50 Years of ‘Sunny Days’: A Look at the Goals and Effects of “Sesame Street”

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“Do you think television could be used to teach young children?” Lloyd Morrisett asked at a small dinner party in New York City one night in 1968. This is the question that kicked off nearly five decades of ‘sunny days’ for children of all different backgrounds. Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett put their minds together to figure out a way to use television as a means to teach all children even before they entered school (Davis 2008). Creators knew they had the opportunity to serve “educationally deprived” children, especially during a time of national education need in the late 1960s (Fisch & Truglio, 2014). With this in mind, Ganz Cooney worked on extensive amounts of research regarding educational television in order to propose the idea she felt so passionately about to investors. After giving her convincing pitch and presenting her research, Cooney was able to produce what is now one of the most popular children’s television shows, leaving children everywhere asking “could you tell me how to get to ‘Sesame Street?’” So, what were the goals that Joan Ganz Cooney and other creators envisioned for Sesame Street when it originated in 1969? Has the show benefited children in the way they had hoped since then?

Sesame Street began as a collaboration between an executive of an established corporation with a psychology background and a television producer and visionary who shared similar goals for the advancement of education and cognitive development in children. The expertises of creators combined the idea of television with expanding pre-school learning opportunities. The idea to use television as a medium to teach children was new and exciting because efforts were meant to take place inside homes, where the children already were, instead of at school. Decades later, Sesame Street researchers and reporters  argue that the goals set by creators of the innovative program have been achieved to a great extent.

The story of Sesame Street starts at a quaint dinner party at the Cooney home in New York in 1968. Among the guests were Lloyd Morrisett, Vice President of the Carnegie Corporation, and his wife. Morrisett made mention of how he noticed in his own children a great attraction to the television, even waking in the morning to them staring at transition screens before a program starts. It was from these early morning experiences that he brought up the question of if television could be used to teach children, perhaps even before they start school, to which Joan Ganz Cooney replied that she would certainly like to find out (Davis, 2008). Morrisett knew that the Carnegie Corporation, of which he was the VP,  was showing recent interest in ways to enhance preschoolers’ learning. In particular the Corporation was looking for ways to enhance the learning of children who were at a disadvantage due to low socioeconomic status, so the funding for the new and unknowingly revolutionary idea would not be too difficult to obtain. The thinking that went into creating the idea for an educational TV program for preschoolers went off of the fact that there were new programs and strategies to help disadvantaged students while they were in school, such as Head Start, but what could be done even before they entered school? Using educational television had the ability to serve as an “electronic delivery system” to teach young children things like their ABCs and numbers, which was one of the goals had by creators before the show aired (Davis, 2008). In the book Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street, Michael Davis writes about the original inspiration of Sesame Street and its goals from the start. Morrisett and Cooney wanted to create a medium that would be able to take whatever it was about television that enthralled children so much and use that to the children’s own benefit, to help them prepare for school. The purpose was to be able to reach any and all children in order to bridge a divide that was apparent in the nation in terms of school readiness in young children (Davis, 2008). One of the main goals of Sesame Street was to help children affected by educational inequities that typically were a result of things like race and poverty (Cain, 2017). Starting with the thought-provoking question posed by Morrisett in the late 1960s, goals to reach children before they entered school, inspiring and encouraging them to learn were created.

In an interview with the Archive of American Television in 1998, Joan Ganz Cooney recounts the very beginnings of developing the Children’s Television Workshop and its hit program Sesame Street. She discusses how she worked closely with Lloyd Morrisett and the Carnegie Corporation whose main interest was children’s cognitive development, so with her professional television background and Morrisett’s psychology background as well as his executive position at Carnegie, they were able to eventually create Sesame Street. But before this could happen, Lloyd suggested they put together a study in order to figure out how people would react to an educational television program for their preschoolers to determine whether or not their idea and goals would take off and be effective. Joan Ganz Cooney was sent all across the nation to research this topic to which she came back with loads of information to write a report titled “Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education.” Joan says in the interview that all of the people she had asked from far and wide were very supportive of the idea of using television to educate young, preschool-aged children, though no one knew if it could be done. Joan argues that point made by the people by saying she knew it could be done because there are kids all over singing commercials, so why couldn’t it be done to teach them something more useful, like the alphabet, in order to prepare them for school. Joan tells the Archive that within her report she suggested something like Sesame Street, as well as something like the Children’s Teaching Workshop. The Carnegie Corporation as well as the commissioner of education at the time showed an interest in the report Joan presented them. It was from a few groups that read and liked the report that the funding to CTW and Sesame Street came about, giving millions of children the opportunity to learn right at home, no matter the background they came from (Cooney, 1998). Ganz Cooney was also quoted in a New York Times article from 1975, a few years after Sesame Street aired, explaining why she felt a program like Sesame Street was needed, “We believed in education then, for particularly preschoolers, it was the right time” (Hecmnger, 1975). In the late sixties Cooney and others felt strongly about addressing educational inequities and decided that using television, which more than 90% of households across the nation had access to, would help to do so. The main goal of Sesame Street was to provide a means of educating children, especially those from areas of low socioeconomic status, before they entered school to give them a better chance in terms of school readiness as well as test performance (Cain, 2017).

In the foreword for the book “G is For Growing” by Fisch and Truglio (2014), Cooney writes about the original goals she had for the show. She says here that the main goal of creating such a program and workshop was simply to use television to help children to learn, particularly children in low-income families. Taking what they already knew about the qualities of television that children were interested in and using that to educate them was the first and foremost goal Cooney set. She says during the late 1960s herself and many others felt it was their responsibility to do their part in making the world a better place, and this was the way they thought they could do so, using television as an educational tool especially for children at a disadvantage. They had high hopes for Sesame Street and The Children’s Teaching Workshop, but could never have imagined the impact they would come to have on children not only across the nation, but eventually across the world, making Sesame Street “the longest street in the world” (Cooney, 2014).

