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.”