This article is brought to you by the number 50! For 50 years now, "Sesame Street" has been televising lessons designed for young children on everything from letters and numbers, healthy eating, and diversity and inclusion. For as long it's been on the air, research on the show has repeatedly demonstrated that it's a highly effective educational tool, just as good as a preschool education.
Yet, "Sesame Street" celebrates its anniversary during an era when "screen time" is a dirty term. In the midst of a moral panic surrounding children's media use, parents are bombarded with messages about how too much TV and video games will turn their kids' brain into mush, make them hyperactive or even cause them to grow horns. With concerns like these, letting your child watch TV can seem like a risky proposition.
But even the health and pediatric groups that recommend that parents limit children's screen time to prevent them from being sedentary or unsocial recognize that not all of children's digital entertainment experiences are created equal. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, media experiences have the potential to be beneficial for young children, especially when they are shared with parents or caregivers. This is something that "Sesame Street" has understood since its inception. Part of the show's winning formula is not just its appeal to children – often with repetitive lessons, fast-paced editing and a visually interesting style. The show's ability to encourage adults to watch TV along with their children, known as coviewing, is a large part of why the series remains a success.
As an associate professor of Communication Studies at West Virginia University, I study Entertainment-Education, the practice of wrapping educational messages in entertaining media formats – such as popular TV shows, comic books or video games. The field is firmly grounded in the principle that education does not have to be boring. The best way to attract people of all ages and cultures to messages that leave them better informed is to integrate those messages into the media that they naturally gravitate toward in order to unwind or have fun. A classic example of this is when the writers of "Gray's Anatomy" or even "Friends" would use a storyline to educate the public about a particular health issue.
"Sesame Street" isn't just an early example of Entertainment-Education in action; it's the gold standard. The show, which debuted in 1969, was the first of its kind to recognize that if children could sing advertising jingles they heard on TV, television could also teach them to recite their ABCs.
For its first decade, the show's curriculum was primarily aimed at teaching preschool-aged children cognitive skills like reading, writing and math. The idea was to help kids succeed and feel competent when they entered elementary school. By the 1980s the show had begun to add social and emotional lessons to its repertoire as well. Over the years, "Sesame Street" has aired episodes designed to help young children understand and cope with such life events as death, pregnancy and divorce. The series has also addressed crises such as the Sept. 11 terror attacks, hurricanes and, most recently, the opioid crisis.
Early in its history, "Sesame Street" recognized the importance of bringing parents to the television set, too. With its urban setting and ethnically diverse cast of adults, children and puppets, "Sesame Street" was specially designed to give children from underprivileged backgrounds a story with which they could relate. However, just a couple years after the show began, there was research indicating that the show was actually benefiting middle class children more than children with lower socioeconomic status. The same assessment suggested that this learning gap could be closed if underprivileged children had more involvement from their parents.
A few years later, an experiment conducted by educational psychologist Gavriel Salomon confirmed this by demonstrating that the learning differences between underprivileged children and more advantaged children could be reduced when a parent coviewed the show with them. When children from lower income backgrounds viewed "Sesame Street" with a caretaker, they benefited from the show almost as much – and sometimes more – than middle class children.
One of the remarkable things about this study was that these beneficial effects weren't necessarily driven by parents trying to teach their children while watching TV together. Rather, the study showed that coviewing was a catalyst for children's learning because it made them enjoy the program more. My own research has since demonstrated that when we watch TV with others, their mere physical presence is enough to intensify emotions and enhance enjoyment. In the case of "Sesame Street," Salomon described the presence of the parent as an "energizer for learning." The company of a parent was all it took to make the viewing experience more pleasurable for the child, thereby increasing their appetite to learn.
Years later, studies continued to uncover the benefits of parent-child coviewing and parental involvement remains a key ingredient of "Sesame Street" educational strategy. In fact, the show is reported to facilitate the highest number of adult-child coviewing experiences of any children's show, with nearly 50% of its viewers being over the age of 18.
Part of the draw for parents is likely nostalgia. The show serves as a generational bridge. Parents of today's preschoolers enjoy reliving some of their own memories of growing up watching "Sesame Street."
The series also goes to great lengths to make content enjoyable for adults. Unlike other children's programming which can sometimes seem like torture for parents – with obnoxious characters and infectious ear worms – "Sesame Street" makes a concerted effort to ensure that their content is as palatable for the parents as it is for children. The inclusion of humor, pop cultural references and celebrity guest stars are all part of the show's parent-friendly formula. The young viewers might not get the joke in the spoof of "Queer Eye for The Straight Guy," but their parents will. And they probably won't be able to appreciate the humor in rapper Macklemore appearing on the show as "Mucklemore" to perform a parody of his song "Thrift Shop," but their parents will. It's no surprise that PBS and HBO have announced that the show's famous red muppet Elmo will soon be getting his own celebrity talk show, creating yet another opportunity for parents and children to share the television together.
So the next time you find yourself chuckling to that skit of Elmo helping characters from "Game of Thrones" negotiate, or humming along to Elvis Costello's "Sesame Street" adaptation of "Red Shoes," know that's because "Sesame Street" is not just a children's show. It's supposed to be a children-with-their-parents show.