Sesame Workshop just got another $100 million to bring Muppets to refugee kids

The Lego Foundation adds another huge gift to the children’s education organization’s plans to create a support system for kids escaping conflict.


In late 2017, Sesame and the International Rescue Committee earned an initial $100 million grant by winning the MacArthur Foundation’s inaugural 100&Change competition to create programming specifically designed for  Middle Eastern refugees from conflict zones in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria.


Now the Lego Foundation just gave Sesame Workshop another $100 million, doubling its funding for the project. The grant will allow Sesame to intensify its current work creating positive, play-based educational interventions for kids impacted by the Syrian conflict, and expand the program to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

This challenge, though, only continues to grow. In recent years, nearly 69 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes, about half of whom are children. More than 25 million of those people have become registered refugees. And while there are many aid agencies focused on providing food and shelter, they can neglect the development of the youngest refugees. “The great irony is those who are impacted the most from displacement–young children–are receiving the least,” says Sherrie Westin, the president of global impact and philanthropy for Sesame Workshop.

“Less than three percent of all humanitarian aid goes to education, and a tiny sliver of that goes to early education,” she says. “And yet we know from all of the evidence–from brain science, from epigenetics, you name it–that the most critical time in a child’s development is in those first five years. And that when they experience traumatic events and exposure to prolonged stress, it literally debilitates their brain development.”

Sesame’s current plan for the Syrian response region of Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria, includes developing a culturally specific version of Sesame Street that will feature several new Muppets, some of whom may have backstories loosely mirroring the key issues facing kids in that region: being uprooted, say, or learning to share your home. The group is also creating supplemental learning materials like storybooks that cover other topics, including why people bully and what it feels like to get bullied–from a kid’s perspective.

[Photo: Ryan Donnell/Sesame Workshop]

In Bangladesh, Sesame will work with BRAC to expand its network of so-called Play Labs that function as safe spaces for children. It will also create new programming, and likely build on the popularity of Sisimpur, a Bangladeshi version of the TV show. Given the mix of languages, Sesame plans to launch some animated, nonverbal content that could be easily used in other, yet unanticipated crises, as well.

[Image: courtesy Sesame Workshop]

While this is Lego’s first crisis response foray, the organization has worked alongside Sesame before in South Africa, India, and Mexico. In general, Sesame’s efforts align with Lego’s own philanthropic philosophy of encouraging learning through play. “The foundation very much deeply believes….that the best way children learn is when their hands and mind really get into a problem, when they can be joyful and playful in the way that they interact, and when they sing and dance and move and really have an active learning environment,” says Sarah Bouchie, vice president of the Lego Foundation.

While Sesame and Lego are still figuring out their exact programming, the grant doesn’t include any mandate to include tiny plastic building blocks. In several cases, that’s just plain impractical, because the number of people in need require solutions that scale easier (like broadcasts), or use household items to make games. “We will design content based on what we are learning the needs are,” says Westin. “Everything we do is based on real research about what is the most effective way to reach these children, and what is the greatest need.”

In addition to encouraging basic education, Sesame’s goal is to find more ways for caregivers to interact with kids, and at the same time give kids, especially ones who have experienced emotional and psychological trauma, a safe way to recognize and express how they are feeling. The success of those efforts will continue to be independently evaluated by Global TIES (Transforming Intervention Effectiveness and Scale) for Children, a research center based at New York University.

Lego will distribute the $100 million over a five-year period as specific goals are met. Bouchie and Westin both hope that seeing Lego double down on MacArthur’s bet will encourage more philanthropists to invest in similar interventions. Increasing the funding and ambition of one hopefully transportable and adaptable solution is a nice start. But it’ll take a lot more to ensure the world’s displaced children grow up healthy.

About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.