The Role of Social Media in Early Childhood Education: The Sesame Workshop

We must not underestimate the importance of early childhood education on the intellectual development of future generations. UNESCO, arguing that the first eight years of life are critical for brain development, advocates for early education that promotes health, nutrition, and holistic growth.(1) Studies have shown that children who watch educational television programming benefit from increased cognitive capacity, improved preparedness for school, and enhanced social skills.(2)(3) However, many households throughout the world do not have the means to provide their children with preschool education.  

Sesame Street, a popular children’s program, has been at the forefront of childhood television for over forty years in the United States, and has made some of its popular characters – Elmo, Cookie Monster, and Big Bird – household names. However, more than a form of entertainment, Sesame Street serves as an educational tool. The show is famous for its catchy songs and clever plots embedded with educational messages, teaching children the alphabet, the importance of sharing, how to cope with grief, and countless other social messages, all while keeping children engaged. Sesame Street has provided children with a valuable supplement to preschool education.

Sesame Street’s positive impact on child development has ignited interest regarding its use in the developing world. The Sesame Workshop is a not-for-profit organization that offers early childhood education to countries with limited social infrastructure by producing local adaptations of Sesame Street programming. The Workshop uses an innovative social media approach to early childhood education by using television, books, radio, and live action plays to convey educational messages to children. 

Sesame Workshop is an evidence-based organization that uses research findings to identify appropriate educational objectives, develop curricula, and adapt its content to ensure that it is having a positive effect on viewers.(4) Materials are carefully designed and developed by a team of local researchers and writers, and reflect the established educational objectives in a particular locale. Research is conducted regularly to evaluate children’s responses and educational outcomes.(5)  

The Sesame Workshop now serves over 140 countries with various locally-tailored versions of the show.(6) Local adaptations are designed to ensure that content is context-specific. For example, the set reflects the environment of the home country, characters speak the national language, and social messages address the country’s needs.(7) This is critical because it helps to make messages meaningful and culturally sensitive. In the United States, Sesame Workshop has focused on relevant issues such as H1N1 flu prevention, separation from a parent serving in the military, healthy eating, and economic uncertainties.(8) Worldwide, Sesame Workshop spreads awareness about HIV/AIDS, malaria, racism, and gender imbalances by educating children about these critical issues.   

Sesame Workshop emphasizes diversity and specifies that it does not force American values on other cultures.(9) Research, writing, program design, and performing are all carried out by a team of local professionals. The Sesame Workshop provides training and expertise, working in partnership with local organizations.   

Kilimani Sesame: De-stigmatizing HIV/AIDS in Tanzania

In 2008, the Sesame Workshop launched Kilimani Sesame in Tanzania as a social media intervention meant to educate preschool-age children. The project produced informative, entertaining, and culturally sensitive materials including a television program, storybooks, and radio broadcasts, all developed by local educators, researchers, producers, and filmmakers.(10) All materials are produced in the local language, Kiswahili, and in English. A study has shown that Tanzanian children who are exposed to Kilimani Sesame have improved literacy and math skills, exhibit positive social behaviors, and have increased health knowledge after the intervention.(11) The degree of improvement is directly correlated with children’s receptivity to the programming.

In response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa, the Sesame Workshop decided to incorporate educational and pro-social messages about the disease into the show. The South African program, Takalani Sesame, was the first to design an HIV/AIDS curriculum, introducing a new Muppet to help address the issue.(12) The resulting character is Kami, a five-year old yellow Muppet who is HIV positive and whose mother died from AIDS.(13) Since women and girls are highly vulnerable to infection, Kami is intended to serve as a strong role model for young girls, especially those who are HIV positive. Kami is a leading character in Kilimani Sesame; she is bright, enthusiastic, loves to learn, and talks about HIV/AIDS openly. Kami demonstrates ways in which other HIV positive children can deal with the social and emotional struggles associated with the illness, and she serves as a spokesperson for HIV/AIDS awareness.    

