Entertainment

Sesame Street to enter U.S. classrooms in new deal with McGraw-Hill Education

Sesame Street is taking its beloved, critically acclaimed brand of educational television into the highly profitable world of classroom curriculum — a move that experts say could open the door for other companies to move into the sensitive learning space with possible influence on children.

Instructional materials expected to be used in classrooms as early as fall 2019

Sesame Street is taking its beloved, critically acclaimed brand of educational television into the highly profitable world of classroom curriculum in a new partnership with McGraw-Hill Education. (Mark Lennihan/The Associated Press)

Sesame Street is taking its beloved, critically acclaimed brand of educational television into the highly profitable world of classroom curriculum — a move that experts say could open the door for other companies to move into the sensitive learning space with possible influence on children.

Sesame Workshop, the company behind Big Bird and Elmo, and McGraw-Hill Education, a billion-dollar for-profit company known for school textbooks, announced their partnership Thursday. Both declined to disclose the financial terms for their new line of classroom instructional materials.

"Sesame Workshop probably can be trusted to do this in an ethical way, but the door opens for other companies to do it in a less ethical way," said Heather Kirkorian, a University of Wisconsin professor who studies the effects of media in young children.

The TV program and Sesame Workshop's other educational pursuits have long been lauded for their record of helping kids learn, portraying diverse characters and offering sensitivity in addressing childhood experiences.

The new classroom materials include videos featuring social-emotional and literacy lessons delivered by its famous characters and meant to be used at "circle time," when young children typically gather to sing songs or hear stories. They also are offering resources for teachers and parents to help reinforce the lessons.

The instructional materials are on the market for children in preschool through fifth grade, and they are expected to be used in U.S. classrooms as early as fall 2019. Educators now have access to review the materials, but they haven't been piloted in a classroom yet. They must be approved by school principals and administrators.

Some experts say the deal between Sesame Workshop and McGraw-Hill Education could open the door for other companies to sink their teeth into a sacred learning space. (Kathy Willens/Associated Press)

Dr. David Hill of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which urges parents to be cautious and selective about screen time for children, said that by age 3, kids can learn from a limited viewing of high-quality TV programs like Sesame Street but that little research exists on such regular media use in the classroom.

Hill, a pediatrician, said a young child's brain cannot distinguish between programming and advertising, which could raise questions about the precedent that Sesame Street is setting.

"When you introduce a commercial influence on a non-profit endeavour, I think everyone naturally has some concerns about the tension that ensues," Hill said.

Sesame Workshop is a non-profit and would have to invest its revenue back into its educational mission.

"With a proven whole-child curriculum that serves as a framework for everything we do, Sesame Workshop has put children first for nearly 50 years," said Akimi Gibson, company vice-president.

A much-discussed study in 2015 indicated that preschoolers exposed to the show gained immense benefits, which were compared to that of the Head Start program for low-income children, though the authors of that study later rebuked the idea that the show alone could or should replace any actual school program.

Canadian teachers reluctant to use branded content: expert

The researchers declined to comment on Sesame Street's latest classroom endeavour. However, MediaSmarts, a Canadian digital and media literacy centre, tells CBC News that in Canada, teachers and schools have been reluctant to use materials that contained branded content, but adds Sesame Street and its characters have earned significant legitimacy over the years.

Director of education at MediaSmarts Matthew Johnson says that the Sesame Workshop and McGraw-Hill Education deal could have some advantages for schools, particularly if Sesame Workshop is involved in developing the materials, but adds the deal could bring more branded content to schools. 

"The familiarity of children with the characters could make educational content more accessible to them, which of course has been one of the virtues of the Sesame Street TV program," Johnson said.

"It's important that this program have some kind of media literacy component as young children do not automatically distinguish between media and reality, and in particular between advertising and non-advertising content."

Johnson says that it's hard to predict if a deal similar to the one seen with Sesame Workshop and McGraw-Hill Education will happen in Canada given the relatively small size of the Canadian market.

Sesame Street has been a household brand since debuting in 1969 on public television. In recent years, it lost federal funding to produce the show and has partnered with HBO.

Its name recognition is so high that it is equally known for its broad array of licensed merchandise, from bibs and backpacks to toys and games. It has also achieved cult status for its celebrity appearances and satirizing humour that serves as a hook for parents.

With files from CBC News

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