Sesame Street, PBS’ seminal children’s educational show, turned 45 yesterday—a ripe old age for a show whose primary fans are often too young to tie their shoes. And I was one of those fans from almost the very beginning.
Granted, I don’t think I watched the first episode on Nov. 10, 1969. I was just six months old at the time, and probably too busy drooling. But it wasn’t too much later that I was first introduced to Sesame Street’s perpetual sunny days. I thought Big Bird was totally cool, though not as funny as Grover. I liked the groovy cartoon shorts, Bert’s strange fascination with pigeons, the parade of famous guest stars who I didn’t recognize but always seemed to enjoy hanging around fuzzy puppets. And really, who wouldn’t?
Sesame Street’s influence clings to me today. My favorite number is still 11 thanks to the show. I sometimes sing Ernie’s “Rubber Duckie” song if I’m feeling particularly happy. And to this day, I sometimes have to sing the “ABC” song to figure out what letter comes after what.
And maybe—just maybe—Sesame Street was a factor in who I am today. The show helped give me a solid understanding of letters and numbers before I ever went to preschool. It may have helped foster a sense that learning could be fun—a belief I still hold.
We talk a lot about the influence of media here at Plugged In. And often, the studies suggest that influence can be detrimental. But when it comes to Sesame Street, the studies say something much different. In 1970, shortly after the show first rolled out to PBS, researchers from the Educational Testing Service (the organization behind the SATs) studied 1,000 kids ages 3-5 from mainly disadvantaged homes—the sorts of children who tend to be a bit behind when they first get into school. According to Time, “the more kids watched Sesame Street the more they knew.” In fact, kids who watched the show regularly saw a 19% increase in their general knowledge.
Sesame Street has never been perfect. Some believe that the show did more than educate kids: It helped shorten their attention spans and gave them the idea that elementary school was going to be just as fun. Its surprisingly mature wink-wink jokes to parents have generated their share of controversy. Our own reviewer Adam Holz took the show to task just a couple of months ago when Bert was spotted reading a book called Fifty Shades of Oatmeal. (“One: beige. Two: tan. Wow, this is steamy stuff!” Bert said.)
‘Course, Sesame Street has always been known for appropriating popular culture for the amusement of parents in the audience. (My first exposure to the dark film noir genre was watching two trenchcoat-wearing Muppets loiter in the fog.) So as the culture grows ever more coarse, shows that riff on that culture will increasingly skirt a fine line. And parents know that they have to be vigilant with all their kids’ entertainment choices, of course—even if those choices are fronted by a big yellow bird.
But when I think back on my own experience with Sesame Street, I’m grateful such a show came into being when I was able to appreciate it and learn from it.