In Tanzania, stigma and prejudice associated with HIV/AIDS are quite prevalent; these attitudes are then passed on to children, who begin to discriminate against their HIV positive peers.(14) Kilimani Sesame places special attention on trying to eliminate this stigma by presenting information about HIV/AIDS in a tolerant manner, thus changing perceptions about the disease. Kami is self-confident and likes to play with other children, teaching viewers that it is okay to interact with HIV positive children. In fact, children who watched Kilimani Sesame knew more about HIV/AIDS than children who did not, and were more likely to identify HIV positive children as not dangerous.(15) 

Tanzania is home to about 2.5 million orphaned children, half of whom are orphaned because of HIV/AIDS.(16) Kilimani Sesame addresses the grief and isolation associated with HIV/AIDS, and presents coping strategies for children who have lost a parent or loved one. 

Kilimani Sesame reaches 5 million children throughout Tanzania.(17) The project’s positive outcomes have given Sesame Workshop incentive to introduce Kami to other countries in Africa, including Botswana, Malawi, Namibia, Swaziland, and Zambia.(18) 

Sisimpur: Reaching Children in Remote Villages in Bangladesh

In 2005, the Sesame Workshop coproduced the children’s educational television show Sisimpur for young Bangladeshis.(19) The program resembles other Sesame Workshop projects in that it was designed locally to address the most pressing matters, such as low school attendance among girls. The program features Bangladeshi Muppets who reflect the culture of the country and speak Bengali.(20) It has been determined that children who watch Sisimpur regularly have higher literacy and mathematical skills, and have increased socio-cultural knowledge.(21)

Although the program has received much acclaim, it has also faced significant challenges. In Bangladesh, most rural households and urban slum dwellers do not have access to television, and even if they do, the electricity source is unreliable and the connection is often disrupted. One of the primary challenges faced by the Sesame Workshop in Bangladesh is the limited access to Sisimpur.(22) To overcome this barrier, the Sesame Workshop has designed an outreach program to ensure that messages are adequately disseminated to remote rural villages.(23)(24) Sesame Workshop has collaborated with Save the Children to provide weekly community viewings of Sisimpur, in which rickshaws carry television equipment to villages, where children eagerly await the show's arrival.(25) This intervention has been successful in broadening the scope of the project, and finding the most hard-to-reach children.

Rechov Sumsum/Shara’a Simsim – Promoting Peace in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza

The ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine has been long and arduous, creating dangerous tension and discrimination between Israelis and Palestinians. There is evidence that these negative social messages are consequently passed down to children, whose perceptions about the world are largely shaped by the attitudes of adults around them.(26)(27) The Sesame Workshop has worked to ameliorate this problem by focusing programs in the Middle East on reducing negative stereotypes and promoting cultural tolerance. The Workshop has coproduced two series: the Israel program Rechov Sumsum (in Hebrew) and the Palestinian program Shara’s Simsim (in Arabic).(28) The educational curriculum is the same for both series, and includes fundamental aspects of Sesame Workshop programs (i.e. promoting reading and writing skills, the importance of healthy eating, etc.), but is specifically designed to address cultural stereotyping. Themes for the show include resolving conflict, embracing diversity, and respecting other cultures. The show discourages violence among young boys by introducing them to positive male role models.(29) One of the show’s main objectives is to encourage children to be accepting of other cultures; this is achieved by having Hebrew-speaking characters visit and interact with Arabic-speaking characters, and vice versa.(30)    

One study demonstrated that exposure to Rechov Sumsum/Shara’a Simsim is associated with children’s increased ability to resolve conflicts and to provide positive descriptions about members of the other group.(31) There is evidence that the content of Rechov Sumsum/Shara’a Simsim can reverse negative stereotyping among Israeli and Palestinian children, which could result in constructive consequences for the future of the region.   

Sesame Workshop uses a similar framework in Kosovo, another post-conflict region, to eliminate negative stereotyping between Serbians and Albanians.(32) 

Conclusion

Sesame Workshop’s innovative approaches in childhood education have had far-reaching positive outcomes. Its television programs and materials help to educate children worldwide, and provide underprivileged children with a way to broaden their educational horizons. Low-income countries gain the potential to enhance national educational standards, which can lead to progress in development.

