How ‘Sesame Street’ Changed the World in Its 50-Year Lifetime
“Sesame Street” began its life in 1969 against the backdrop of one of the most tumultuous times in American history. As the Vietnam War raged and the civil rights movement grew, producers wondered how they could teach young children to navigate the newly changing American landscape. They consulted educational experts and child psychologists and created the most successful children's show in TV history.
Now in its 50th year, Sesame Workshop has brought parents and children alike together through its timeless lessons of acceptance, respect and diversity, and has grown to reach kids in several mediums in more than 150 countries and 70 languages. “Our mission to help kids everywhere grow smarter, stronger and kinder knows no geographic boundaries,” said Jeffrey D. Dunn, Sesame Workshop’s CEO. "We’re everywhere families are, and we never stop innovating and growing. That’s what keeps us timeless.”
Wondering exactly how timeless? Here are some of the show’s most iconic and teachable moments.
Highlights the Love of Foster Families
The newest Muppet to join the “Sesame Street” gang is Karli, Elmo’s yellow-haired friend, who is in foster care, living with her “for-now” parents, Dalia and Clem. Sesame Workshop introduced the initiative on May 20, 2019, in an effort to support the about 443,000 American children in foster care.
The initiative is part of the Sesame Street in Communities program that provides resources for foster parents and new videos featuring Karli and her family to help normalize the foster care experience. “By giving the adults in children’s lives the tools they need — with help from the ‘Sesame Street’ Muppets — we can help both grownups and children feel seen and heard and give them a sense of hope for the future,” said Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, senior vice president of US Social Impact at Sesame Workshop.
Introduces a Muppet With Autism
With one in 68 kids on the autism spectrum, “Sesame Street” chose to address the epidemic by introducing the world to an autistic Muppet named Julia.
Julia has been a part of the “Sesame Street” gang for two years, but the show introduced her family — her older brother Sam, her parents and her dog Rose — to viewers for 2019 Autism Awareness Month. Julia and her family will also get their own episode to help audiences understand what it's like to live with a family member who has autism and the challenges they face in everyday situations.
An HIV-Positive Muppet Is Featured on ‘Takalani Sesame’
In 2002, South Africa's “Takalani Sesame” introduced audiences to an HIV-positive muppet named Kami in hopes of erasing the stigma around HIV and AIDS. South Africa has the largest number of HIV-infected people in the world — 7.1 million live with the disease, and many of the infected are children.
According to her backstory, Kami, five, contracted HIV during a blood transfusion and is an orphan. Through her story, viewers learned to speak the language of acceptance. While she has yet to make it to U.S. airwaves, she has made appearances with Oprah Winfrey, Laura Bush, Desmond Tutu, Whoopi Goldberg and Former President Bill Clinton.
Big Bird Teaches Kids About Death
“Sesame Street” taught kids how to cope with death through one of its most beloved characters: Big Bird. When Will Lee, the actor who played Mr. Hooper, the curmudgeonly proprietor of Mr. Hooper's Store, died in 1982, producers took the opportunity to address his death as a way to broach the sensitive subject to children. They consulted with experts to understand how children experience grief.
“Farewell, Mr. Hooper” aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. It gave kids insight into the finality of death and taught them it was OK to feel sad. Big Bird was the conduit for this lesson, as he initially failed to understand that death is forever and happens "just because." He eventually came to accept both concepts with the help of his “Sesame Street” friends.
Lily Shows What It’s Like to Go Hungry
In 2011, a muppet named Lily showed “Sesame Street” characters and audiences alike what it meant to go hungry. In the show's "Growing Hope Against Hunger" one-hour special, Elmo said that he "didn't know there were so many people who didn't have the food they needed." Lily confessed that she and her family were indeed those people.
Lily was the first character on the show to have food insecurity. Her episode highlighted the problems facing people who didn't know where their next meal was coming from, and also societal solutions toward hunger, including school lunch programs, food pantries and additional help from the community.
Alex Teaches About When a Parent Is in Jail
The U.S. has one of the highest rates of incarceration of any country with more than 2 million people currently serving time. This statistic was not lost on “Sesame Street” producers who in 2013 created Alex, a boy who's ashamed to tell his friends that his dad is in jail.
