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Why watching 'Sesame Street' with your kids makes them learn more


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.



'Sesame Street' debuted on Nov. 10, 1969, and is celebrating its 50th season this year. (Photo: Richard Termine/HBO)

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.


"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.



Lily (right) is the first homeless Muppet on 'Sesame Street.' (Photo: Richard Termine/Sesame Workshop)

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.



Singer Nick Jonas in an episode of 'Sesame Street' from Season 46. (Photo: Jesse Grant/HBO)

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.


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