Footnotes

(1) UNESCO (2011). Early Childhood Care and Education. Accessed 17 November 2011.

(2) Baydar, N., Kagitcibasi, C., Kuntay, A.C., & Goksen, F. (2008). Effects of an educational television program on preschoolers: variability in benefits. Journal of Applied Development, 29, 349-360. 

(3) Weatherholt, T.N. (2007). Integrative review of educational television for young children: implications for children from low-income families, 10(3-4), 171-188.

(4) Ming, M.H. (2011). Sesame Workshop: empowering children through media. Accessed 17 November 2011.

(5) Sesame Workshop (2011). Our Process. Accessed 11 November 2011.

(6) Sesame Workshop (2011). Our Reach is global. Accessed 11 November 2011.  

(7) Sesame Workshop (2009). Can you tell me How…? 2009 Annual Report. Accessed 11 November 2011.

(8) Ibid.  

(9) UNESCO (2007). Exclusive Interview: The Magical World of Sesame Street. Accessed 17 November 2011.

(10) Borzekowski, D.L.G., & Macha, J.E. (2010). The role of Kilimani Sesame in the healthy development of Tanzanian preschool children. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 31, 298-305.

(11) Ibid.

(12) Segal, L., Cole, C.F., & Flud, J. (2002). Developing an HIV/AIDS education curriculum for Takalani Sesame, South Africa’s Sesame Street. Early Education & Development, 13(4), 363—378.

(13) Sesame Workshop (2009). Can you tell me How…? 2009 Annual Report. Accessed 11 November 2011.

(14) Borzekowski, D.L.G., & Macha, J.E. (2010). The role of Kilimani Sesame in the healthy development of Tanzanian preschool children. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 31, 298-305.

(15) Ibid.

(16) Ibid.

(17) Sesame Workshop (2008). Multi-media sesame street initiative to reach 5 million children in Tanzania. Accessed 17 November 2011.

(18) Sesame Workshop (2009). Can you tell me How…? 2009 Annual Report. Accessed 11 November 2011.

(19) Jain, S. & Kibria, N. (2009). Sisimpur, Sesame Street in Bangladesh: Exploring the challenges to early childhood development. Journal of Children and Media, 3(1), 95-114. 

(20) Sesame Workshop (2010). Sisimpur: education a new generation of Bangladeshi children. Accessed 17 November 2011.

(21) Lee, J.H. (2007). The educational and cultural impact of Sisimpur. Television Programme Research, 51-53.

(22) Ibid. 

(23) Ibid

(24) Sesame Workshop (2009). Can you tell me How…? 2009 Annual Report. Accessed 11 November 2011.

(25) Sesame Workshop (2010). Sisimpur Makes Space for a Child’s Voice. Accessed 17 November 2011.

(26) Cole, C.F., Labin, D.B., & Galaraza, M.R. (2008). Begin with children: what research on Sesame Street’s international coproductions reveals about using media to promote a new more peaceful world. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 32(4), 359-356. 

(27) Bar-Tal, D. (1996). Development of social categories and stereotypes in early childhood: The case of “the Arab” concept formation, stereotype and attitudes by Jewish children in Israel. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 20(3-4), 341-370.

(28) Cole, C.F., Labin, D.B., & Galaraza, M.R. (2008). Begin with children: what research on Sesame Street’s international coproductions reveals about using media to promote a new more peaceful world. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 32(4), 359-356. 

(29) UNESCO (2007). New season of Shara’a Simsim with focus on role models for Palestinian boys. Accessed 17 November 2011.

(30) Ibid. 

(31) Cole, C.F., Arafat, C., Tidhar, C., Tafesh, W.Z., Fox, N.A., Killen, M. et al. (2003). The educational impact of Rechov Sumsum/Shara’a Simsim: a Sesame Street television series to promote respect and understanding among children living in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 27(5), 409-422.   

(32) Cole, C.F., Labin, D.B., & Galaraza, M.R. (2008). Begin with children: what research on Sesame Street’s international coproductions reveals about using media to promote a new more peaceful world. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 32(4), 359-356.