Were the goals set by creators like Joan Ganz Cooney achieved? Were they able to reach children across the nation and did it actually help them once they reached school? Sesame Street researchers and media reporters argue that the program has definitely had an impact on children in not only their education but also socialization. In a 1975 NY Times article titled “‘Sesame Street,’ Child of the Sixties, Faces a New Era,” reporter Grace Hecmnger writes that Sesame Street has in fact had a substantial impact on television, making it a legitimate source for “academic concern and inquiry” (Hecmnger, 1975). The article, written just six years after Sesame Street aired, mentions that Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan said that the program “telling millions of people that learning itself is important and maybe the youngsters will carry this attitude toward learning with them even when the TV set is off.” Conveying to children that learning is important and providing a means to allow children to use their imagination was one of the goals had my creators, which even just a few years of being on the air, was reported as being achieved. Sesame Street also had an effect on the way preschools and kindergartens taught their students. They were now facing a new era of children, those who had been previously taught, even if it was by a seven-foot tall yellow canary. Even after just a year on TV, a superintendent in a suburban school district told his kindergarten teachers that he expected a portion of the incoming class of five-year-olds to be able to read at a second grade level (Hecmnger, 1975). From only years after its introduction to the world, Sesame Street is shown to have impacted children in a positive way, reaching the goals set by creators in 1969.

Fisch, Truglio, and Cole (1999) wrote a review of the impact Sesame Street had on children thirty years after its creation. In this journal article, a few studies regarding the effects the TV show had on children, specifically on school readiness and performance, were analyzed and discussed. Fisch et al. wrote about a study conducted at the University of Kansas that looked at the impact of Sesame Street on school readiness. The study tracked 250 children from areas of low socioeconomic status ages 3-5 or 4-7, some of whom watched the program and some who did not. Over three years the children were tested in a range of areas. The study concluded that the children who watched Sesame Street spent more time reading and “engaging in educational activities” than the children who did not watch the show. These children that watched the TV show also showed higher test scores in areas like letter-word knowledge, math, vocabulary skills, and school readiness. Long term effects were also found with teachers of these students reporting that the Sesame Street-viewing children were “well adjusted to school.” Fisch et al. also discuss a study conducted by The University of Massachusetts Amherst and the University of Kansas in which high school students who reported watching Sesame Street as a young child were tested and measured to see if the show had any noticable effects in comparison to non-viewers. The results showed that those who did watch as preschoolers had higher test grades in English, Math and Science. These same students also reported having used books more often, showing “higher academic self-esteem” and placing higher value on their education (Fisch et al., 1999). These studies analyzed show just how Sesame Street has had not only an immediate impact on its target audience of three to five-year-olds, but had continued to benefit those who watched further into their high school careers, and hopefully in turn in higher education and the workforce, further achieving the main goals had by Ganz Cooney.

Similarly to studies conducted in the 90s, a study put together in 2015 revealed the same results. Kearney and Levine (2015) wrote of their study in which evidence was shown that Sesame Street-viewing contributed to higher test scores in a randomized group of students. Their large-scale analysis found positive impacts that the show had on school performance of the preschoolers who watched. Kearney and Levine also discuss how academic progress in elementary schools where students typically fell behind grade-level, particularly for students from areas of greater economic disadvantage, is representative of the success of Sesame Street (Kearney & Levine, 2015). Studies like this show how Sesame Street has continued to have a positive impact on children everywhere throughout the years since its creation in the late 1960s, again, achieving the goals mentioned beyond the time period that creators had even imagined.

It is evident that Sesame Street was able to take its goals created in 1968, and executed for the first time in 1969, and apply it to children’s lives for decades after, continuing to this day. Ganz Cooney and Morrisett had hopes to provide a means for millions of children from all different backgrounds to learn and grow right where they already were, perched in front of the television set on Sunday mornings. They knew they had the ability to serve children of all different backgrounds, mainly those from areas of low socioeconomic status and from families in which educational background was not strong. The idea of using television as a means of doing so was revolutionary and set the stage for many other programs to follow in Big Bird’s rather large footsteps. By creating an entertaining and educational television program that is accessible to all preschool age children, The Children’s Television Workshop headed by Joan Ganz Cooney was able to have an outstanding impact on all of its young viewers. The program aided in efforts to create equal opportunity and provide educational resources, which also in turn changed the way preschools and kindergartens across the nation teach their bright students.

Work Cited

Cain, Victoria. 2017. “From Sesame Street to Prime Time School Television: Educational Media in the Wake of the Coleman Report.” History of Education Quarterly 57 (4): 590–601.https://doi.org/10.1017/heq.2017.34.

Davis, M. (2008). Street gang: The complete history of Sesame Street. Penguin.

Fisch, S. M., & Truglio, R. T. (Eds.). (2014). G is for growing: Thirty years of research on children and Sesame Street. Routledge.

Fisch, S. M., Truglio, R. T., & Cole, C. F. (1999). The impact of Sesame Street on preschool children: A review and synthesis of 30 years’ research. Media Psychology, 1(2), 165-190

Hecmnger, G. (1975, January 15). “Sesame Street” Child of the Sixties, Faces a New Era. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/1975/01/15/archives/sesame-street-child-of-the-sixties-face-a-new-era-sesame-street-in.html

Joan Ganz Cooney. (2019, February 22). Retrieved from https://interviews.televisionacademy.com/interviews/joan-ganz-cooney?clip=43162#about

Kearney, M. S., & Levine, P. B. (2015). Early childhood education by MOOC: Lessons from Sesame Street (No. w21229). National Bureau of Economic Research.