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Secret #1: Children Know Learning is Fun!
One of the secrets that the creators of Sesame Street knew was that children think of learning—formal or informal—as fun, not work. Because they were aware that their audience of preschoolers enjoyed learning, the creators made it very clear that their show’s purpose was to educate.
My son, Daniel and I often watched Sesame Street together. Over time, I became increasingly familiar with the show and its power to teach. One morning, Daniel identified a triangle on the rug, which was made by the sun streaming through the window, hitting an object on the windowsill at a slant. “Look mommy,” he said, “a triangle!” This transfer of knowledge was exciting and happened many times in our home due to Sesame Street’s influence, bringing the family together in joyous learning.
Television is an incredibly powerful medium. You may remember the old Family Circus cartoon of a teacher showing a group of young students numbers on a clipboard. A student asks, “I don’t understand! Why don’t the numbers move and talk like they do on Sesame Street?”
The creators of Sesame Street understood that knowledge was truly everywhere and that children never stop having fun learning, even if they are just gazing out at the world from a car window. This first secret has stood the test of time as this iconic television series celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2019!
Secret #2: People Who Love Their Work
Everyone working on this show — the actors, musicians, producers, puppeteers, researchers, and writers — love their work! These people believe in what they do, so they strive to do their absolute best and they don’t work just for the money.
Jeff Moss, famous for his song, “Rubber Duckie,” told me, “The amount of people connected with Sesame Street now, and also connected with it back in year one or two, is extraordinarily high. Even for people like myself, who don’t do it full time anymore, it has a real dear place in our heart.”
Another cast member, Caroll Spinney, was the puppeteer for one of the most recognizable figures in Sesame Street’s history: Big Bird. (And Oscar the Grouch too!)
Being the puppeteer for Big Bird isn’t easy. The general public often looks at a show or a character on television and thinks, I can do that; what’s the big deal? So, lo and behold, at a party a guy once went up to Spinney and said in a robust voice, “I can play Big Bird for an hour!”
Big Bird’s head weighs about four-and-a-half pounds and in order to manipulate the eyelids and beak, Spinney has to hold up an outstretched arm in a vertical position and insert his hand into Big Bird’s head. He must keep it there — up as straight as possible — for as long as Big Bird is on the show, and that can be a while.
“All right,” Spinney said to the guy, “Hold up your arm vertically for five minutes; you don’t even have to put anything in your hand.” There was a clock on the mantel and a couple of minutes went by when the fellow embarrassingly put his hand down.
“There’s a rule in puppetry; if it’s comfortable, you’re probably doing it wrong,” Spinney laughed. “My arm has gotten much stronger than it was when I started. I’m really great at painting ceilings!”
What these people knew was that their love for the work they do was responsible for Sesame Street’s success. Jon Stone, producer and director of the show, stated, “Sesame Street is a show — it is a show more carefully produced and studied and researched and thought about and loved by the people who do it than any show on television, and I’ve worked on a lot of shows in television, both prime-time and here, and there is just no comparison.”
Secret #3: Talking About the Tough Stuff
At one point, the Sesame Street creators set a new goal of teaching preschoolers about death, specifically the passing of the beloved character Mr. Hooper.
After almost twelve years of acting, Will Lee, who played Hooper, the storekeeper on Sesame Street, died. He had been grateful to work again since his early acting career was cut short by McCarthyism (being blacklisted in the McCarthy era). The actors, puppeteers, and everybody at the Workshop loved him, and Big Bird especially had fun with Mr. Hooper, calling him ‘Mr. Looper,’ ‘Tooper,’ ‘Scooper,’ or even ‘Mr. Pooper.’ Especially to those on the set, Will Lee was a grandfather, a wise and kind figure.
The Workshop’s decision to tell the truth about Lee’s passing was invigorating. Instead of saying Mr. Hooper “retired” or “went on vacation,” they decided to be honest with the children. Fred Rogers had once said in an interview, “I think the most important thing we can give anybody is one more honest adult in their lives. Children really need honest adults.”
Over time, many cognitive (intellectual) goals were added to Sesame Street’s curriculum. A pleasant surprise was the addition of more and more affective (emotional) goals, which included the topic of death.
This was another secret of Sesame Street! Children respond openly to the truth and can often perceive when adults aren’t telling them the reality of a situation. It is far better to be open and honest, especially with preschoolers.
Secret #4: “It’s a Small World”
McGrath said, “I’ve always felt that if the show accomplished nothing more over the course of years than showing that different kinds of people can co-exist and get along well together that would have been worth the great exercise, and of course the only way that can happen is with live people.”
McGrath talked about a wonderful moment that happened to him at the airport:
“I was flying out of Newark and this young Black girl was behind the counter, and she hollered and said, ‘Hi, Bob!’ And we started talking. I said, ‘Didn’t you grow up with us on Sesame Street?’ And she said, ‘Oh, yes!’ And I said, ‘You must be very smart’ and started laughing. I said, ‘I suppose we changed your entire life!’ And she got very serious and said, ‘Yes, as a matter of fact you did.’ I said, ‘Really?’ ‘Yes!’ — she said it was seeing Black, White Hispanic, all these people, being very good friends, getting along together on the show, and she said, ‘I was amazed because I didn’t know that could happen in real life.’”
The secret here is that preschoolers saw actors from different ethnic groups being friends on Sesame Street every day.
Additionally, this young audience saw a lot of role models, including women of strength such as Hillary Rodham Clinton and Michelle Obama. Preschoolers were exposed to celebrities with disabilities, including Andrea Bocelli, Linda Bove, Ray Charles, Itzhak Perlman and Christopher Reeve, to name a few. And last but not least, many celebrities appeared on Sesame Street, including James Earl Jones, Carol Burnett, Jackie Robinson, Yo-Yo Ma, Whoopi Goldberg, and Tina Fey, adding to the richness of the world the show created.
Secret #5: Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street
Sesame Street blurs the line between fantasy and reality, and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, another show for preschoolers, does not. That difference prompts a good story, worth sharing with you.
Big Bird puppeteer, Caroll Spinney, was invited to be Big Bird on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Fred Rogers, creator of the Neighborhood, always made sure there was a clear division between reality and fantasy. Because of this separation, Rogers told Spinney that at one point in the show he wanted him to take off part of his Big Bird costume and reveal himself as being dressed up.
“Imagine having an argument with Fred Rogers! Rogers booked me to go on his show and sent me a script. The script had me walking into his little house and Rogers would chat a bit with the bird. Then he would say, ‘What’s it like in there, Caroll? Take off your costume and show us how it works.’”
There was no way Spinney could do what Rogers requested of him but Rogers said that it was necessary in order to teach the children. Rogers explained how the Neighborhood works. “We keep it separate; that’s why we have the trolley which goes to make-believe land. We point out to the preschoolers that’s make-believe, and it’s not real; it’s make-believe. But reality is here in the house.”
Spinney told me that he was on the phone with Rogers for 20 minutes, and Fred continued to suggest Big Bird couldn’t be on the show. “Finally I proposed, ‘Let’s change the script!’” So, Rogers took Spinney out of the house and only had him as a guest in make-believe land.
This illustrates an important secret shared by these two iconic television shows: When you commit to a story for children, fully commit to it! If you decide to blend fantasy with reality as Sesame Street does, don’t reveal the man behind the Muppet. On the other hand, if you decide to draw a firm line between fantasy and reality, as Fred Rogers did, be sure not to place fantasy in the real world. Children respond best when there is consistency in their stories, and both Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood understood that.