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Growing up on Sesame Street

Making a Difference

Growing up on Sesame Street

Montana Leigers loved watching Sesame Street on KET as a child. But it wasn’t until last year, when she took part in a national research contest, that she fully appreciated what a groundbreaking force the program was for children’s television.

“Sesame Street really did change history,” said Leigers, a homeschooled 17-year-old from Richmond. “It was the first children’s program to use research about how children learn and grow more comfortable with the world around them.”

Arriving in 1969 at a tumultuous time in American history, Sesame Street was billed as something of an experiment. TVs could be found in almost every home, but the programs were largely devoid of educational content, prompting one former FCC chairman to call television a “vast wasteland.”

Sesame Street initially sought to answer a single question, said Joan Ganz Cooney, one of its founders: Could a program take the addictive qualities of television and do something good with them to address the “educational deficit that poverty created” and help prepare less advantaged children for school?

From the start, Sesame Street made clear its message of inclusion and representation. The program featured a diverse, multi-racial cast. Its studio set was designed to feel like a real inner-city neighborhood, one with which many of its viewers could identify. And it did more than just help kids learn their numbers and ABCs — it also sought to promote their social and emotional development, incorporating story lines that didn’t shy away from painful subjects, such as homelessness, incarceration, addiction, and even the death of one its main characters, Mr. Hooper.

“That’s one of the great things about Sesame Street,” Leigers said. “The stories were often great conversation starters for kids, who could then go and ask their parents about these issues.”

“Sesame Street broke barriers by respecting and representing race and culture and candidly addressing tough issues.”

Montana Leigers

For her submission for the National History Day contest, which was on the theme of “breaking barriers,” Leigers created a three-panel poster documenting the many ways in which Sesame Street created meaningful change in children’s television. Her project took first-place at the state level; and earlier this summer, she was thrilled to learn she placed in the top ten nationally.

Sesame Street, she wrote in her project, not only is the longest-running children’s program in American television history, winning more Emmys than any other program, it also “broke barriers by respecting and representing race and culture and candidly addressing tough issues.”

As of 2019, when Sesame Street celebrated its 50th anniversary, there were more than 160 versions of the program produced in 70 languages, reaching millions of children around the globe.

Hundreds of research papers on the educational value of Sesame Street have been published, with many, such as a 2015 study published in the American Economic Journal, showing a correlation between improved performance in school for those children who watched the program compared with those who didn’t.

“It really shows how Sesame Street has helped make the world a better place,” Leigers said. “It’s surprising that a children’s program could do so much to help everybody.”