When "Sesame Street" decided to tackle race relations this season, the research staff asked white and black preschool children how they felt about themselves. Almost all responses were positive. When the researchers asked the children how they felt about their skin color, one-third of both races weren't as positive.

The challenge for the television program's staff was to explore the question of self-esteem and beauty in a way that fit the intellect and attention span of the show's pint-size audience and carried the "Sesame Street" stamp of gentle homily. One result is a series of children drawing a friend. There's a mix of black, Asian and white artists and subjects.

"It shows the many colors that are part of us and shows a positive appreciation by drawing the person. Then it shows how happy the person is who was drawn," says Valeria Lovelace, the director of "Sesame Street" research.

In another episode, a group of black male teenagers arrives on Sesame Street, helps the residents do their chores and earns some pocket change.

The staff was fighting a common assumption. "One of the stereotypes and misconceptions today is if you see a group of young black male teens, there is something frightening in that. {Something} that is threatening," says Lisa Simon, the show's producer and director. "Nothing is said about them being four black kids. We are showing they are ambitious, nice, funny kids."

Although "Sesame Street," one of the world's most watched and most imitated children's programs, has been topical and diverse in its story lines and casting since it began in 1968, recent events in the outside world have forced some new directions.

"Suddenly every time you opened the newspaper you were hearing about racial unrest. Howard Beach. Tawana Brawley. We wondered where it was coming from. It just seemed like things were regressing," says Simon. In addition to news reports, Lovelace says, letters from viewers and conversations with the show's advisers and with educators at conventions indicated race relations was an important issue for schoolchildren. For two years the staff worked on the right approach.

One concern was the tone, shifting from the show's implicit messages, for example its multiracial cast, to the explicit, for example a song praising skin color. "We didn't want to be abrasive," Simon says, and lose some of the 2- to 6-year-olds in the weekly audience of 10 million households. "A topic like race relations is too broad and overwhelming. So you take it down to its basic elements and you talk about colors -- how black is a good color -- and talk about skin and hair texture."

Simon hopes "Sesame" will teach appreciation of people who are different and techniques of dealing with discrimination. So far the effort has been direct and amusing.

In a skit last week, Whoopi Goldberg, the actress-comedian with cocoa skin and long tangles of braids, and Elmo, a Muppet with red fur, a tangerine nose and bulging eyes, discuss each other's appearance. Elmo says Whoopi's skin is pretty. Goldberg says Elmo's fur is a great shade of red. When Elmo says Whoopi has "lots of fur" on her head, she corrects him. Elmo suggests trading skin and fur. Explaining the impossibility of such an exchange, Goldberg says, "Even if we could trade I wouldn't. I like my skin and hair. I would keep them both."

The Goldberg-Elmo exchange is slipped into the mix without any fanfare. And that will be the pattern, says Simon. Continuing will be the show's typical approach of having a racial mix of children sitting on the brownstone steps talking about visits to the doctor, listening to lessons on cooperation from Bert and Ernie, and learning words in Spanish.

The Emmy Award-winning show is seen in Washington 15 times a week on Channel 26, Channel 32 and Maryland Public Television. In a recent analysis of children's television viewing done for public television, researchers found that the audience is eroding. But children's programs remain a draw for one-third of public television viewers. The decline, says Simon, was not part of the incentive for this season's more direct approach to race relations.

"It is a concern," Simon says of the decline. "The question is whether children are watching blocks of programming on cable or whether they are in settings where they are watching 'Sesame' in groups or whether it's home cassettes or Nintendo."

As usual with "Sesame Street," a number of celebrities will appear to entertain and double as role models. Comedian Robin Williams; actresses Tyne Daly, Rhea Perlman and Julia Roberts; and musician Ray Charles will come on during the season. Bo Jackson, the jack-of-all-sports athlete, appears in a skit with nursery favorite Little Bo Peep. The writers borrow liberally from Jackson's advertising routine: Bo knows the alphabet, Bo knows numbers, but Bo doesn't know Peep.

In addition, two new actors -- an African American and a Hispanic teenager -- will help broaden situations by race and age. Next year, themes with Hispanic and Asian Americans, as well as Native Americans, will be emphasized.

Still in the development stage are segments that explore rejection. "We designed some scenarios with a child being rejected period and {being} rejected because of race," says Lovelace. "Then we asked what would the rejected child say. 'Yes, I can play.' 'Yes, I can swing.' 'Please.' 'No.' 'Shut up.' The children said 'No' and 'Shut up' wouldn't help, and children tended to use the same strategy no matter why they were rejected." A finished skit shows Lila, a blue monster Muppet, playing with a group of blue friends. She won't let the red Elmo play, and he is confused. Finally he's allowed to play.

So far the race relations segments have tidy endings. "For our audience we try very hard not to leave things unresolved," says Simon. She says the writers are discussing a situation in which Miles, a Sesame Street resident who attends kindergarten, faces some racial hostility and comes home to his father for an answer.