president and CEO of Sesame Workshop.