The Child Psychology of Sesame Street

Illustration for article titled The Child Psychology of Sesame Street

Sesame Street has been there for three generations of children at this point. Everyone reading this has cherished memories of their favorite characters or segments. They seemed entirely organic. But psychologists (along with other creators) shaped every last one of them Find out about the child psychology of the street.


Sesame Street was a bright fantasy world that we all went to as children. An idealized city street, filled with fantastical characters, it seemed like a truly child-oriented version of the 'urban fantasy' stuff we see today - and as such it gives the impression of being one person's vision of a kids show. But it all sprang from social psychology. Experimental psychologist Lloyd Morrisett met with public television producer Joan Ganz Cooney and the result was a report, "The Potential Uses of Television in Pre-School Education." They felt that urban poor kids didn't get either the preschool or the engaging educational programs that other kids were exposed to, which resulted in an early education gap during the first years of school. They wanted to create a show in an urban setting (as opposed to the more popular suburb, rural, or strictly fantasy settings) that was sneakily and entertainingly educational.

During the first episodes of Sesame Street programming, the psychologists were most concerned with the balance of education to entertainment, and with the best way to teach kids. The show was a massive and instant success, within and without the demographic they were trying to reach. Kids tuned in, learned, and were entertained.

But the psychologists did more than just show kids a setting they could relate to and lessons they could learn. They wanted the characters and the storylines (such as they were) to educate kids as well. This is why misanthropic Oscar, one of my favorites, was added. He was there to teach kids that people had radically different points of view. Oscar likes trash, worms, and being mean to people. Kids had to learn, and respect, that there were people like that in the world. Oscar, as nearly the only Sesame Street character who could get angry about anything, also served as a guide for children on how to manage negative emotions, both their own and other people's.

In the early 1980s, Will Lee, the man who played a character called Mr. Hooper on the show, died. Show runners consulted a battery of psychologists who specialized in grief counseling, and conducted studies to see if children could understand the concept of death and deal with it without trauma. Only after that did they go on to film the episode. They scheduled it to appear on Thanksgiving. This seems cruel to the kids, until you take into account that that was the day most likely for parents to be home with their kids, at which point it only seems cruel to the parents. The episode was well received, though, and the show hired other actors.

A bigger controversy was to come later. Snuffleupagus, a big hairy mammoth, started appearing to Big Bird, the show's most iconic character. When Big Bird mentioned him to others, or called them over to meet him, the mammoth disappeared. This went on for quite some time, while a debate raged behind the scenes. Some psychologists insisted that it was natural for kids to have, and talk about, their imaginary friends and private lives. If people never saw 'Snuffy,' but they still accepted Big Bird, that would relax those kids. Others psychologists objected. Kids would not see the giant hairy elephant on the screen as imaginary. They would see it as real, and see other characters not believing Big Bird when he was telling them the truth. Children who had painful secrets, such as abuse or neglect, needed validation that what they saw was real and would be believed. Eventually, Snuffy was seen by others, and became part of the regular cast.

Sesame Street has continued to evolve over the years. More math, science, and engineering has been added to the curriculum, to get kids interested in these subjects early. There was the Elmolution, when a new character, Elmo burst on the scene and took over everything. Pop stars appear more often on the show. There were also more subtle changes. The show used to have a segment called "Monsterpiece Theater," a spoof on the Masterpiece Theater episodes that aired on regular TV, which was introduced by a muppet smoking a bubble pipe. The pipe, associated with tobacco, 'modeled the wrong behaviors' and was phased out. Meanwhile, cookie monster has been seen preaching the virtues of fruit.


I find these last changes to be bullshit — but then, they're not aimed at me. They're aimed at kids, who would be better off eating fruit instead of cookies and not linking smoking, of any kind, with sophistication. What I'm saying is, the psychologists are still hard at work, trying to provide kids with an emotional and social education as well as an academic one. This is probably for the best. Even if you hate Elmo.

Via APA, Deseret News, NY Times, and LA Times.



Dr. Clockwork

Let's not forget that it wasn't just psychologists.

Miss you, Jim.