Campus & Community

Muppets are international envoys of understanding

5 min read

Famous puppets are used around the globe to mend broken fences and feed hungry minds

Before the popularity of the world’s favorite fuzzy amphibian and a blue furry monster addicted to cookies, there was the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE).

In the late ’60s, The Children’s Television Workshop, today Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit, parent organization of “Sesame Street,” consulted with Gerald Lesser, Charles Bigelow Professor of Education and Developmental Psychology Emeritus at the HGSE, who served as the chairman of its advisory board. Lesser, along with the organization’s founders and a host of educators, sociologists, and child psychologists met in a series of seminars to discuss how to go about teaching preschool students through the medium of television.

The collaboration yielded none other than “Sesame Street,” the successful children’s television program that uses a combination of live action, animation, and the iconic, fuzzy puppets known as Muppets, including Kermit the Frog and Cookie Monster, to teach children basic reading, writing, and math skills as well as lessons in emotional and social issues and health strategies.

The initial premise was a simple one: to use TV to help children in disadvantaged areas better prepare for school. Today “Sesame Street” has grown from one local street, representing countless American neighborhoods, to include communities from around the world.

In an Askwith Forum on Nov. 14 at Longfellow Hall titled “Muppet Diplomacy: How Sesame Street Is Changing Our World,” Sesame Workshop CEO Gary Knell explained how the company has taken the original model to a global audience.

“This is really about taking an indigenous adaptation of our work around the world,” he told the audience.

The talk was interspersed with video clips from the American “Sesame Street,” and included snippets of such classics as Cookie Monster’s “C Is for Cookie” song and Ernie’s “Rubber Ducky.” But the videos Knell provided also included outtakes from the organization’s other ventures, like the shows now produced in Egypt, Israel, and South Africa.

While much of the international programming evolves around the basic concepts of learning and the development of cognitive skills as does the American show, said Knell, each program is carefully tailored to address the specific challenges faced by children in their area of the world. In addition, the programs are developed in tandem with local educators, ministries of education, teachers, academics at local institutions, and the local creative communities.

“It’s all about trying to transfer the technology and know-how … and to try to translate that in a local context,” he said. “I like to say we help design the kitchen, and our local partners decide what to cook for dinner.”

After the Oslo Accords in the ’90s, an effort to bring about better relations between Israel and Palestine, the workshop launched an Israeli/Palestinian co-production that featured Muppets from both countries who would occasionally meet each other on the same street. The organization has developed a similar effort in Kosovo with Albanian and Serbian characters, and is in the process of creating a show in Northern Ireland that aims to help bridge the deep Catholic/Protestant divide, said Knell.

Such programs, he offered, teach young children critical concepts like acceptance, tolerance, understanding, and respect, in part by humanizing “the other side.”

“It’s much harder to hate someone when you know someone on the other side,” he said, adding that the show’s creators operate “under the belief that children are not born with these kinds of discriminating behaviors but that they are learned.”

Specifically with its work, said Knell, the organization is focusing on three of the aims developed as part of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals: primary education, gender equality, and tackling the world’s HIV/AIDS crises.

Shows in South Africa and Egypt address some of those particular challenges. In a brief segment shown by Knell from the South African production, a large, furry blue Muppet gently tells his shy friend Kami, a small, orange HIV-positive 5-year-old Muppet who lost her mother to the disease, “We are not scared to play with you because we know we cannot catch HIV just by being your friend.”

In an Indian-produced segment that followed, a little girl sings happily about becoming a lawyer, a doctor, or a ship’s captain when she grows up. The message is an important one, contended Knell, because most young Indian girls drop out of school in their second year.

“We can make a difference,” he said, “by portraying young role models for children.”

Though the benefits of exposing children to TV can be debated, Knell acknowledged, kids have a magnetic attraction to the medium and boundless exposure to it. He described seeing children in India who have no running water, but do have access to cable TV.

The challenge, he said, is “to harness this energy for positive purposes.”

Knell said the program has come a long way from its first year, when it was banned in Mississippi because of its interracial cast. In addition to its expanding international work, Sesame Workshop is creating a variety of other materials that use a range of media outlets like podcasts and Internet videos to deliver their message to children.

The Harvard connection to the organization is also going strong. Currently, faculty at HGSE are involved in advising the Sesame Workshop on developing its varied curriculum; graduates from the school have joined the workshop to help research, create, and distribute its programs; and workshop members have taken part in an HGSE course to teach students how to envision and develop media interventions on the scale of “Sesame Street.”

In closing, Knell referenced another new initiative on the horizon for the organization: a collaboration with the Beijing Planetarium, where Chinese and American Muppets will explore both early science education as well as cultural diversity.

“If President Bush and Hu Jintao can’t get along,” said Knell, “the Muppets will.”