Sesame Street: Lessons of Empathy & Inclusion

Fifty-one years ago, beloved entertainer Carol Burnett appeared on the very first broadcast of Sesame Street, a children’s TV program featuring a bunch of zany furry puppets.

Since then, Sesame Street has become one of TV’s longest running children’s programs with nearly 5,000 episodes broadcast in over 150 countries. There isn’t a street more recognizable than Sesame Street, nor characters more loveable than Big Bird, Oscar, and Bert and Ernie, to name a few.

Sesame Street has become a cultural landmark for children’s programming, playing a significant role in teaching generations of kids not only how to read and count but, more importantly, about the complicated world around them, tackling sensitive subjects such as racism, divorce, death, bullying , homelessness and more.

The show was designed by education professionals and child psychologists to help low-income and minority students to overcome some of the difficulties they had when entering school. Social scientists had noted white and higher income kids were often better prepared.

It was quite deliberate that the show is set on an urban street with the most racially diverse cast that public television has ever seen. Sesame Street is a place where a diverse group of monsters, humans and animals live together peacefully and celebrate their differences.

"It was very important for us to represent a range of races and ethnicities, not only in our human cast but also in our puppet cast," Sesame Workshop senior VP Rosemarie Truglio said in an interview. “It's a mirror for them to see themselves, and it's a window for them to learn about others."

Each show opens to the tune of “Can you tell me how, how to get to Sesame Street?” with scenes of children of different races playing together. Episodes featured a strong black male role model (Gordon, a school teacher), his supportive wife, Susan (who later is offered the opportunity to develop a profession of her own), a good-hearted white storekeeper (Mr. Hooper), and more. Within a few years, Hispanic characters moved into the neighborhood as well.

The show introduced a bilingual Muppet, a little girl named Rosita La Monstrua de la Carves, who speaks both English and Spanish. In 2001, Rosita began teaching the Spanish word of the day, helping to educate children of all ages about Latin American culture and language.

Sesame Street tailors its characters to fit the demographics and pressing issues of different countries that it broadcasts in. For example, the South African version introduced in 2003 the first HIV-positive character, Kami. In 2016, Afghanistan’s version of the show introduced Muppet Zarin, who teaches physical and social well-being to Afghan girls.

While some people believe children should be shielded from the harsh realities of the world, Sesame Street acknowledges them head on and in turn, teaches children how to exercise empathy and understanding for people who may look, sound or behave differently than them.

“The Street is grounded in reality,” Truglio said. “And it’s really about who makes our community.”

Only two years after it debuted, Sesame Street broke barriers by casting deaf actress Linda Bove. Bove’s character became a regular in the series. She would often teach children sign language and share the daily challenges people who are hearing impaired experience.

In 1995, the late Christopher Reeve made a celebrity appearance. According to Truglio, many assumed Reeve’s wheelchair would be too scary for children. But in a heartfelt scene alongside his real-life son Will, Reeve teaches Big Bird about the features of his wheelchair, showing a beautiful moment between a father and son having a frank talk about disability.

“Babies notice differences,” said Truglio in an article IndieWire. “And they’re noticing differences because they’re trying to figure out the world around them.” Adults, she explained, are the ones generally left uncomfortable, leading them to punish children for their curiosity about differences, which then leads to internalized behavior.

In 2011, the series introduced us to Lily, a Muppet who faced food insecurity. She was often shown feeling hungry because her family didn't always have food available. In 2018, to reflect the homelessness crisis facing the United States, her story changed, and she was the first Muppet to represent what it’s like to live with homelessness. Lily and her family stay with friends when they lose their apartment.

Julia, a Muppet with autism, made her first appearance on Sesame Street in 2017. In her first scene, Big Bird is introduced to Julia who doesn't immediately respond to his greeting and questions. Host Alan Muraoka explains that it might take Julia a little longer to answer and teaches about autism. Elmo’s approach is not to ignore Julia's quirks or pretend they don't exist, but rather to acknowledge them and then adapt to them. She is quickly accepted by her new friends at Sesame Street. While there’s no perfect way to depict autism with one character, the show’s creators hope her character will encourage everyone to be more sensitive and empathetic.

"Sesame Street has always had kind of a mission of diversity and inclusion," said executive producer Ben Lehmann in an article with TV Guide. "The whole idea of the show, is that, if we can give kids these skills - whether they be around letters and numbers, but also around empathy and giving preschoolers these skills around getting along with others, taking turns, learning when it's not your turn to speak but it's someone else's turn to speak, then we feel like we're helping to create the next generation of empathetic adults."

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