Day 6

How tackling tough topics helped Sesame Street endure for 5 decades

Sesame Street has helped teach children to count and spell, but it's the show's willingness to defy the typical boundaries of children's television that sets it apart. On Nov. 10, the beloved show celebrates its 50th anniversary.

The beloved children's show celebrates its 50th anniversary on Nov. 10

This image released by HBO shows characters, from left, Abby Cadabby, Elmo and Big Bird in a scene from Sesame Street. The popular children's TV show is celebrating its 50th anniversary. (HBO/The Associated Press)
Listen8:35

In the five decades since it first aired on television screens across the U.S., Sesame Street has helped teach children to count, to spell, and has exposed them to all kinds of music.

But it's the show's willingness to defy the typical boundaries of children's television that set Sesame Street apart and allowed it to live on with such lasting impacts.

"The show has always had a very explicit curriculum, really clear learning goals," said Joe Blatt, a faculty member of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and an educational consultant for Sesame Street.

"[The show] was also based on research — both research about what kids needed, and then testing to make sure that the production was really working for those kids."

Sesame Street marks its 50th anniversary on Sunday. HBO will air a special 50th anniversary celebration of the show on Saturday evening.

Show grapples with tough topics

In addition to teaching children about counting and the alphabet, Sesame Street didn't shy away from ​difficult and emotionally sensitive subjects.

After Will Lee — the actor who played the human character Mr. Hooper — died of a heart attack in real life, Sesame Street incorporated the loss into the show.

In a 1983 episode, Big Bird learns that Mr. Hooper's death means he won't be able to visit anymore.

Watch as Big Bird learns why he won't be able to see Mr. Hooper again.

Over the years, Sesame Street has also featured characters with Down syndrome, HIV and autism.

Blatt said these are important moments for the show.

"Going beyond the curriculum to embrace kids' emotional needs and the real issues that surface in their lives is really one of the breakthrough aspects of Sesame Street," Blatt told Day 6.

"Kids are smarter than we often tend to give them credit for and when you're trying to dodge a topic or smooth it over, they often know. So it's really important to meet them where they are."

Joe Blatt, faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, with a muppet in his likeness. Blatt says embracing children's emotional needs is one of the 'breakthrough aspects of Sesame Street.' (Rose Lincoln/Harvard University)

Many children who face tragedies and hardships in their lives often don't have the resources to work through them, Blatt added.

"And so Sesame is doing that." 


Click 'Listen' above to hear the full conversation.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.