While Alex is not part of the televised series, he is the main focus of “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration” on its Sesame Workshop webpage. Here, children are shown what to expect when someone they love is in jail, from visiting the incarcerated person to sharing their feelings regarding the subject.
The Muppets Face Bullying
Bullies have always been an unfortunate fact of life for children, and the show tackled the subject in the 2011 episode, "The Good Bird's Club."
In the episode, Big Bird is ridiculed by the club's president for his appearance, and he decides to change everything about himself to get into the club. That solution rings hollow as he finds that he's perfect as he is. He starts his own club in which everyone is accepted no matter who they are or how they look.
"Bein' Green" Is Jim Henson's Ode to Acceptance and Self Love
In 1970, Kermit the Frog told kids just how hard it was to look different in “Bein’ Green,” a song written by composer Joe Raposo and sung by Muppet creator Jim Henson. Kermit laments his color ("it blends in with so many other ordinary things") and wishes he was another, brighter hue.
However, by the time the song ends, he's come to accept that green is an important and majestic color, and he is proud of who he is after all.
One of the First to Feature a Child With Down Syndrome
In the ’70s, society was not as accepting of Down syndrome as it is today. “Sesame Street” Writer Emily Kingsley was in the right place at the right time when she was given the opportunity to introduce the world to her son, Jason, on the show.
When Jason was born, doctors told Emily to institutionalize him as he would never be a functioning member of society. He proved everyone wrong — Jason learned how to walk, talk and read. He appeared in more than 50 episodes as a regular cast member and helped change societal perceptions on what it means to have Down syndrome.
Teaches the Importance of Women in Afghan Society
In 2017, “Baghch-e-Simsim” (“Sesame Garden”) introduced Zari and her brother Zeerak to audiences in Afghanistan, a conservative Muslim country.
The duo wears traditional Afghan garb, representing all of the nation's major ethnic groups, and together, they encourage young girls to be themselves and teach boys to show women and girls respect.
Brings Breastfeeding to the Masses
In the 1970s, singer Buffy Sainte-Marie nursed her son on “Sesame Street” — a first for television. The new mother explains the act to Big Bird to further demystify it for children and even adults who find breastfeeding controversial, particularly in public.
The show revisited the topic in 1988 when Maria (Sonia Marzano) breastfed her daughter, Gabriella.
Explains Terrorism Through Metaphor
Real-life events that are major enough make their way into the “Sesame Street” universe — sort of. Producers wanted to explain the events of 9/11 to young audiences and somehow not make it scarier than it already was.
A fire in the kitchen of Mr. Hooper's store served as both metaphor and flashpoint. Elmo was the chosen character to walk kids through what to do in such an event, and how to cope with feeling unsafe in its aftermath.
Faces Racism Head On
“Sesame Street” characters Gina and Savion, who are white and African American, respectively, are best friends who enjoy spending time together, but are confronted with ignorance when someone in the neighborhood taunts them with racist statements. In this 1993 episode, the duo explains to Telly Monster (and the audience) that “there are just some really stupid people in the world who can’t stand to see when people of different races are friends.”
In the end, their friendship only becomes stronger as a result of the taunts.
Shows How Adoption Can Complete a Family
In 2006, grown-up Gina adopts a Guatemalan baby and walks cast members and audiences alike through what it means to be a family. She shares her son’s adoption story, from the first decision to adopt, through a trip to Guatemala with Maria, to her return and new life with baby Marco.
When Elmo asks “What does adoption mean?” Gina explains, “It’s something very, very special. A baby, a little boy, needs someone to love him and take care of him. I want to be that person, so I’ll adopt him and become his mom. He’ll come live here on ‘Sesame Street,’ and we’ll be a family.”
Attempts to Answer the Question, ‘Where Do Babies Come From?’
In the late ’80s, longtime characters Luis and Maria married and announced that they were having a baby. "We wanted kids to realize it's a conscious decision that people make," Sonia Manzano (Maria) told the Orlando Sentinel in 1989.
Soon-to-be, TV-dad Luis (Emilio Delgado) told Big Bird that "together, we [he and Maria] started a baby growing inside her body." Big Bird acted the way most kids do when they hear the news — he wants to see the new baby immediately. Succeeding episodes took the cast through the couple's journey from doctors visits to the day of the baby's arrival.